The Stanford Graduate School of Business wants to know “What matters most to you and why?”
If you are starting work on Stanford’s “What matters most” essay, chances are you are struggling. One thing you need to know right from the start is that struggling is essential to succeeding in this assignment.
In this article, I will offer some advice on how to approach the first part of the “what matters” question. I’ll address the “why” question in a later post.
Answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay question requires self-reflection and self-discovery. You are expected to examine the life you’ve lived and the choices you’ve made. Which is to say that what matters most to you may be revealed by your past actions and decisions.
Your answer could take the form of a statement of philosophy, sense of purpose, ideal, belief, value, mantra, passion, or love. It could be a person, a place, or a thing. There is no “right” answer nor is one form of expression better than another. In your essay response, you will be expected to show the admissions committee how this “whatever it is” has manifested itself in your life. Therefore, you should begin this writing assignment by looking back at your life and performing some advanced “accounting.” Although looking backward is an important part of discovering your answer, what matters most to you might not be the same at every point of your life. Be aware that Stanford’s question is asking what matters to you most now — today.
The Right Approach
The wrong approach to tackling this essay question is to start with an answer you think will appeal to the Stanford GSB admissions committee and then to attempt to find evidence from your life to support it.
The right approach is to look back at your life and to try to express most clearly who you are and what you value. This is not going to be easy; it isn’t meant to be. Applicants who try to engineer an answer are never as successful as the ones who are willing to dive into the murky world of their memories and to do the hard work of finding an answer.
Just as there is no ideal form for your response, there isn’t any one path to follow to find your answer. If you are embarking on this journey, I have marked the trailheads of a few paths to explore. You don’t have to complete every single exercise in the list below. Rather, you should start down the path that looks most appealing and see where it takes you. If you’re not completely satisfied with where you end up, don’t give up; simply try another path.
Follow Your Struggles
In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri wrote, “a character stands revealed in conflict.” What does a playwright, writing about a character in a drama, have to teach us about answering Stanford’s “What matters most” essay? A great deal as it turns out.
What is true for a character in a play is also true for you as a human being. To discover what matters to you, examine the times you’ve been under strain, stress, and pressure. In times of tremendous conflict, your character is revealed and your values are tested. A value becomes your value when it has actually cost you something. You may think that “protecting the environment” matters most to you, but have you made any sacrifices for this value? This is part of the “accounting” exercise I alluded to in the introduction. The “value of a value” can be measured in terms of sacrifice – of time, money, comfort, etc. You may think something matters to you, but has it ever cost you anything of value?
Follow Your Decisions
The things that truly matter most to you have guided you consciously or unconsciously at the times of your life that you were faced with important decisions. For this exercise, begin by identifying the big decision points in your life—the major forks in the road. Don’t analyze them right away; just write down some brief reminder phrases (e.g., “choosing between colleges”). When you have a good list, go back and write a short story about making the decision. What were the options you were presented with, what did you think about each one, how did you “feel” about each one, and what choice did you eventually make and why? Finally, read all of your decisions stories together and see if you can discover a common thread or theme – a value that guided you or a belief or philosophy that you followed to make your decisions. This exercise may help you to see what matters most to you more clearly.
Follow Your Motivations
“What makes you tick?” From one perspective, Stanford’s essay question asks you to think about what motivates you. Think about the times in your life when you were truly motivated and energized. Food and sleep certainly matter a great deal, so consider the times that you worked through meals and sacrificed sleep for something that mattered more. At that time, what were you working on or what goal were you working towards? This exercise could reveal your deepest sources of motivation.
Follow Your Bliss
This advice is courtesy of the philosopher Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that we should “follow our bliss” to discover our purpose in life. For this exercise, write down short narratives about the moments in your life when you were enjoying yourself so much that you lost track of time – i.e., the moments when you experienced bliss. Write down where you were and what you were doing at the time. It’s very likely that you were engaged in a pursuit that truly mattered to you.
