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I have been at my new location in Philadelphia for a few weeks now. It has taken me some time to take in new impressions and rebuild those daily routines we don’t notice until we’re in a new environment and have to learn how to do them all over again: where is the supermarket, where do I get coffee and when does the gym open in the morning?

But I have come to the point where I feel I have settled in enough to start with some initial reflection. A new environment almost unavoidably makes you more curious not only about all the new things around you but also about how you relate to them and ultimately about yourself. And curiosity may be one of the best ways to reflect on new impressions and old habits in an open minded and positive way. You discover “just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else”, as Chelsea Fagan put it in her great article “What Happens When You Live Abroad” on Thought Catalog. And I don’t mean for that to sound negative, it’s just an interesting observation to make when you realize how much your environment reinforces certain behaviors and how little deliberate choice is involved in adopting them.

Reflection on its own though can be futile, which is exactly what tends to happen on a busy work day when we briefly remember that we really should do xyz more often only to forget it almost instantly and move on to the next urgent thought that grabs our attention. Therefore, I decided that changing some of my habits should be one of the main goals I set myself on this sabbatical. The mechanisms of habits have interested me for a while and an increasing amount of material is published that provides fascinating new insights: Charles Duhigg’s “The power of habits”  or Tony Schwartz’s HBR blog post, where he describes them as “the only way to get important things done” are some of my favourites.

And one particular habit has been on my to do list for a while: I was invited to a talk about “Positive Leadership” by IE business school professor Lee Newman and to be honest, I was expecting the standard, bulky and impractical content that often results from academic research in leadership. But professor Newman’s talk contained an insightful combination of cognitive psychology, decision biases and practical advice. It’s a humbling experience when someone can demonstrate a whole range of shortcomings of your brain with a few experiments in about 15 minutes time. The talk concluded with the introduction of Mindfulness, a concept from psychology that I think is best described as “the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.”

When I left the talk that evening about four months ago I had made the decision to try mindfulness myself. It’s certainly very different from any habit I previously adopted which makes this both challenging and exciting. I wouldn’t call myself very spiritual and certainly not very religious but my understanding so far is that mindfulness does not fit in either of these categories. Instead, it may be similar to Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” approach which suggests that “rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”

I have decided that this is certainly worth trying and a great use for the additional time and freedom I have during my sabbatical. To keep myself motivated and anyone who is interested updated I will share my experiences here over the coming weeks. I will be using a book called Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman which takes you through an eight week introduction with practical exercises and background information.

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This is it, the halfway point. My first elective course starts tomorrow and Wharton is coming up very soon in January. It’s amazing to look back and realise both how quickly the first year went by and how much has changed since we got together for our induction week.  From now on my focus will be much more on specific subjects I choose, my exchange to Wharton and preparing for a life and career after the MBA.

Things seem to have fallen into place lately, seem to make a lot more sense. An absolute prerequisite for action, summed up nicely by the proverb “If you don’t know where you going, any way will take you there”. Much of my first year felt like that. And it was uneasy at times to allow myself to wander almost aimlessly and absorb new impressions. That seems completely opposed to the popular notion of a successful and determined individual and also in contrast to the expectations I had set for myself.

But once the MBA started I noticed quickly that these considerations had very little relevance in this stage of my life. The more I got to know the people in my class, the more I realised that generalisations and comparisons do not work any more the way they once did in undergraduate courses. Too individual had each of us become since then and too distinct were our goals and approaches for the MBA program. The sentiment of competing, comparing and averaging was no longer applicable and inspiring, discussing and diversifying provided much more value.

People join an MBA program for various different reasons: to get a promotion, to change their career, to get the letters behind their name, to enlarge their network, to broaden their knowledge or to work on their soft skills. And people move on from their MBAs in various different directions: to get that promotion they wanted, to start their own company, to work in a different sector or to get the role they always wanted. Allowing yourself the space and time it takes to find your own way through the MBA and onwards is difficult in an environment that can be distracting and overwhelming at times but is absolutely essential to getting the most out of your experience.

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