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Stepping off the bus after 27 hours of traveling, with no phone signal, and no idea how I was going to get to my new house, was my first experience of South Bend, Indiana.
I had left my native Ireland early that morning, catching my connecting flight in Barcelona to O’Hare Airport. I had come to the University of Notre Dame to pursue a Masters Degree in Entrepreneurship, following my Undergraduate Degree in Mechanical Engineering in my native Ireland. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I remember being fascinated with how serene and dreamy the buildings looked in the darkness. My mind wandered for a few seconds before the reality set in – I was in a new place, with no way to get to my house. Luckily, the only other passenger on the bus was kind enough to help me organize an Uber, and a quick drive later I collapsed onto the couch in our new house.
Looking back, I had known pretty soon into undergrad that a career in engineering wasn’t for me – I was less interested in the technical details of machines and buildings, and more interested in how they would make their way out into the world and be used to create value for people. This interest was also influenced by the fact that I had started a business at the age of 11, designing and handcrafting wooden clocks, bowls, and pens. I ran this business throughout high school and college, finishing up my final order the day before I took my flight over to the States. Although stressful at times, being able to plan out and implement a business strategy was a fascinating experience, and I happily worked the long hours necessary to grow the business.
Applying to the University of Notre Dame
In my senior year of college, I went through a period of extreme stress – probably the worst stress I’ve ever experienced. I was working on a thesis project that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and it seemed that no matter what I did, the project continued to limp along.
During this stressful period, I promised myself that I would never jump straight from Undergraduate to Masters. I swore to myself that I’d at least take a year or two to work before deciding whether or not to do a Masters. I had always wanted to do a Masters in business of some sort, but I had had enough of college for the moment – or so I thought. I had kept my eye on a Masters at the University of Notre Dame, which pitched itself as a business and entrepreneurship Masters for students from a STEM background – in other words, the perfect Masters for me.
Once the application window opened, I couldn’t help myself, and my plans to postpone Graduate studies were quickly silenced. Fast-forward 2 months, and I was booking my flight to America, shortly after submitting the thesis project that I never thought I’d see the end of.
For an Irish person arriving at the University of Notre Dame, it’s pretty hard to compare it to anything at home. The fascination I felt when I first saw the campus never really subsided in the months that followed. I spent long days studying in the Hesburgh Library and took study breaks to wander around the campus, taking in the views on campus.
Adjusting to life at the University of Notre Dame
The Program at Notre Dame started in mid-June, so I arrived at a campus that was devoid of a large part of its population. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, it gave us all a chance to get acclimated to our new setting. Arriving at the gym at any part of the day and having it largely to yourself was a luxury that I only appreciated once the influx of students for the Fall semester meant that gym space became a commodity.
I spent a lot of time running around campus, which helped me get to know the different parts of the campus. My favorite run brought me around the 2 lakes on campus and provided for plenty of opportunities to stop and reflect on what an incredible University I was fortunate enough to be attending. I’d often stop at the spot in the picture below and catch my breath while taking in the view of the Golden Dome and the Basilica.
Making the most of the beautiful summer weather, we started to organize a few weekend trips. We organized a trip to Chicago for 4th of July, as well as a big trip to Toronto, taking in Niagara Falls along the way. Our trip to Toronto was probably one of the most memorable – since I was young I’ve always wanted to visit Toronto, and stopping off in Niagara Falls was an incredible experience. However, I did struggle somewhat to adjust to the sheer amount of driving necessary to reach our destination.
About 6 hours into our 7-hour drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, our first stop before heading to Niagara Falls and then Toronto, I experienced what I can only describe as a sense of doom that we would never get off this highway we had been on for hours.
I genuinely found it hard to comprehend how a road could be so straight for so long. I was in a car with 3 of my American friends for whom 7 hours in a car is a “moderate drive”, so my horror seemed to amuse them. Regardless, I got over my fear of infinitely straight roads and we got to explore Niagara-on-the-Lake for a few days before visiting Niagara Falls and later venturing on to Toronto. Finishing off the summer with this trip was a lovely end to what had been a semester of new experiences for me – new country, new university, new classmates, and new friends.
Fall semester at University of Notre Dame
With the start of the Fall semester came the start of another new concept for me: football season. I started to gather pretty quickly that college football was a pretty big deal – the big hint was that wearing clothing with some variation of “Fighting Irish” was basically the uniform of students at Notre Dame. What I didn’t expect was the sheer scale of the event. Thousands and thousands of people would flock to the car park for a few hours before settling into the stadium for the game. If I had known how quickly football season would come and go, I think I would have appreciated it that much more but it seemed to end as quickly as it started.
Our capstone project was a big part of the year, and it was where the bulk of our effort was focused. As part of my capstone project, I was working with a consultancy based in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit the company headquarters for a week, and this was where I fell in love with the culture of Seattle. Initially, I had been looking at jobs in Chicago, mostly because that was where I knew the most people, and because it was a city I had become familiar with. But during my trip to Seattle, I got to explore the numerous coffee shops, the beautiful suburbs, and life in the city, and I very quickly realized that this was a place where I could see myself living.
Following my Seattle trip, things got pretty busy at Notre Dame. We had plenty of projects to work on, and I was working as a venture coach – using my previous experience of starting a business to advise 8 student entrepreneurs on how to develop their business, from idea to product launch. The Graduate Student Lounge had free peanut butter sandwiches and coffee which came in handy for the long evenings. I also made a trip back to Ireland for my Undergrad Graduation (in Ireland, Graduations occur a few months after you finish your course), which gave me an opportunity to catch up with friends and hear about the interesting things that everyone was doing.
