Wharton professor G. Richard Shell‘s new book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, encourages readers to embrace major transitions in life, from college to a first job, from one career to the next or from work to retirement. Based on a popular course Shell teaches at Wharton, the book departs from the conventional “how to succeed” formula by challenging readers to define success for themselves.
An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: You are well known for your work in negotiation and persuasion, so why write a book about success?
Shell: It’s been a long journey. The materials on success actually preceded the materials on negotiation and persuasion. I’ve been interested in success since I was in my 20s, and it also feeds into a passion I have in my teaching to help students and executives bring more self awareness to their career choices, whatever they are. The subject of success allows me to do that directly.
Knowledge at Wharton: Here at Wharton, you teach three very different audiences about the topic of success — Wharton undergrads, MBAs and senior executives in the advanced management program — and you challenge them to think about what success is. What do you see as the differences in the ways that each audience reacts to the question?
Shell: They’re at very different stages of life, and so each one of those groups has a different question in their head when you ask them, “What do you mean by success?” For undergrads, they are standing right on the edge of adulthood, very anxiously awaiting the real world after being in school for 16 years. It’s the first time they are seriously addressing the issue of what their life goals might be. They begin thinking about family, about career, about how to balance those things. In asking them about success, I’m able in some ways to set their minds at ease that they don’t have to answer this question all at once, that their lives are more like an [ongoing] experiment than a test.
The MBAs are a little bit further down the road. They have a more career-directed focus to that question. They’re all thinking very directly about the kind of professional niche [they want] and what kind of success that may hold for them.
And then for the executives, it’s much, much different. The senior executives are more mindful of issues like family, work/life balance and the kind of mentoring that they can do for younger people, helping them think about what a meaningful career might look like or how they can carve out a life that will make sense to them. So at some level, I’m teaching the executives how to be coaches as much as I am opening up a new subject for them.
Knowledge at Wharton: Many people in our culture are chasing success goals of fame and fortune, yet in your book you say that they can be traps. What do you mean by that, and how does your book help readers define success for themselves?
Shell: One of the points I make in the book is that whether we like it or not, our surrounding culture is going to create a lot of expectations for us. When we filter that culture through the prism of a family and how we grew up, where we grew up and the peer group we grew up around, it’s going to have almost a hypnotic effect on what people think they ought to be pursuing. With our media and celebrity-heavy culture, it’s very, very common to see people unconsciously adopt a frame of reference that if they’re not famous, they’re not successful. If they’re not wealthy, they’re not successful. Even when they know better, they continue to behave in ways that give them this underlying sense of dissatisfaction if they’re not famous enough or rich enough.
“With our media and celebrity-heavy culture, it’s very, very common to see people unconsciously adopt a frame of reference that if they’re not famous, they’re not successful. If they’re not wealthy, they’re not successful.”
In the book and in my teaching, I try to give people a chance to gain a little perspective. This means looking at the sources of those early messages that they may have internalized. I want to encourage them to make a few more choices about whether that impulse toward getting recognition or making another $100,000 — when they have options about using their time in other ways — [is the right approach] and whether they can gain more control over that choice.
Part of what I do is try to substitute new goals for the more automatic ones that our culture provides. So instead of fame, I try to get people to start thinking about gaining respect — earning it from people you know and who know you, as opposed to getting recognition from people you don’t know. When it comes to money, I try to emphasize needs that are related to financial security for you and your family rather than a status scorecard that counts up the zeros at the end of your net worth.
So I think part of it is helping people wake up and realize that they’re being unconsciously influenced. The other part is providing them with a more thoughtful alternative which, when they think about it, actually is something they would much rather pursue.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson penned the words that we have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Should he have edited those words to say the pursuit of personal success?
