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Mindfulness at Work: Navigating Your MBA Career in the Modern Age

Could mindfulness practice lead to a more satisfying MBA career journey?

Circumstances of the modern age are creating an unprecedented MBA career landscape for ambitious MBAs. Diversified education offerings and a more dynamic, global job market have given way to more empowered employees, including young MBAs, who are increasingly moving away from merely wanting ‘a better paying job‘ (because certainly that is one major draw of the MBA) towards a mindset that is more focused on ‘building a career’, or even ‘following a calling’.

This all arguably demands heightened critical thinking about oneself and the world. In recent years, mindfulness, a practice mixing Eastern philosophy and Western psychology, has surfaced with high appeal in the business world. The practice, which involves various styles of meditation, is one possible solution to navigate this more demanding atmosphere, which, while offering more opportunities, also asks more of each of us. “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity” and to learn “compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us,” according to Janice Marturano, deputy general counsel at General Mills, a company which offers mindfulness training to employees. Could skills such as these help support the foundation of a fulfilling working life as well as a satisfying career?

Response to shifts in the modern workplace: ‘Living wisely’

For today’s MBAs, making decisions that shape professional aspirations and decisions often involves more self-reflection and lifelong learning as they shape - and reshape - where they’re headed in their pre- and post-MBA career. A dramatic increase in life expectancy in the 21st century, coupled with the evolving nature of business and technology, has afforded many of us more time – and opportunity - to figure it all out.

Many of today’s millennials ‘job hop’ and change jobs four times before they turn 32, double the amount of times the generation before them did. A PwC report on millennials at work (a follow up to a wider study of what the workplace will look like by 2020,) found that while much of this generation wants to move up the corporate ladder faster, they also value work-life balance more than financial reward. In fact, according to a Universum survey, only 13% of MBA students cited ‘becoming wealthy’ as an initial career goal. Indeed, it appears that young people are expecting different kinds of payback from their career and redefining more conventional definitions of success and what it is to ‘live well’.

A professor at Harvard has observed that even student approaches to their college experience have shifted over the years. In asking students about what they would do to enhance their experience, Richard Light says the responses began to move away from tweaking curricula and class structures to “a different commentary, about learning to live wisely.” This instigated a small group of faculty members and deans at Harvard to create a noncredit seminar for freshmen called ‘Reflecting on Your Life’, which guides students through exercises that help them reflect on how to better connect their schooling with wider life and career goals and, ultimately, living ‘a good life’.

Of course, this type of approach to your career planning doesn’t have to start, or stop, in the first year of university. It can prove useful at any point in your academic or MBA career.

Mindfulness for ‘deeper involvement’ in your MBA career planning

Our heightened need to find meaning in our work is linked to how we make choices, according to business psychologist and director of the career development programs at HBS, Timothy Butler. When we are younger, we tend to make decisions that are about creating opportunities," whereas, as we age, we tend to make decisions that help us establish focus, he explains. “The gap between your dreams and what you're actually doing narrows, and you start living your life more directly. What you're doing is who you are. And who you are becomes more important to you.”

Butler recommends becoming, “more deeply involved in your career,” by narrowing your interests and actually closing doors. This is admittedly a very hard task that many people resist – perhaps because they lack clarity in their vision (or self-awareness), or hungrily say ‘yes’ to too many things (fear of missing out, aka FOMO, anyone?).

One way to become more ‘deeply involved’ could be to turn inwards and bravely ask the bigger questions - about who you are – to help guide your decisions, rather than letting things you just wind up doing trap you into a false sense or expression of self. Mindfulness practice can support us in this line of inquiry. It can help us ask the tough questions that can then lead to wiser decisions and actions, says Connie Kim, director of NYU Stern’s Leadership in Development program, which teaches mindfulness to full-time and executive MBA. As one MBA alumnus testifies about Stern’s program; “my journey began with the revelation that leadership starts with leading your own life. Once I realized that, all the building blocks fit together: Know thyself, EQ, strengths-based development, meaning and purpose…launching me on the life-long track to self-actualization.”

Simply, it may come down to learning to see crises as opportunities for breakthroughs about what we really want or how we really feel, which can be an incredible career planning tool. Upon seeing the benefits of mindfulness, you may wish to integrate it into what you’re already doing in your work. Or, perhaps it will help you discover that ‘next thing’ - be it a specialization or change in career (it may also convince you to take an MBA to help you with either of those!)

When reflecting on a particularly stressful time in her own MBA career, Kim – a Cornell alumna - recalls that yoga and mindfulness meditation helped her come to a head and ask: “What is it that I really want?” She says she’s observed many of Stern’s Leadership Development students do the same and assume the brave position of asking more of themselves when it comes to their life and MBA career.

Mindfulness for a more productive attitude towards work and coping with career crossroads 

A greater sense of self-awareness doesn’t have to mean a major career change or transition; it can have more to do with repositioning your experience of and attitude towards what you’re currently doing, whether this amounts to the finer points of your daily tasks or the wider implications of your current position. This is a view espoused by Sally Blount, dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who advises taking a step back periodically to review not just your career or life as a whole, but your current role. Blount’s approach is about getting more of an objective perspective to help refuel your fervor for the role you currently have, as it can have major impacts on the meaning you find in your work – as well as your professional effectiveness. The, “mission-charge,” as she terms it, “is all about deep reflection – analyzing your performance and your organization’s, asking yourself the hard questions, and plumbing the depths of your own mind. You have to make sure that you really know what you’re thinking and feeling,” she explains to her LinkedIn followers.

Rather than abandoning what has lost its novelty (all things do eventually), mindfulness can be used to reset and gain a deeper understanding of the state of yourself and your circumstances. Some people may find that it’s just a small case of ‘career fatigue’ that needs some repositioning. Others may have more to gain and do - like Kim, who moved from finance to talent management and into higher education and now incorporates mindfulness into developing programs on leadership development. With most MBA applicants seeking a career change of some kind with the degree, it seems reasonable to look before you leap – and the deeper and closer the look, the better.   

Visnja is a content specialist with a background in marketing and communications. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia and a master's in publishing from Simon Fraser University. Her interests include media & technology, personal growth, health & wellness, and innovation, topics that stay top of mind in her writing.

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