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July 18, 2010

HBS: Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.

This post is on the third of four of the "pick two" questions for the Harvard Business School MBA Application for Fall 2011 Admission.
All the posts in this series: Overall Strategy, Accomplishments, Mistake, Option 1, Option 2, Option 3, and Option 4.  My post on HBS interviews can be found here.

3. Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed.

If Essay Option 1 was written especially for the benefit of those without professional experience, Option 3 is written for those with professional experience.

Keeping in mind that you have already covered the topic of a mistake and what you learned it from it,  you certainly want to make sure that the content between the two.  I think that differentiation, at its most basic means NOT WRITING ABOUT FAILURE IN BOTH ESSAYS.  Too much failure would probably make it difficult to fully focus on accomplishments and/or lock you into "the whole learning from failure model," potentially resulting in essays that are structurally telling the same story.  The mistake question requires a discussion of learning from failure, but this one does not.

I have yet to meet a person who has not experienced frustration or disappointment.  The world of work is filled with things that produce frustration or disappointment.  I would suggest you think about people and projects.

PEOPLE: Difficult people, mean people, stupid people, lazy people, rude people, psychologically disturbed people, etc.  are all part of the world of work.  How do you effectively handle such encounters?  What techniques of working through interpersonal problems have you developed?  This really is about your emotional intelligence.  People can frequently disappointment each other:  How do you overcome a situation when there is a huge gulf between your expectations and the actual output/behavior of someone else in a professional situation?

PROJECTS can certainly be a huge source of both frustration or disappointment.  Projects can be frustrating because of problems on a team, organizational resistance,  insufficient resources (time, money, people, and/or ideas), lack of clarity of objectives, bad strategy and/or tactics, etc.  Dealing with such problems can highlight ones leadership, teamwork, creativity and/or problem solving skills in a tight situation.

One book that I think might really be worth your consideration is Patrick Lencioni's THE FIVE DYSFUNCTIONS OF A TEAM (MANGA EDITION).  Lencioni's brings an understanding of frustration builds up and is expressed in teamwork, how and why leaders fail to build teams that work, and numerous other ways that the team, as the core unit of an organization can frustrate, disappoint, and fail.   I have never bothered reading the book version, but the comic book is great!  The scenario that is built in the comic book really lays out a series of team stories that might help you develop your own team-based frustration or disappointment story.

As far as difficult personalities in professional settings go, Professor Robert Sutton at Stanford GSB has written one of the best books on the subject, THE NO ASSHOLE RULE.  While I don't necessarily suggest that you tell HBS that you were "frustrated by an asshole," Professor Sutton's provides a deep understanding of both how to handle such people, how to avoid them, and how not to become one.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  “When life hands you lemons – you make lemonade.”
HBS is a place for doers not complainers, so whatever you write about make sure that you come across as someone who overcomes frustration and disappointment.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス

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