I Flunked Out Of My MBA
An overachiever admits her darkest shame
When it comes to study, I’m something of an overachiever. Admittedly, I’ve never “doctored up” (earned a PhD) but if I cared to list them, I’d be entitled to put nineteen letters after my name. Despite all the years of academic success those nineteen letters represent, I flunked out of my MBA, and you know what? It was a good thing.
My first degree was a four year honours undergraduate course in theoretical and experimental physics. I then completed a graduate diploma in scientific communication, as part of Questacon’s Science Circus, before working in an interactive science centre. After a few years, I was ready to move on, and completed a graduate diploma in secondary teaching, majoring in physics and mathematics. While working as a high school teacher, I volunteered as an English tutor for immigrants and refugees, which turned into a Master’s degree in education, teaching English to speakers of other languages. Finally, during my religious phase, I did a Master’s degree in theological studies.
In theory, an MBA should have been an easy qualification to earn: I’m good with numbers, play nicely with others and have demonstrated my ability to analyse texts. Despite this, I flunked out, failing the same course three times in a row and triggering an automatic expulsion.
So what went wrong, and why do I think it was a good thing?
Please DON’T show me the money
For a start, as I’ve written elsewhere, dollar signs are my kryptonite. I remember numbers easily and do recreational mathematics for fun (really; I am that much of a nerd) but put a dollar sign in front of it, and — whoosh! My capacity to manipulate digits flies out the window.
The subject which finally undid me during My Biggest Anticlimax was economics, in particular, the economics of imports and exports. You know the sort of thing: “If a producer in Country A exports into Country B with a tariff of X% and…” I can’t even remember enough of the subject matter to complete that sentence. Ironically, I’ve just been teaching that same topic to my senior agriculture students, albeit at high school rather than university level. It’s not that complicated.
Perhaps if the lecturer had used bottles of shiraz as currency instead of dollars, I may have retained interest … or an additional export tariff may have been imposed.
I started My Brobdingnagian Adversity during a nine year hiatus from teaching. After a shocking experience in 2010, I thought I’d never teach again. I started a business, then a social enterprise. Wanting to learn more about running a venture, I took what had in the past been a sure strategy for me: enrolling in a university course.
At first, things went well. I fascinated by leadership studies and organisational behaviour. I even enjoyed basic accounting (despite my aforementioned dollar sign disability). I met some great people, thought some new thoughts.
However, when I was no longer running my business or social enterprise, my motivation for learning these things dropped away. Although I had completed both of my Master’s degrees while working full time, when I returned to working in an organisational setting a few decades later, I didn’t want to spend what free time I had studying.
Life changes. Priorities change. And that’s OK.
The sunk costs fallacy
I should really have pulled the plug on My Baffling Antagonism sooner, but I fell prey to the sunk costs fallacy.
A sunk cost is money you’ve spent that cannot be recovered; the sunk cost fallacy is continuing with a behaviour or an effort as a result of previously invested resources. It’s a fallacy because you can’t get back what you’ve already paid, in money, time or effort, so you must ask: is it worth continuing?
“I’ve spent so much on this damned Massive Bloated Aberration that I may as well finish it,” I’d argue, at least twice a week.
I would have been better to write off the money I’d already paid, withdraw, and not spend any more. Unfortunately, I can be stubborn like that.
Pride commeth before a(nother) fail
“I’ve never failed a subject in my life,” I wailed to my dearly beloved, upon learning that — having not completed most of the coursework — I’d failed the economics course again. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but that “F” still stung me.
It wasn’t strictly true that I’d never failed anything before: I had got 45% in an advanced quantum mechanics exam once, been allowed to sit it again, and received a conceded pass for the subject. Still, who hasn’t baulked at the hurdle of advanced quantum mechanics once in her life?
I felt offended that this stupid, boring course was beating me. I’m smart! I’ve got grit and brains and everything a gal could need! I fumed at the temerity of this obstinate “F”. Me? Earn a failing mark, more than once? Unheard of.
Yet even this outrage wasn’t enough motivation to recommit fully to My Bedevilled Adversity.
Of course, what I was lacking was motivation.
I don’t believe that I had acquired brain damage, certainly not sufficient to account for my inability to pass My Baleful Anathema. I’m still smart, and I work hard — at those things I care about.
Fact is, I just didn’t care enough about My Bedamned Abomination to put in the effort to complete it.
So I didn’t.
Why this isn’t a bad thing
Perhaps you’re yelling at the screen: “What’s wrong with you, woman? Have you no self awareness? Why didn’t you pull your socks up and just get the work done, or pull out?”
Or perhaps you’re sorrowfully shaking your head: “Poor, lazy person. She lacks accountability. She has no self control. No wonder she spent thousands on a Monumentally Bad Asset and didn’t finish it.”
It wasn’t a great experience. However, I learnt a lot from attempting to achieve my MBA, but it wasn’t from any textbook or lecture.
I learnt that:
- It’s OK to change my mind. What was important during one phase of my life can become unimportant later on.
- I can be fooled by the sunk costs fallacy. This was one of the costliest mistakes of my life (to date — there’s time for plenty more!). I hope I won’t make this particular error again.
- Don’t let pride make decisions for you. I’m sure there was a part of me that knew I’d given up on the course, but felt too proud to admit defeat. Instead, I dug in, compounding my error.
- Nothing is wasted. Even though I never achieved a Miserable Bastardised Approbation, I can comment more wisely on balance sheets and cash flow statements, understand organisations better and appreciate excellent leadership.
Finally, and most importantly, I learnt that it’s OK to fail.
One of my childhood friends often says: “If you get 60%, you’ve studied 10% too much.” I believe he’s wrong, both mathematically* and philosophically; but at least now I know what it’s like to fail, to actually get an “F” because you weren’t interested in the subject, didn’t do enough work, and — basically — didn’t give a fuck. This has made me a more rounded person and a better teacher, especially of those students stuck taking a compulsory subject which they loathe.
When I sat down to write this article, I intended to write a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the single biggest academic failure in my life, and sort of shrug off the shame: “Yes, I attempted an MBA, failed a subject three times and was kicked out of the course; and yes, I’m fine with that.”
What I’m feeling right now, though, is a reawakened sense of shame.
What if I had tried harder?
What if I had reached out for the help I clearly needed at the time, to understand my motivations and lack of grit?
What doors may now be closed to me, that may otherwise have opened?
I don’t know what the answers to these questions are, but I try to have compassion for myself (which is sometimes hard for me). I did the best that I could do at that time, with the resources I had available to me then.
I flunked out of my MBA. Most of the time, I’m fine with that.
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*10% of 60 is 6, and 60 - 6 = 54. If your aim is to achieve a passing grade of 50% and you achieve 60% then you have in fact studied 16.67% too much.