The GMAT, Business School, and You: The Big Picture

Probably one story you have in your head is how good your life will be if you get the GMAT score you desire and get into the school you want.  You may also have a competing story, about how unpleasant it would be if you didn’t get that score or had to go to this school instead of that school.  Of course, there’s nothing to say either of those stories have any truth to them. 

Consider this old Chinese parable:

One day, an old farmer was working in his field with his old horse. When the farmer turned his back, the horse unexpectedly ran into the mountains. Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.”  The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see.”

Two days later the old horse came back, now rejuvenated after a bit of freedom in the mountainsides.  He came back with a few new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral. Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck.  “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!”  Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg.  One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune.  “Oh, what a tragedy!  You must be very sad,” they said.  Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see.”

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg.  “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see!” replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you!”  But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” 

So what does this mean in the context of the GMAT? There are countless examples of folks who do brilliantly on the GMAT, go to great schools, but then for whatever reason are not as successful afterward.  There are also folks who never did well on standardized tests, who went to schools that others would consider unworthy, but still are fabulously successful in their careers.  Furthermore, while meditation and mindfulness practice are strongly correlated with greater happiness and fulfillment, wealth is absolutely 100% uncorrelated with overall life-happiness.  So, incidentally, is GMAT score.

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Wait a minute!  It sounds like Mike is saying the GMAT doesn’t matter.  Not at all.  My goal on this blog is to support the readers in their success on the GMAT in whatever way I can.  I want to encourage you in doing everything that can further your success: studying content, learning strategies, taking practice tests, etc.  All that is wonderful.  Your stories, though, about what it all means: that’s a different matter. Your stories about what the future will be don’t contribute bupkis to your GMAT preparedness. In fact, if the stories you tell yourself generate anxiety or distraction, then they are positively detrimental to your GMAT preparedness.  The truth is: no one even knows what tomorrow will bring, let alone a year or decade from now.  As the poet W.S. Merwin wrote: “Today belongs to the few; tomorrow, to no one.”

We all imagine the future: that’s natural.  The problem is when we become convinced about stories about the future, and they cause us stress or fear or anxiety.  It is often enough to “unplug” the emotional drama of a story simply to step back and acknowledge: of course, we don’t know if that’s how the future will turn out.  None of us know what the future will be. What I am suggesting is a kind of detachment toward our stories.  Detachment is very different from apathy.  Apathy is cutting off, not caring. Detachment is a vital engagement that, rather than locking on to any one story, acknowledges, in all humility, that the future may well contain more than I can imagine right now.  In fact, I would even argue: if your future turns out exactly as you are able to imagine it right now, then that means you would be falling short of your potential, because your potential is always beyond what you can imagine.

As with what I have recommended in the other posts, this detachment from our stories about the future takes practice.  After a big surprise or big disappointment, it takes practice to be able to say, like the Chinese farmer, “Who knows?  We’ll see.” Of course, deep breathing and mindfulness practice will dovetail nicely with this practice. Insofar as you can practice this and develop this skill, you will find you have more of your focus and more of your emotional energy at your disposal in the present moment, and thus are ready to bring your best self forward on whatever is the task at hand.  And that is precisely what I would wish for you on your GMAT.

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24 Responses to The GMAT, Business School, and You: The Big Picture

  1. Evan February 5, 2021 at 9:05 pm #

    Really nice post here Mike. I’m on day four of my GMAT studying journey and I totally see what you mean by the mental state. I’m on day 4 of the 3-month beginner aspect and getting many more answers wrong than I am right (so far).

    I like how you have included these thought provoking pieces as a part of the lesson plan. I have kept up with every recommended piece so far. It is all-important stuff outside of the main study material, and I resonate with the farmer. We shall see. A steady mental temperament goes a long way. The GMAT end score isn’t everything, it’s the journey getting there. Building one block on the next and the future is of course always unpredictable. For today – I’m ok with that. End day four….day 5 tomorrow. we shall see what continues to unfold!

