The power of a good (Cinderella) story

Last week, I spoke at “F-Up Night,” a gathering at my school where grad students and faculty share personal stories about mistakes they have made and how they eventually overcame them. The point of this event is to nurture a mindset of resilience on campus, particularly as we approach final exams and the shorter days of winter. 

This event was my idea and I’ve been working for months to bring it to my school. I am proud of how the night turned out. But with all the planning, I had no time to prepare a story of my own to tell. When my name was called, I just had to improvise. This is what I said:

“Well, good evening, everyone. So, I have not prepared a story for this, to be honest. ‘Not preparing’ is a new thing for me, something I’ve been experimenting with in the MBA program. But anyone who knows me well knows that I love to tell stories, so maybe this won’t be so bad…

My favorite stories are those that take the shape of a ‘Cinderella story.’ You know, where the main character starts out down here, in a bad place. Then things begin to improve a little, and then a fairy godmother comes along and they really improve. It starts to look like things are going to work out when suddenly, everything falls apart again. The character is back in a bad place, down low. And just when all hope seems to be lost, some last-minute moment of magic occurs, some kind of breakthrough. When the story ends, things are better than they’ve ever been and the main character is happy… or happily ever after in the Disney version.

Well, that is basically the shape of the story of my MBA internship. And that’s the story I’d like to share with you tonight.

My story began last September, as I was arriving on campus to start the first year of the MBA program. It might seem weird now to say that I was in a dark place then, but I was. On the surface, it was clear that academics would be no problem for me. I have a heavily quantitative business background, I crushed the GMAT, I’m here on a scholarship, etc. But I was in a dark place.

I had chosen this school because I loved the vibe and I loved the people. But once I arrived, I looked around and I thought, ‘These people are never going to accept me.’ I’m a total nerd and I always have been. I’m not… cool. I’ve never been cool.

I knew it would be very hard to make friends, and from the minute I showed up on campus, I was self-conscious about just how hard I was struggling to fit in.

Over time, this feeling of being an outsider really got to me. It eroded my confidence. So much, in fact, that when I should have been applying for internships in the fall, I didn’t. I think I was afraid of getting rejected by employers, in addition to feeling rejected socially by my peers. I couldn’t take more rejection. So I just didn’t apply for anything that wasn’t an obvious slam-dunk.

By February, I had only applied for two roles, both very safe roles in finance. I’d gone to the final rounds but I’d been rejected by both. I took those rejections very personally. I started wondering why I couldn’t even land a role I was qualified for.

One of my teammates from back then is here tonight and I’m glad to see her because she can vouch for what happened… There I was in February with no internship. And TWO of my teammates landed internships on the same day, within hours of each other.

I was happy for them, of course. We went out for beers at the end of the day to celebrate. It was fun, but I left the bar early and walked back to the train alone, choking back tears.

I felt like total human garbage. I thought I was the only person in my class who wasn’t going to land the coveted internship. I thought maybe I should just call my old employer and ask to get my job back.

By the end of February, I still had no internship. And for the first-year students here tonight, if you get to February, people are going to start to ask whether you have a game plan. Our Career Management office was asking me, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re applying for anything… What’s your plan?’ Mostly, I just avoided them because I didn’t know what to say.

Then, without telling me, they sent my resume in for a role with a company that’s headquartered nearby. My adviser sent me an email that said, ‘You might get a call about a role with [company], just take the call. They’re looking for executive presence. They asked us to recommend candidates who have it and we all came up with your name.’

I didn’t know it then, but in the Cinderella version, this would turn out to be a fairy godmother moment. They basically said, ‘We’re going to fix you up for the ball… (because you clearly can’t do this yourself).’

At this point, I felt so dejected that I had adopted the strategy of no longer trying. I read about the role and it was clear that it was a seat in a highly selective program—maybe 6 or 8 people in the country would be picked. In my mind, that meant there was no chance for me. So I didn’t research the company and memorize bullet points. I didn’t script out responses to behavioral interview questions. That was what I had been doing and it obviously hadn’t been working. And I was sure that this was just going to be another humiliating waste of time, anyway.

The first round was just a screening phone call with a recruiter. I went for a walk at a park in the morning beforehand and pretended to be on my phone, talking to a recruiter. I was just trying to get my voice to sound energetic and fun, like I hadn’t given up on myself. After my walk, I took the call and it went fine. A couple days later, I got an email saying that I’d be moving on to the next round.

There ended up being five rounds of interviews, and each time, I did not prepare any company knowledge or polish any bullshit MBA answers. I just tried to be myself and I practiced sounding like a version of myself who really wanted to work there. I practiced smiling and sounding upbeat. And each time, I’d wait a few days and then find out that I was going on to the next round.

And I did end up getting the offer. It was incredible timing, in fact. It was a Friday in April and I was on my way to an event in Chicago when I got the call. The recruiter said, “I’m calling to make your weekend.” And I—finally letting my guard down—I said, “Are you sure?”

At the event that night, I was meeting MBA women from all over the country. These women were real badasses, the sort who all have internships lined up before April. And the first question out of everyone’s mouth was, “Where are you going this summer?” So just in the nick of time, I was able to say, “Oh you know, I’m doing blah blah blah program….”

You know, like NBD.

A woman at the happy hour that night told me she had interviewed for the same role but she hadn’t gotten it. She said, “Do you know, for every 1,000 people who apply, they take 1? You must be a great interviewer.”

That felt good. It felt like she was talking to my avatar.

For Cinderella, this would be the part where she’s at the ball and she’s just seen the handsome prince. Things are going great, even though she’s basically faking it.

