My mother was the most formative person in my life.

Emily Oster:

My mother had a gift for these hard conversations, to be clear and honest while not being unkind. There are a million examples for me of this, when I think of it. Once, when a close friend’s boyfriend broke up with her the year we graduated from college, my mom said to her, “I know this seems like a big deal now, but I’m telling you: it’s not.” My friend remembers that interaction not as harsh but as kind, honest. Of course, it was also true. 

The one example I always come back to, though, is the time that my mother brought one of her favorite MBA students into her office and told her she needed to upgrade her wardrobe before starting her job in investment banking. Mom even found a fellow MBA student, a friend, to take her shopping. (I think we might all have wished this conversation wasn’t necessary, but my mother was practical, and she was deeply worried that this fixable, external issue would get in the way of the student’s success.) This cannot have been an easy thing to say, or to hear. But it was kind, if not especially nice.

She was so good at these hard conversations that even when she had retired, she’d occasionally be asked to come back to have one of them, when no one else could do it. Her magic wasn’t just the willingness to have the conversation but the ability to make clear that it wasn’t with malice, it wasn’t to be mean

I think about this all the time. Mentoring students, in particular, requires these conversations frequently. Be clear, I channel. Be kind.