I have found hell on earth -- an "MBA program"

After taking out such a huge student loan, can I really walk away from this, or do I have to see it through?

Published October 23, 2006 10:41AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Last year I got into a big-name, fancy-pants business school for an MBA on the East Coast. I started school in August, and I hate it so much I cry daily at home, at school in the bathroom (where my classmates/snakes can't see me), on the walk home. I snap at my parents, my siblings, my friends. I was supposed to be in the wedding of an otherwise lifelong friend and I backed out two days before in a panic induced by a looming midterm. (Yes, we already have had midterms, designed to fail out at least 10 percent of the class. I don't exaggerate when I say I think some professors here are sadists.) The love of my life is in another city, and I left him to come here, and now I don't remember why I came at all. I am watching myself turn into a creature I despise, and I feel too cowardly to do the only thing I can think to do, which is walk away.

I'd like to take my $70,000 in debt (student loans are expensive) and head to Vermont, or West Virginia, somewhere where there is grass and perhaps some horses too. Maybe even Maine, where I can see the ocean again. This past week I have been dutifully attending employer information sessions, visiting one stale presentation, with perfectly coiffed and suspiciously happy people jumping up and down and cooing about their jobs, after another. Manic. They are manic, and they remind me of the students I spoke with last year who persuaded me to come to this terrible, terrible place. We are all graded against each other, on a fake, forced curve where a 90 percent understanding of the material does not mean an A, but could actually earn me a D minus depending on how my classmates perform. A few days after every test, quiz, project, etc., the professors send out breakdowns of scores so that we can compare ourselves with the performance of our classmates and therefore learn how we rate. I have watched people lie and cheat in numbers so high that it leaves no doubt as to how and where the future Kenneth Lays are trained. I used to love school. I love my undergraduate institution with a sense of gratitude for the opportunities and support and guidance those wonderful people (the professors, administrators, students) gave me.

I thought grad school, even an MBA program, would be the same.

I was wrong.

So it sounds simple, right? You could tell me to just drop out and walk away. But how the hell do I pay off my loans? Drop out now, payments come due: $800-plus per month. And MBA dropouts are not exactly a hot commodity on the job market. How will I make ends meet and how will I begin to reconstruct the relationships that have already perished? Maybe I am just being a baby and need to toughen up. There is no small part of me that screams, "Stay the course! Survive, make it through, get your degree, get a job to pay off the loans, and then the world is yours! Don't let them chase you away!" But the thought of having to work with those manic people, or even worse, my classmates, and then slave away to pay off these monstrous debts, and spend years doing so before I can be free again, is more than I can bear.

I really don't think I should drop out, but I really don't think I can make it through. Can you give me a plan, a set of sayings to live by, something to fold in my pocket and pull out when I am crying in the stalls outside my accounting class? Can you help?



Dear H,

We do get through things we don't think we can get through. We think we can't get through them but we do. We don't know how. We pass unharmed. We don't know how.

It is not the getting through but the thinking about getting through that brings the suffering. The getting through is mechanical. It's the thinking that makes us crazy.

Sitting here in the sound of the ocean in the early dawn I am speaking to that quiet part of you that is not freaking out, that is not crying in the bathroom, that knows that this is not the end of the world but the beginning.

Such a self is present, though perhaps mute. While part of you is panicked, the other you knows that everything is going to be just fine. That is the wise, quiet, strong you. That is the you that gets through stuff, that knows what to do. I suggest you sit quietly and contact that you, perhaps by recalling times in the past when it came to the fore, or perhaps by simply calling out for it, calling out for help from this quiet, strong, disciplined, patient, enduring self that you have.

I'm not even saying it's faith. It's not faith. It's sitting and doing.

Studying is mostly sitting. You sit by not getting up. You study by not eating and watching television. You write by not reading the mail and making phone calls. You focus by eliminating. What is left is what you're focused on. Not that you can stop panicking or prevent panicking, but eventually you are finished with the panicking. So wait for the panicking to be finished. Be patient and finish the crying, finish the soda, finish the walk, finish the fidgeting, finish the pacing, finish the hating of your fellow students. When you are finished all that's left is the writing or the studying. You do it by sitting there.

I say finish those things because otherwise you are fighting them. Don't fight them. If you have to panic, panic. When you are finished, there is no more panic. Then you study.

You do this every day for a while and then you graduate.

Your crazy mind says you can't do it, your classmates are jerks, you've wasted your life, you've gotten yourself in a jam, you'll never pay off your loans. It says these things. Let it say these things. Let it be crazy. All you have to do is study by sitting there; all you have to do is sit there by not getting up. Later, after you have studied by sitting there, you attend class by going there. You go there and sit. That's all you do.

What this is teaching you is the only thing that matters. Write about what this is teaching you. Write about how you came to be this person who is in business school and cannot stand it. There may be something funny about it, or something surprising or ironic. Perhaps you are the one person who never would have gone to business school and yet you went. How did that happen? Perhaps you got a notion. What did you want to conquer? Who did you want to show? Was there a dream of cash? Was there a dream of conquest? Was there a dream of service? Where is the humor? Where is the hidden wisdom?

When you cannot read any more textbooks, write about what happened, how you got here, what your idea was.

There's not much else to do now except study and get your degree. You can do other things later. It's not like you can decide whether to go or not. You're there. It's about coping. That's what I'm saying: You cope by calling upon the self that knows there's really nothing to worry about, the one that can sit for hours looking at a flame, looking at a painting. When you contact this self things will slow down; you will see your fellow students rushing down the hallway, and they will appear like space aliens plodding in incomprehensible slow motion, possessed, deluded, insane. It will all appear as it is: a charade.

But you are not above it. You're in it, too. You picked it. So live it out. Do it one day at a time. Do the next right thing.

Print this out. Fold it up. Put it in your pocket.

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