The Fear of That Next Step


A word I don’t ever hear being used by our executive MBA students is ‘fear’. And in the success-focused world of top-tier business schools and the MBAs that they graduate, I guess that’s understandable.

However, fear can take many forms in the MBA experience of most, if not all, of our students - fear of not performing well in class, fear of not being ‘worthy’ amongst an accomplished set of peers, fear of not being able to juggle work/school/family, or perhaps an overarching fear of having taken a leap in doing the executive MBA in the first place.

But there’s also another fear that’s not being talked about - the Fear of That Next Step.

That’s right. Being scared of pursuing what you say that you want to do - because many people (executive MBAs included) talk about wanting to make a change, but a much smaller percent of people actually will make that change. And oftentimes the difference between those two groups has nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with what they perceive as being possible for them personally. It’s one thing to state that you want to create a new venture, become a C-level exec or live and work in another country - but what will be the impetus for you to actually start the process that will help you achieve those goals? What inside you knows that these outcomes can be your reality and not simply just the aspirational chit chat heard in b-schools across the globe?

While being scared of your own success can seem ironic or even paradoxical, this fear is actually a strong signal that you are approaching the outer limit of what you believe you’re capable of and what you see as your current realm of possibilities. The operative words here are current realm. When your dream is bigger than your reality can handle, it’s necessary to stretch beyond your existing capabilities and the beliefs you hold about who you are and what is possible for you. This can be scary, because looking over the edge just beyond your capabilities and beliefs can be like peering down into a dark crevasse. What’s beyond the crevasse is unclear, not to mention how you’ll manage to get to the other side. The Booth MBA program will test you in this way - taking you to the edge of your reality and then providing a rope bridge across that dark crevasse. What new fertile ground of possibilities this bridge leads to is completely up to you.

So how does one channel the Fear of That Next Step into transformational growth through the program? There are several areas to notice and embrace:

• Know your worth - Your cache as a professional increases as you move through the Booth exec MBA program. You’ll be learning cutting-edge tools and theories, building a top-flight global network, while going through a highly rigourous MBA program. Know that you belong here and get very comfortable with this new reality. Which relates very much to…

• Make a reality shift - Towards bigger ideas and dreams. Possibilities expand by virtue of being introduced to new knowledge and a peer set of other high-achieving professionals. What you originally came to business school for may shift as you realize that you were actually dreaming too small. One does not go to a place like Chicago Booth with the intention to do small things or make incremental gains…or to play it ‘safe’.

• Leverage the perception shift of others - We humans are characteristically very bad at understanding how others perceive us. And when that perception by others happens to be very positive, our myopia can mean a missed opportunity. People’s perception of you as a Booth MBA will open doors for you, in ways that are visible and sometimes invisible. Coupled with ‘knowing your worth’, you become better positioned to recognize and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you when you recognize the new way in which people perceive you.

• Go for it! - You come to Booth to achieve your dreams - full stop. Use this amazing program as a laboratory for you to grow, to try on new selves, to experiment, and to fail. Step into this experience fully and take risks you wouldn’t normally take - Attend a Booth event for execs, take an impossibly challenging course, or go after that promotion.

As Daniel Burnham, the city planning mastermind behind ‘The Plan of Chicago’ once said - "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."

And in the words of our Dean, Sunil Kumar, - "Swing for the fences, the school has your back."

Wayland Lum

Senior Associate Director, Career Management