Taking advantage of opportunities on campus
I also made a point of trying to attend as many talks as possible. Notre Dame got some incredible speakers during the year, including Joe Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte, and John Carreyrou, author of the New York Times bestseller “Bad Blood.” They also hosted a talk by Enda Kenny, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, and the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall. Shortly before the talk, a few of the Irish students at Notre Dame were invited to a lunch with Mr. Kenny and Ambassador Mulhall. Again, this just showed the huge variety of opportunities available to us as students at Notre Dame.
Shortly before we all departed home for Christmas, our course had a lovely dinner in South Bend. Fifty-six of us piled into a restaurant and had some great conversations about our time so far at Notre Dame before we each split off for a few weeks.
Our final semester
Following a Christmas spent with family, I embarked on my return to South Bend. Again, looking to save money, I got a connecting flight through Iceland. Due to a bad thunderstorm in Iceland, I ended up being grounded there for 2 nights, spending my first night in emergency accommodation. Lesson learned: try and avoid connecting flights.
Immediately, we got back into the swing of classes and projects. I also signed with a company I had been negotiating with for some time, which was based in Seattle. It was decided, I’d be moving to Seattle in July!
The main event of our final semester was the trip to Silicon Valley. Given the fact that our course is focused on entrepreneurship, a trip to the epicenter of innovation is essential. This trip involved plenty of talks and workshops with some incredible entrepreneurs, as well as visits to various startups in the Bay Area working to become the next Google, and a trip to Stanford University. The weekend before this trip, I visited family friends in California who visit us in Ireland every year. I was treated to a tour of the beautiful Californian coast before meeting up with my classmates for our week in Silicon Valley. Toward the end of the week, things started to take a turn as a mysterious virus caused a few of our speakers to move their sessions online. Fast-forward 2 weeks, and I would be on a last-minute flight back to Ireland, having been told the rest of the semester would be conducted online because of the COVID pandemic.
Onboard flight EI122 headed for Dublin Airport, I reflected on an incredible few months in the US. I met new people and had the chance to share a classroom with some incredibly talented peers. Having spent a couple of days hastily packing up our entire house, I had felt an incredible sadness that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to everyone in my class. I anticipated experiencing a lot of new things in my year at the University of Notre Dame, but the last thing I expected was to be flying home 10 months later following the outbreak of a global pandemic. However, I also realize that I am in the privileged position of having a safe home to return to, and a job that I can do even when I’m not physically in the office.
My experience at the University of Notre Dame was an incredible learning experience. It forced me outside my comfort zone more times than I can count and, as a result, it has been one of the best years of my life. My initial 27-hour journey to South Bend gave me plenty of time to doubt whether this was the right choice, but I never wavered in my belief that this opportunity was one I couldn’t pass up. I knew that if I had chosen the safer route of taking a job straight out of college in Ireland, I would have always wondered ‘what if’ and that, for me, would be the ultimate regret.
Always be learning
Building up a knowledge of the world around you is a great way of ensuring that you don’t become complacent – I’ve found that the more I learn, the more I discover there is to learn. Always make sure you are reading or listening to the best book or podcast you know of, and set aside time every day or week that is specifically for learning. For some, this may be in the morning before everything gets hectic, for others it may be every Saturday afternoon in a coffee shop. The specifics don’t matter. What does matter is that you dedicate time to the pursuit of knowledge.
In my experience, there are two types of information that are important to distinguish between. The first is information that you will immediately use – for students, this is information that will be coming up on that test you have next week. The second is information which will be used more in the longer term. The second type works like compound interest – it becomes exponentially more useful as you build up more of it. It’s easy to focus on the first type in University, but post-Graduation the second type becomes incredibly useful as you try to figure out both who you are and what you’re interested in.
Different people will have different preferences in their learning. Some want to build deep expertise in a select few domains. Others want to build expertise in one or two domains and high-level knowledge of a lot of other domains. Whatever type of person you are, use whatever tool works for you to keep learning. Podcasts, books, audiobooks, short-form articles, long-form articles – the best medium for learning is the one that works for you.
Learn Mental Models
As the world becomes increasingly complex, it becomes more and more difficult to navigate the world if you have a fixed way of looking at problems. This is where Mental Models come in. They are simply a framework for looking at problems to help us make sense of them. Although they may sound complex, they are really quite simple and will differ for each person. Having a variety of frameworks with which to view different domains allows you to navigate problems that you haven’t encountered before which, given the pace of change, is inevitable.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in Mental Models – for a more in-depth look, the blog Farnam Street along with the associated podcast “The Knowledge Project” is a great resource.
Take advice for success with a grain of salt
In my experience, it’s quite easy to connect the dots looking back at anything you did well and make it sound as if you knew all along what you were doing. In fact, this is rarely the case, and I feel that a lot of the stories told of success have this hindsight bias. This is also compounded by survivorship bias – we don’t hear of the 1,000 social media companies that failed, we just hear that Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook from his dorm room.
With this in mind, I usually try to take advice from successful people with a grain of salt. When listening to advice, try and keep in mind that these people are looking back and their own experiences and circumstances, which are likely very different than yours, will inevitably influence their own advice.
Conor is a Graduate of the University of Notre Dame, having completed a Masters in Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship. He was born in Ireland, where he studied Mechanical Engineering. At the age of 11, he started his own business, where he designed and handcrafted wooden clocks, bowls and pens. He sold these online and in physical stores around the world, and his products were sought after as gifts for numerous figures, including the President of Ireland. He presented his business idea on the Irish equivalent of Shark Tank at the age of 16.