Interview by Nick Pulito, MBA Class of 2016
Dolly Chugh is an Associate Professor in the Management and Organizations Department at Stern. I had the pleasure of taking her Leadership in Organizations (LiO) course last spring, and found myself using the class “toolkit” throughout my summer internship. In anticipation of The Oppy’s inaugural Fear Issue, I sat down with Dolly to learn about what’s scared her most over the years, and what advice she has for MBAs with regard to facing their fears.
Nick Pulito: When you hear the word fear, what do you think of? Is there anything that jumps to mind or resonates the most?
Dolly Chugh: You know what’s weird, and I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re asking, but in some ways what resonates most for me is shame. Sometimes I’m really ashamed of what I’m afraid of. It amps up all the negativity connected to my fear, because not only am I fearful of what I’m fearful of, but I’m also embarrassed that I’m fearful of it. So there’s this inhibition that comes out of it…that because I’m ashamed, I don’t even reveal my fear to the world, so I don’t even act in a way that could improve the situation.
NP: The MBA track often seems to dictate that students and leaders should consistently project confidence, particularly in business settings. Is there room for fear in this equation? Can you harness fear to build confidence, or should you suppress it? Is it even a dichotomy like that?
DC: You know, in some ways, the more confident I am the more willing I am to display my fear. It’s when I’m not confident that I’m afraid of my fear being visible; fear of the fear even. That’s when we’re not confident, when we’re not authentic, when we’re not three-dimensional. Fear is part of our three-dimensional selves, so in some ways when we’re trying to project an image and not being authentic, that’s the ultimate fearful move.
NP: We often fear what we don’t understand or haven’t experienced before. Is fearlessness something to aspire to? Or is it limiting from your perspective?
DC: Professor Damodaran, and I hope I’m quoting him accurately—I might be misquoting him slightly—but I think I have the rough approximation of something he says, “Stare into the Abyss,” or, “Look into the Abyss.” It’s something about an abyss! There’s an abyss involved! [Laughter] I can’t remember if you’re staring, or looking, or gazing at the abyss, but he has said that to me a couple of times. What I interpreted it to mean was that whatever the thing is that’s causing fear, just stare it down. Don’t try to pretend it’s not scary, don’t try to do something else so it’s not scary, just keep pressing through it. You’re a musical theater fan, right?
DC: So in In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda, there’s this line about just “Press through the mess.” Just press through the fear!
Thinking a little more about it, the thing with the MBA program is this: So, when I teach the negotiations course, we talk about BATNA, or your “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” What I think a lot of MBAs don’t realize is that your MBA is your ultimate BATNA booster in everything in your life, your personal life and your professional life. Your fear should go down when you get into an MBA program, not up! And the reality is, I think for the majority of our students, their fear level actually goes up.
NP: And what do you think MBA students are afraid of?
DC: They’re afraid of not fitting in. They’re afraid of not being respected by their peers. They’re afraid of wasting the incredible amount of resources in terms of both money and time that they’ve spent on this degree, and opportunity costs. They’re afraid of not being successful, whatever “successful” means. They’re afraid of not being able to provide for their families – parents, siblings, children current or future, spouses. They’re afraid of being the last ones in their block to get a job, they’re afraid of not getting an offer at the end of the summer. They’re afraid of being viewed of soft. They’re afraid of being viewed as hard. There’s so much to be afraid of! And yet, there is nothing to be afraid of.
NP: I think that is incredibly accurate, and it’s interesting to see it play out from this side of the experience as well. “Am I living my truths? What do I want in life?” What I’m realizing now, a year in, is that the choices we make today aren’t necessarily as permanent as we make them out to be. It seems like there are only increasing opportunities to reinvent careers and shift courses along the way, which leads me to my next question. Could you speak a little about career-based fears you’ve had in the past, or the scariest moment of your career journey?
DC: I don’t know if it’s a particular moment, but I would say I came into academia a little cocky. Academia is my second career, my first career was more business-focused, and I had never had trouble getting a job before; that was something I was really good at. My hard thing, I was that classmate in business school who was stressing about which job to take. In academia, it’s not like that. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and it’s extremely difficult to get those jobs. I often didn’t fit the profile they were looking for in those [academic] jobs, and then there’s the secondary version of it all regarding tenure, where if you don’t get it you have to leave and are essentially fired. So for me, the fear of not being employed was a new one to me. I had allowed my identity to become tied to a sense that I could get jobs, I could do well, I would be promoted, etc. And then suddenly, I was asking if I could get a job, if I would do well, if I might be fired, and all of this was happening in my forties for the first time. So, that was scary! And to be honest, financially I would have been. I would have found a way to make money. I’ve never had an ego about that, and have always been willing to do whatever was necessary to earn a paycheck. And I have a supportive spouse and supportive family, so I’m privileged in every way. It was all fear around my ego, not around any practical reality. So I would say it was that question: “Am I not the rockstar I’ve always privately labeled myself as?”
NP: [Laughter] I think everyone at Stern can probably ask themselves that somewhere along the journey! And how about in the classroom? What was your scariest moment teaching?
DC: I usually feel the most fear before class, not during. Once I’m there, I’m fine; but I’m terrified before! [Laughter] It’s usually around my preparation: am I prepared enough? That usually scares me. And I don’t like tests! I hate being somehow responsible for making sure grown adults aren’t cheating. That situation is very stressful, because I fear everything about it. I fear, “What if people cheat and I don’t catch them?” Or, worse, “What if people cheat and I do catch them?” That’s a terrifying idea – that students who I’ve trusted and invested in would do that with me in the room.
NP: That’s so interesting, I don’t think that’s something that would have sprung to mind from the student perspective. I think we consider test day the “easy day” for a teacher! You get a day off from lectures while we pull our hair out in our seats!
DC: I mean I think that is true! But it’s the inner dialogue, you know? [Laughter]
NP: That’s a great perspective. Any closing thoughts on our chat today?
DC: Even for me, when you sent me these questions and I read them, just naming that fear is a thing that’s part of our lives was powerful. I felt the power of that just by printing your email! These are questions I don’t always consider, and I really appreciate that the community is going to have the opportunity to do the same. It’s a powerful move.
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