  2. Dipanwita Deb January 25, 2021 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Mike,

    It’s an amazing post. It’s very rare that we come across such a mentor/ learning prep program who tries to boost the preparation with such an inspirational story . Thank a lot !
    ” Your potential is always beyond what you can imagine.” – I just love this line.:D

  3. Minbiebs November 13, 2019 at 1:44 am #

    Mike, this post is just brilliant!
    I can not thank you enough for this content and other posts of yours about mental strength when it comes to GMAT (plus to anything in life! – wow) Now I know what to do since yes, I consistently imagined so many things and consistently underperformed in my GMATs.

  4. Prasad N R August 14, 2018 at 3:20 am #

    Thanks for this Mike. I really observed my breathing patterns while reading this article and it had such amazing effect! This is brilliant and thanks for the noble job of helping students. I am a GRE guy and my situation is similar.

  5. Luna August 3, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you very much for this post. After a week of practice I need it 🙂

  6. Alex January 26, 2017 at 6:35 am #

    My first thought about the fable was that village people were very gossipy, haha just kidding. Great inspirational article Mike! It reminded me that I have to see the big picture.

  7. Pranav January 17, 2017 at 8:00 am #

    Brilliant.. thanks for this Mike.

  8. Stella September 22, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    Very wonderful article. Just what I needed. I like that Magoosh not only teaches the educational stuff, but also general life lessons.

  9. Kyle August 27, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    You’re awesome! I love the parable and what you said really rings true. Also, thanks for the great lessons. You’re a great, clear teacher.

  10. dani July 16, 2016 at 10:23 am #

    What a great article. I am constantly surprised how good Magoosh is, not only on the technical side, but also in its world class wisdom. Amazing.

  11. David H. May 30, 2016 at 3:45 am #

    This is what makes Magoosh standing out and growing big in this market, the teaching of life.

  12. Lorena April 20, 2016 at 5:26 am #

    Hi Mike, I really like this article. This is truly inspiring! Thank you!

  13. Swetha January 20, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Very Well Written. It’s provoking to look at life from different perspective.

    Thank you.

  14. pinaki September 1, 2015 at 11:47 am #

    Good article. I have always “tried” to practice the concept of detachment, but again and again, got stuck at “try” stage and so get emotional about exams – though I know and realize that I have given hundreds of them. Hopefully, I will be able to imbibe it during the GMAT prep phase.

  15. mina August 26, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Thank you so much for this Mike. Honestly I was so stressed and sad after scoring 690 on my second GMAT retake and was reconsidering changing all my B school and life plans. Your article was spot on. like the chinese farmer say, Who knows, we shall see!! 🙂
    Thanks so much again! This ended all my worries.

  16. Nicole August 21, 2015 at 6:03 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for taking your time to share this story and insights with strangers. It’s not every day that you come across a learning prep program that genuinely cares about their consumer’s life journey beyond payment. Herein lies the distinction between you and most other prep programs. The customer service is on point.
    Thank you again!

  17. Deepthi July 26, 2015 at 8:24 am #

    Wow.. What an inspiring line “your potential is always beyond what you can imagine!”

  18. Nikunj July 23, 2015 at 6:13 am #

    Very good story and article

  19. Sanjay December 20, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    Thank you very much for this article Mike.

    This is very helpful.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      Dear Sanjay,
      You are quite welcome, my friend! I’m very glad you found this helpful! Best of luck to you the future!
      Mike 🙂

  20. PRERNA October 17, 2014 at 4:30 am #

    Thanks Mike!
    This is just what I needed at the moment.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike October 17, 2014 at 11:56 am #

      Dear Prerna,
      You are more than welcome, my friend! 🙂 I’m very glad you found this helpful! I wish you the very best of good fortune in the future!
      Mike 🙂

  21. Tushar July 11, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Liked the article, and that parable is edifying. 🙂

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Dear Tushar,
      I am very glad you found this helpful. 🙂 Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

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