The other day, I was going through some old journals, and I came across something that really shocked me. Normally, when people ask me when exactly I knew I wanted to pursue a JD/MBA at Columbia, I tell them summer 2015, right before the first semester of my senior year at Columbia. At the time, I was working at Columbia Business School in the Alumni Relations Department, and seeing how much work and care Columbia Business School put into its alumni showed me that they really wanted each and every student and former student to thrive before, during and after their time at CBS.
But as I was going through this old journal, in an entry from spring 2013, which would have been the second semester of my freshman year, I read this: “I know I’m pre-law, and I really want to attend law school, but there’s just something about the world of business that I can’t get out of my head. One of my major goals is to graduate with a JD/MBA from Columbia.” Now, this must have been a passing thought, because I immediately began complaining about how much homework I had for French, Literature and Frontiers of Science. Looking back, however, especially knowing that I am, in fact going to graduate with a Juris Doctor and Masters of Business Administration at 24 years old? This is the importance, this is the power of putting your goals on paper. You will make your wildest dreams come true without even realizing you’d been dreaming!
With that, let’s get into the 5 steps to achieve academically and professionally!
First, set specific goals. What is success but the meeting and exceeding of expectations? If there are no expectations set, there is nothing to work toward! Whether you are in high school or you’re pursuing a graduate degree, remember that setting goals will keep you working steadily toward a set moment, rather than feeling overwhelmed by something as huge and vague as Success. Having that visual reminder, that picture of what success looks like in your specific situation is essential to pushing past adversity. An equally important reason to set goals is that it helps turn a mountain into a molehill. What if, when I started at Columbia, I had just set a goal of graduating with honors? As a first generation, low income student who didn’t even know if she would be able to compete with her classmates who didn’t have to work to make ends meet, that would’ve sounded not only impossible, but actively discouraging.
Instead of making that my one, big goal, I kept it as a long term goal, and decided to take it semester by semester. I would tell myself, “This semester, I want to make Dean’s List.” Rather than thinking about a 4 year chunk of time and a task as large as doing well enough to win an academic prize, I was able to think in increments of 4 or 5 months, with 8 chances to reinvent myself and to try new study methods! Even if you have to go smaller, and think mainly in months or even weeks to keep yourself on top of things, that’s okay. Just set, pay attention to, and work steadily towards your goals!
How to Apply Today: Find a weekly or monthly planner, and commit to organizing your next week. Make a list of your most urgent short-term goals, like upcoming assignments at work or school, and then at the end of next week, take a minute to evaluate how each short-term goal contributed to a long-term goal or vision. For instance, setting the short-term goal of handing in my French homework that week contributed to my longer term goal of doing well in that class, which contributed to my vision of graduating with honors.
Second, be present.
If you find yourself in a challenging academic or professional environment for the first time, your first instinct might be to stick your head in the sand like an ostrich, pretending that everything will work itself out. That strategy might work once or twice, but in the end, apathy and willful blindness does not make for Excellence! It is absolutely essential that you plan for both the best and the worst, create plans ahead of time, and take responsibility for situations that concern you instead of waiting for others to care. At the end of the day, you are your best and loudest advocate. Of course, certain situations might require more authority or knowledge than you might have at the necessary moment, which is when we call for backup.
How to Apply Today: Whether you’re starting a new grade this fall, at a new school, or at a new workplace, begin preparing NOW. You can begin doing research on the classes you’ll be taking or the expectations, culture, and rhythm of a new school/workplace. Rather than having to deal with getting to know people and doing that kind of research in the fall, you’ll be able to get some of that work out of the way now.
Third, never be afraid or too proud to ask for help.
Help is there for a reason; your school or workplace really wants you to do well! Sometimes, it may feel like big institutions are unhelpful or set you up for failure, but never leave it at that. Always think of it as doing what you need to do to thrive, never as an admission of weakness or stupidity. I think reaching out for help actually makes you stronger!
How to Apply Today: Begin looking for the counselors and advisors at your school (or trusted mentors/staff at your workplace) who will form your support system.
Fourth, find your passion early and pursue it relentlessly.
When I am really, really tired, and not even that goal I’ve been working toward for years can get me out of bed to start my day, what did and still does? Passion. It is a force that keeps us going, defined by dictionary.com as “a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.” I am passionate about community service. I am passionate about law and business. I am passionate about reading, writing and discussing both. When one fails to excite me, I know another of them will restart my drive to succeed. This is passion, and it’s a level deeper than just having a goal to work toward– rather than feeling like I’m working, when I am involved in something I’m passionate about, it feels like I’m not working at all. For me, I go on autopilot when I am reading. If I really like a book, I’ll sit there and 50 pages later, I’ll come up for air, shocked I just went for it that way. What is it for you? It might be hard, but think really closely and deeply about that vision, set it, and begin making decisions and setting goals that bring you toward that vision. Find your passion, and it will make some of even the most strenuous days feel like a flash in a bright day.
How to Apply Today: We live in a world where not everyone has the ability to identify and then pursue their passion. In order to satisfy our more practical needs, we have to focus on getting steady employment, paying bills and managing our accounts. For some, that might take up so much time that there isn’t much left over. But here is an exercise: think about the 168 hours we all have in each week.
Are there really not enough hours in those 168 for you to begin doing research on and thinking about the things that put you on autopilot because you enjoy them so much?
Fifth, always #PracticeExcellence
I vividly remember one night in 8th grade– I had stayed up pretty late working on a project board for my Living Environment (Biology) course. I was pretty proud of it too, I remember, but I had definitely cut some corners to save myself time, and it showed. When I called my sister over to take a look at it, she balked, asking if this is really what I was going to use to showcase around 2 months of work growing my plants in different solutions and writing up my conclusions. After she left, I sat there thinking. I could probably get a B+ on this project as it was; but did I want to settle for that, or did I want to exceed expectations? That night, I made the decision to stay up until 3am reworking my project board, adding more information, citing more sources, even making my board more aesthetically pleasing. I earned an A in that class, as well as the ability to take the Regents for the course early, passing with flying colors and exempting myself from the course in high school.
This was my first, but nowhere near my last lesson in #PracticingExcellence. Sometimes it might be uncomfortable to push past the mundane to seek the extraordinary, but I can say that it is almost always worth it.
How to Apply Today: When you expect more from yourself, you begin (rightfully) expecting more from others, which in turn raises your confidence and even your expectations of what your life could look like. Today, identify one area of your life (relationships with others, academic success, networking, your relationship with yourself) in which you could and should expect more from yourself. Raise the bar today. Set a challenge for yourself, whether it’s that you’ll tell someone you love them once a day or more, that you’ll score a 95 or higher on a quiz, or that you’ll go write an email introducing yourself to someone in your industry. Expect more from yourself and you’ll be surprised!