Follow Your Sorrow
If your bliss isn’t the royal road to the answer of what matters most to you, then consider looking in the opposite direction: remember the times that you were truly unhappy—your darker days. This exercise is certainly not as fun as reminiscing about your joys and triumphs, but it can be revealing because depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are often signals that we are not living according to our values or fulfilling a deeper sense of purpose. Think back to those painful moments, and ask yourself what was missing from your life? You may have been living in a way that was contrary to your deeper values. Perhaps what matters to you will be revealed by its absence.
You may discover your answer to Stanford’s “what matters most” essay question by following one of the paths above, or perhaps your answer will only become clear after you’ve traversed them all. So how do you know when you have arrived at your destination? Only you can say for sure. It is the point that you decide that you no longer care what a Stanford admission committee thinks about your answer – this is what really matters to you and if it’s not what matters to them, then so be it!
Why Having Hope Matters
By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
Creating and sustaining hope in the workplace can transform how you and your employees approach your jobs every single day.
This series is based on what St. Augustine wrote about in his classic Christian work, “Faith, Hope and Charity.” The first essay in this series dealt with the importance of belief in the workplace. Part two is all about hope. Part three will talk about “charity,” or what we call here “the spirit of generosity.”
Hope isn’t something of which I’ve been particularly mindful over the years. In truth, part of me feels like it’s more suited to children’s fairy tales than to an essay about 21st century business. But the more I’ve turned the issue around in my mind, the more clearly I can see that hope plays a far bigger role in creating a great workplace than I have imagined in the past.
The story of how hope came to play a greater part in my consciousness isn’t one that I feel proud about sharing. In honesty, it came from four screw-ups that I wish had never happened. The problem was the same in all four situations: Staffers had come forward to pursue something—a promotion, a project, an idea, a new job—and instead of responding with appreciation for the staffers’ gumption to go after something bigger and better, we basically shut them down. Our organizational answer in each case was essentially something along the lines of, “That’s not going to happen because…” or, “There’s no way I’m going to let you do that because you aren’t even doing x, y and z.”
I want to be clear that I’m using the term “we” here in a conscious way—although, in these cases, it wasn’t necessarily me who said what was said, I take total responsibility. I wasn’t clear within my own mind, let alone actively explaining, how much nurturing hope matters.
Hope Truly Helps
Here’s the bottom line: When employees don’t have hope they slowly start to shut down. They pull into their emotional and intellectual shells where they feel safer. Sure they poke their heads out now and again, and move very slowly forward, but basically they just cut their coworkers out. Often they get angry at the world around them. This isn’t helpful for them, our customers or our organization.
People without hope will probably not excel in the parts of their life in which they hold no hope. This does not mean that they’re not committed, hard working or capable. It’s just my experience that if people don’t believe that their work will make a difference, that they can make tomorrow better for someone, the work may be okay, but it’s unlikely to be outstanding.
Hope is a Two-Way Street
Quite simply, in these and pretty much all staff interactions, our responsibility as leaders is to help build hope. So backing up to where I started, where we unwittingly closed the door on hope, we could have replied with something like: “Wow, that’s great that you want to go for that. There’s a whole mess of things we’ll want to figure out so that we make this work well. Why don’t we get going?” The response is simple. It’s real. The truth is that the staffers still may not get to the success they’re seeking—there aren’t, after all, any guarantees. But the more hopeful the staff is, the more you and I believe in them, the more likely it is that they’ll actually end up being successful.
The Fear of False Hope
Many folks, I’m sure, will point out that it’s not productive to create a false sense of hope for the people with whom we work. In the most literal, narrow sense of things, I agree with them—if we truly know that what the staff member wants to do isn’t ever going to happen, it makes no sense to nurture hope that it will. But in all of the instances that I’ve mentioned where we fell short, the leader has jumped to a quick conclusion that the suggestion “won’t work,” rather than doing what I believe is more effective—helping the staff member to refine a positive, strategically sound, vision of the future. The leader then can put the pre-requisites she has in mind out in the open where the staff member has a chance to either do them, or not, as he so chooses. There may be more action steps to take than the staffer originally had in mind, but as long as we’re sincerely working to get to the same positive place in the future, I think the process is appropriate. If the employee opts out en route, that’s a shortfall of his or her own making, not a lack of opportunity nor an absence of hope.