Shell: I don’t know that the founding fathers had the word “success” in their normal vocabulary. Happiness was, though. I think it’s interesting if you look back at that event in our history, because the original text said “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson edited out “property” and wrote the word “happiness” over it. A lot of cultural commentators [would contend] that this single editing changed the course of American culture because the word “happiness” is very ambiguous. I think it meant one thing to Jefferson, a stoic philosopher who followed a very strict regimen in his life and found joy in gardening and intellectual pursuits. We’ve interpreted it, I think, to mean longer times at casinos and more elaborate vacations. So one of the things I try to do in the book is give people a chance to think more deeply about what happiness actually means. It turns out it means three different things, the research shows.
First, it’s a kind of momentary emotion, a good feeling that people experience. Second, it’s a kind of positive evaluation when you look back on a period of time and consider whether your efforts have been rewarded with some kind of achievement. Finally, it is a satisfaction that comes with almost a spiritual dimension — of awe, of appreciation of nature, of a sense of connection to the world, and it may even be [connection to] a deity. Those kinds of happiness feelings I think are the deepest of all. When you speak of pursuit of happiness it’s probably some mix of all those three things….
Knowledge at Wharton: In your book, you describe an experience where you went to a conference about happiness, and a “wise angel” arrived. He said that “happiness is just three things: good health, meaningful work and love. You have that; you’re happy.” Was he missing anything relative to success as you would define it?
Shell: The person I call the wise angel was really just a senior citizen who wandered into a Wharton seminar that the faculty were giving on the relationship between income and the emotion of happiness. I called him the wise angel because he was dressed in workingman’s clothes. He really didn’t belong in the setting. And the [statement he made] to the presenter was about as un-academic a concept of happiness as you can find, but very deeply felt and in many ways very wise.
Good health is certainly a very important component of well being. And meaningful work is something I talk at great length about in the book, because it’s something I think is well worth understanding and pursuing. And love, of course, is the foundation for everyone’s personal life…. So he had captured a lot with that [statement]. But one of the things he missed that most people [consider] when they think of success is some sort of notable achievement. I think people get a lot of satisfaction from achieving something significant…. Whether or not it’s recognized, that’s a sort of cherry on top. Your sense of satisfaction comes from doing things well that are important to you. When they’re recognized, that’s an extra benefit. But I think achievement is something that most people would consider pretty important when you get to the concept of success compared with just the concept of happiness.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also mention in your book the tradeoffs between success and happiness. We now live in a world that asks, “Can’t we have both?”
Shell: We each only get to live roughly 32,850 days [assuming] a lifetime of 90 years. How you choose to spend that most precious asset, time, does involve tradeoffs. I think if you’re going to be pursuing momentary happiness, for example, then you probably are not going to be working … toward an important achievement that many associate with success.
By the same token, there are moments when — if we’re doing the right kind of work — we can have both a very strong sense of achievement and a very powerful and fulfilling sense of satisfaction. There are some things we do where we hit a sweet spot — where we can feel both very positive emotions and also accomplish a great deal. But I think the other half of that is you have to choose how to spend your time. Some people overdo the achievement side and don’t remember that their own intellectual and emotional well being, and that of their families, needs to be nurtured. Other people focus on their personal lives and at the end of the day may feel some frustration that they didn’t achieve as much as they would have liked.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your book makes it very clear that success is definitely a journey and not a destination. Can you tell us a little more about your discovery of your own personal success?
Shell: That’s what my students always want me to talk about. I have them write a paper on what success is to them, and they say, “Well, Professor Shell, what’s your theory of success?” I always resist the question because I don’t want them to copy the teacher. I think it’s their responsibility to come up with their own ideas.
For myself, I had a very strong crisis in my post college years. I was the son of a general in the Marine Corps who was the head of a military college, Virginia Military Institute. I became a pacifist as a result of the Vietnam War, so I had a very ruptured event in my young adulthood breaking with all my family traditions. My grandfathers had both been in the military, too.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your book, you use the phase that “you cut the narrative story of your life.” I thought that was a very powerful description of what you were going through.