Fast-forward to mid-July, when I’m five weeks into my internship and I’m finally meeting the other five people in my program. We’re all staying at the same hotel after dinner, along with the recruiters, and we spend an evening outside by a fire pit. Everyone goes back to their rooms around 11 but one recruiter stays behind and orders another bottle of wine, just for me and her.  I take this to mean we’re about to have a real conversation, so I decide to stay.

She says, “You know, you’re awesome, and I love you for this program, but I feel like someone needs to tell you what’s up. The truth is, you don’t really have a chance at getting a job offer at the end of the summer because you just don’t have the right background.”

She explains that job offers are made based on the unanimous vote of a team of executives. One of the executives is rigid about his requirement that candidates need to have the right kind of work experience, and I just don’t have anything like it.

In the previous year, they took a risk and hired someone who didn’t have that background. It was a big deal, she says. They had to pull a lot of strings. The exec still brings it up all the time. This year, the recruiters have too many candidates. There’s no need to go to bat for someone, not even me.

Mind you, as I’m hearing all of this, I’m a little buzzed.

No, let’s just be honest: I was drunk. And this was devastating.

When you add alcohol to emotions, they become flammable. I felt like I could burn something down, I was so upset. She continued talking and I zoned out, picturing the Hindenburg falling from the sky in flames.

Hindenburg_burning,_1937

I was working my ass off for nothing. I was a joke. I really wasn’t supposed to be there, after all.

For Cinderella, I guess this would be the part where the spell breaks, and the chariot turns back into a pumpkin. Cinderella has to do the walk of shame with a torn dress and one shoe.

My walk of shame was more of a phone call. After we finished our wine, I went back to my hotel room and called a friend to vent about the conversation. By then, it was after midnight. She asked, “So what are you going to do?”

It was a weird question, because until she asked, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could do anything. I realized it was late, so I said goodnight and got off the phone.

I started pacing around my hotel room, unable to get that question out of my mind. What am I going to do? 

And maybe it was the alcohol wearing off, or all the angry adrenaline kicking in, but suddenly, a better question popped into my mind:

How do I want this story to end?

It occurred to me that, although the recruiter thought I had no chance, I still had the internship for 7 more weeks. I still had time to make an impression, to win people over. I had time to write a better ending.

The following day, I knew we’d be spending several hours with the company executives and that we’d be observed and filmed all day. I decided the next day could be my plot twist, the first day of a better ending to this story.

I made a pot of coffee in my hotel and pulled out my laptop. I spent the next 5 hours researching the company and the executives, and poring over the notes I had taken during my first 5 weeks on the job. I made an extensive list of questions I would ask each exec, connecting their roles to my observations from work.

I didn’t sleep at all and I didn’t care.

Around 7:30 in the morning, I picked my best questions and practiced asking them aloud. I jumped in the shower and continued repeating my questions, trying to get my voice to sound confident, self-assured, and interesting.

Later that day, a parade of executives joined us in a meeting room, one by one, for intimate talks about the company and the strategy. I was sitting in a row of couches with all the other candidates in the front of the room while a camera and sound crew operated in the back. There was also a row of Vice Presidents, Directors, and recruiters seated against the back wall, observing the whole interaction.

Every speaker left about 30 minutes for Q&A so I watched the clock carefully. When it got close to the end of their scheduled time, I would raise my hand, trying to time it so that I’d get to ask the last question for each one.

At the end of the day, the recruiter from the night before stopped me on my way out of the room. “Where did that come from?” she asked.

“You said you didn’t think I could get the job,” I told her. “I thought, maybe there’s still time to change people’s minds.”

After that day, I had 7 weeks of getting my butt kicked all summer, but I held onto this mindset.

I created a whole knew project for myself an drove it from start to finish, traveling all over the western U.S., talking to anyone who would give me time. I taped sheets of butcher paper to the walls in my apartment and I stayed up late at night, diagramming problems and brainstorming solutions, almost every night of the week.

This was a hard project and one I didn’t really know how to do. Every time I’d stumble–and there were many times–I’d stop and ask myself, How do I want this to end? And then I’d find a way to be the person who wrote a better ending.

At the end of the summer, I went back to corporate headquarters for a final round of interviews with executives. I told the story of how I’d been inspired to tackle a harder problem and I had created my own project after week 5. I shared what I’d learned from my project about the company, about leadership, about getting things done, and about myself.

During my fourth interview, one of the execs actually offered me the job on the spot. It later turned out he couldn’t really do that, but it was still a much better feeling than that flammable night back in July. By the end of the day, I felt as though I could have flapped my wings and soared out of the building.

In September, the company formally made a job offer. I suppose that’s the moment where the glass slipper fits.

We’re not quite at “happily ever after” yet, but I’m not worried. For the past few weeks, I’ve been negotiating on the details of the job offer.

Let that sink in for a moment: I took a story that was going to end with, “I wasn’t qualified” and wrote an ending where I asked for a larger signing bonus.

So what’s the lesson here?

I started out talking about this concept of “story” tonight because it’s become a powerful tool for me in the MBA, and one I hope you’ll try in your own lives. When I hit a wall–and I’ve hit many of them here–I stop and ask myself, “How do I want this story to end?”

There is a lot you cannot control as you go through this program, or even as you just go through life. What you can control is how you respond; you control whether you decide to take things as they are and walk away or to write a better ending.

We have a tough year ahead of us, and for first-year students, it’s about to get a lot tougher. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up, I hope you’ll decide to keep writing your own stories the way you want them to end.

Thank you.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The power of a good (Cinderella) story

  1. Quite the extended metaphor . . . So did she get her prince in shining armor? Did you accept the position? Quite the motivating speech, nonetheless, and an outstanding “impromptu!”

    Liked by 1 person

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