I enter the crowded room and cringe. I’ve made a mistake.
But it’s too late to run away.
So I take my seat at the front. I'm a panelist in a Q & A session run by my former MBA program. As the oldest member of the panel by a decade, I feel senile. The crowd is young and trendy, eager to impress us with their insightful questions.
All I can think about is my out-of-style clothes. I wish had listened to my daughter’s parting comment and worn something more fashionable. Or at least not screaming middle age.
The moderator gives a beautiful presentation on the school and the program. Ignorant of the latest buzz words, I understand only half of what she is saying. But it sounds impressive. Besides, she’s immaculately dressed.
Afterwards, the participants have the opportunity to ask questions. Half the hands in the room shoot straight up. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
The first and most basic one: “What are all of you doing now?”
I am completely unprepared for this query. It’s unclear exactly what questions I am prepared to answer if this has stumped me. Apparently none. Obviously I hadn’t thought this whole panel thing through very well. They expected us to say something. Something intelligent. Or maybe insightful. At the very least, intelligible.
I’m in serious trouble. My clothes are the least of my worries now. I’m assuming “pass” is not an acceptable response to the first question. I’m wondering if I can fake an emergency phone call. I’m hoping I’ll never see these people again.
We go around the table, each explaining how we justify our existence. Our collective experience ranges from starting a billion dollar “.com” company to running a small developing nation. Names like Condoleezza Rice are thrown around as colleagues. My bio is vague and brief.
Now the rapid fire questions begin. As I slump back in my chair, well-crafted remarks are directed to the other panelists, asking about their experience and views on the future.
I feel invisible until someone from the audience asks, “So Vaneetha, how have you changed the world with your MBA?”
Me? Change the world?
My mind races, trying to make something I do sound impressive. I stumble over my words. How can I possibly answer that? I’m on the board of two non-profits. I teach at my church. I am raising two daughters. My voice trails off. There’s not much to say.
Awkward silence ensues.
I want to announce:
I haven’t changed the world. I’m still working on myself. I am not a corporate executive and my life is a bit of a mess. To be honest, I’m a bit of a mess.
I may look like a failure to all of you, who are determined to alter the universe in five years. But success to me is not defined by how much money I’ve made. Or how well known I am. Or whether my life looks perfect.
Worldly success is fleeting, temporary, elusive – or as Ecclesiastes says, “meaningless. A chasing after the wind.” Tim Keller says, “More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength and performance.”
At least, I don’t need to worry about that.
But I do base my value on what others think of me. I use their opinions to measure my self-worth. It’s just in the spiritual arena. Am I insightful, do I know the Bible well, do people say “Amen” after I pray? These are the traps of wanting to be successful in the Christian world. Of course, none of this matters either.
Ultimately, success is being faithful and obedient to God, no matter what the circumstances. It has nothing to do with what others can see or measure. Mother Teresa said, “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success also draws me. He says, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
But of course, I don’t say anything profound like that. I just sit there, smiling idiotically.
Questions for the other panelists resume. Resigned that I won’t be addressed again, I feel free to let my mind wander. Why did I come prepared to tell them about my favorite class- from 20 years ago? The professor is probably dead by now. Is this crowd unusually eager, or am I just jaded? Is that person in the front row even old enough to shave?
I am lost in thought when someone asks me my second direct question. The moderator jolts me into reality with her gentle, “So what do you think, Vaneetha?”
My face is burning hot, the hair is standing up on the back of my neck, and I have no idea what anyone has said. None. And with everyone’s eyes on me, my mind is a total blank. Nothing is registering. Clearly, an intelligent person would have asked that the question repeated. But I am not feeling that smart and instead I opt to launch into a garbled stream of incoherent chatter, thereby confirming everyone’s suspicions about me: I have the IQ of a gnat and I’m unsuccessful by any definition.
I leave as soon as the information session is over; surprisingly no one is waiting to ask me questions. But as I later reflect, I think perhaps I was successful after all, at least according to Emerson. I’m sure several MBA applicants breathed easier about their chances of admission after seeing that I was a former student.
That’s all I can ask for.