Shell: Yes. In my case, I had to do a 180-degree turn from everything I had assumed success meant, because I was at the time enrolled in college to be a naval officer. I was going to graduate from college and go into the Navy. To turn 180 degrees away from that toward being a pacifist and protesting the war that we were involved in then, it just makes it very difficult for you to remember who you are.
That crisis ended up putting me on a journey where I quit my job and left the country. I traveled for a couple of years. I went on a quest to see if I could figure out who I was and what I needed to do next.
And so the book tells that story. It’s a longer story than I have time to tell here. But I think we are in some sense defined by the conflicts we have overcome. That story happens to be the conflict I overcame, and it gave me the seed of my passion for this subject. But I challenge students, I challenge executives, to look into their own lives and identify the crises that have defined them, and to draw both strength and direction from that. I think that’s one very good way to make constructive use of the difficult times that you’ve had.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you wrote Springboard, whom did you have in mind as being your audience or your reader?
Shell: That’s a great question because it’s a very tough one. I thought at the beginning that I was going to write this book based on the course that I teach, which is a pretty simple idea: I have a course; I’ll write a book.
When I started getting into it, though, I realized that the course I teach is very intimate, it’s very interactive and there’s a lot of writing, including my responses to [students’ essays]. But with an audience I couldn’t see, I suddenly realized I had a different problem to solve.
“There are some things we do where we hit a sweet spot — where we can feel both very positive emotions and also accomplish a great deal. But I think the other half of that is you have to choose how to spend your time.”
As I wrote the book, I actually began realizing that it wasn’t just students I was writing for but really anyone who is at a point in life where they need to make a transition. It could be a student who is transitioning to adult life after undergraduate studies. It could be a graduate student who’s transitioning to a professional level after graduate studies. But it could also be someone who’s facing a crisis because they have to change their career, retool their goals and rethink who they are with respect to their work. It could be someone who is just coming off a personal crisis, like a divorce or the death of a loved one, and needs to think about [what’s ahead]. Or finally, people who are coming into their retirement years who have to consider what they’re going to do with their life after they stop their identified career. So I think it really is relevant for anyone who’s asking the question, what should I do next with my life?
Knowledge at Wharton: At the end of the book, you give a pretty good bibliography of other recommended readings. And you acknowledge that there are many other books on the market about success. What’s different about yours?
Shell: That was another crisis for me as I wrote the book because I think that, over the time I worked on it, I wrote about five different kinds of books, each of which was similar to an [already existing] success book. So maybe by process of elimination I wrote something that is different.
But at the end, I discovered that what I was writing was not a book about how to succeed like me, and not a book about the one true path to success, which you might read in a book on goal setting or on following your passion or the many different kinds of “one true answer” books. My goal in writing this book was really to help readers discover for themselves their own authentic, legitimate, deeply felt goals with respect to what success means. And then help them go on to assess their specific strengths, personality, motivations and skills in order to achieve the success that they themselves have defined. So it really is a book about the reader, as opposed to a book about either me or some set of flawless answers to the question of how to succeed.
Knowledge at Wharton: As you work across this variety of audiences, beginning with undergraduate students up through senior executives, what do you see as their biggest obstacles to figuring out their path to success?
Shell: Fear. When I look into the eyes of undergraduates who are facing their first job after graduation, they are very, very anxious that they make exactly the right choice the first time out. A lot of what I do when I speak to them individually is say, “Look, relax. Just do something that interests you and then use your early working life as an experiment to learn more about who you are, what might interest you and what skills you have.”
Even senior executives I occasionally run into when they are at one of these transition points will come up to me during a break in our course or at lunch and want some extra counseling, some extra chance to talk. Again, what I see is fear, an anxiety that some very defined part of their life that they know very well, that they are masters of, is coming to an end. They look out into the future and see this sort of black hole in front of them regarding what’s going to happen next.