Mind you, I’m not saying to toss hope around like some chew toy you use to keep your dog happy. This is not about doing anything in a phony or uncaring way—when I offer hope, I really have it, and I really believe that we just might be able to make something amazing happen.
Asking for Hope
For years we’ve been teaching everyone who works here about the importance of asking for help. But now I want to adapt that to my issue of the moment—it’s time for us to also start asking for hope! See, if hope is a two-way street and our job as leaders is to provide it, nurture it, cultivate it and care about it, then the staff’s part of the equation is actually to have it.
Just as it’s fine to ask people to smile if they want to work here, I think we’re well within our space to also ask folks to have hope. Being hopeful doesn’t always come easily to everyone. Hope isn’t something that just happens to you—sometimes, especially in the beginning and then again in difficult situations, you have to decide to have it. And you do have to work at it. Many folks have had so little of it in their lives that it’s almost an alien concept. To quote the great Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, “Practice hope. As hopefulness becomes a habit, you can achieve a permanently happy spirit.”
High Hopes to Have
What kind of hopes do people like to have? Well, from asking around, two types of hope seem to be pretty much universally sought after in the workplace:
1. The hope that one can get to a more desirable future than one’s present. It’s pretty simple—people want to have real hope that tomorrow will be good, that it will likely be better than today, that this summer will be better than the last and that next year will likely be better than this one. Mind you, “better” doesn’t necessarily mean making more money or getting a big raise. Each of us has to decide what a “better” future is for ourselves. The point here is merely that everyone wants to have hope that we can get there.
2. The hope that their work is going to make a difference. I think that people prefer that the work they do be meaningful. Most people would rather work hard and make a difference than do next to nothing for eight hours a day (even if the pay were high). People want to have hope—even if it’s not immediately apparent—that what they do every day is going to contribute.
Ways to Build Hope for the Future
What follows is a conceptual list of ways to build optimism and cultural strength that will, in turn, contribute to a better tomorrow.
1. Teach hope. It may sound silly but, in truth, teaching people that being hopeful about the future is a better way to live, can help them a lot. Few people are even mindful of hope or the lack thereof—they may have it or they may not, but they’re rarely consciously working at it. Bringing the issue out in the open can only help.
2. Provide hope. It can truly impact their lives if staffers believe they can: have a meaningfully better tomorrow; be treated with respect and dignity like the smart, creative, caring individual they are; and make a positive difference for everyone
3. Cultivate hope. Share success stories—whether it’s of people who’ve succeeded in the organization way beyond what they or we expected when they arrived, or of how we’ve contributed in caring ways to customers’ lives.
4. Seize on moments of hope. Every staff member you can help through to higher levels of engagement is a win for the organization, for the individual and for society at large.
5. Expect hope. Politely and constructively help people know that hope is happening, that part of working here is to bring a hopeful, optimistic attitude to work every day.
6. Help bring an end to hopelessness. If you have no hope for the people around you, help them move on; if they have no hope for a better future here, politely ask them to find employment elsewhere. Hope is in, hopelessness is out.
Putting Hope to Work
If the people with whom we work don’t believe in what they’re doing, or don’t believe in the business they’re working in, nothing that great will happen. By contrast, when people have a bit of hope, and when we can get them to act on it, to put themselves out there in a way that they might not normally do, a lot of good things are likely to happen. If we come through for them and help them succeed, they start to believe more in what they’re doing, which in turn grows the odds of them being successful and ultimately increases their hope. As the late, great writer and thinker Peter Drucker once wrote, “You can either take action . . . or you can hang back and hope for a miracle…Miracles are great. But they are so unpredictable.”