So my effort in the book and in my courses is to reassure and to provide encouragement to be thoughtful, be a little fearless, find the courage to put yourself in motion. You know, if you follow professional ice hockey, which my wife and I occasionally do, there’s a very good strategy if you’re trying to score in an ice hockey game. Basically the advice is, keep shooting and good things happen if you’re in front of the net and you’re swinging away trying to get that goal. I think life is like that. Get out there and just keep shooting and things happen, people respond, new avenues open up and you get a chance to find a new path.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your book, you devote a fair amount of pages to a former student, now entrepreneur, named Eric Adler. Can you tell us a little bit about why he’s so special?
Shell: When I was writing the book and casting about for role models whom I myself consider successful, Eric’s name came up. Before I actually conceived the success course, I taught Eric negotiation and another core course. So while he was an MBA student, I got to know him. He had been a high school teacher for eight years before he came to Wharton.
While he was here, he got very excited about a traditional business career in consulting and left Wharton to pursue that. I had never really thought this was the [career] he would end up in or that I was hoping he would end up in. But, you know, people take their own path, and I was happy to see that he was engaged.
A year or so later, I caught up with his story. He had moved to Washington, D.C., and become very dissatisfied with his consulting career. It just wasn’t working out. But he had had the courage to quit and then go on to knit together all the pieces of his life that allowed him to be truly successful. His parents were entrepreneurs. He decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur. He had a background in secondary education, so he started looking for how to pursue a business in secondary education. He ended up creating a whole set of model public schools — boarding schools for low income students. He succeeded in finding a way to get 100 percent of those kids, who would otherwise not even graduate from high school, into top colleges.
He put together all the pieces that I see going into the word “success” as I define it. He created his own goals. He looked back on his own past experience, found his own strengths and came up with an original idea. I think his life indicates this trial-and-error experimental model rather than one where you get on the merry go round and you get the brass ring and, you know, game over. You’re successful.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your description of Eric, it sounds to me like [his career change] began with some level of dissatisfaction.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that’s key?
Shell: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the dangers of over-focusing on happiness. If you think of happiness as the end state — oh, I have to be happy — you’re going to miss a lot, because it’s from your dissatisfaction, from your unhappiness, that you often get the motivation to do something new, something better, more interesting, more educational. You must be willing to be unhappy in a relationship in order to find a better one. You must be unhappy in a current job in order to take the plunge and seek a better one. I think there’s a lot of power in negative emotions — provided they are not overly negative for too long — that are overlooked in the modern culture’s fascination with the whole idea that success equals happiness.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you see as the biggest ‘aha’ moment that students have at the end of the success class?
Shell: Different audiences have different ahas. I think the undergraduates have a big aha because they suddenly realize this is something they get to define. They have been in the business of checking boxes all through their lives, going to good high schools, [getting high] SAT scores, getting into a great college and maybe even being recruited into great firms for their first job after college.
But I think they really begin feeling empowered when they realize this is an opportunity, not something they have to fear — that the future is something they get to shape and craft. So I think that can be a big aha moment for them.
“You get to define success for yourself. It’s whatever personality you have that will probably affect how you define it. That’s the life you get to live.”
I think for the older people, the aha comes with validating for them that life is a little bit more nuanced and richer than just their career achievements. I was teaching a course for bankers here on campus about a month ago … and making a point about how when you achieve someone else’s goal in life, you recognize it because you don’t feel any satisfaction from having achieved it.
This guy in the back raised his hand and said, “You know, Richard, that’s exactly right. I’ve been trying to get promoted for the last three years. A month ago I got promoted, but I didn’t feel any satisfaction from it. I’m beginning to realize that the promotion wasn’t really my own goal.” So I think older people sometimes suddenly realize that you have to live your own life, take a little time off to craft what your own goals are, and not just end up feeling empty when you achieve something everybody else wanted you to achieve.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see a correlation between certain personalities/styles and success? In other words, do you need a certain style and personality to be successful? Or is success really an option for anyone?
Shell: Well, back to the premise, you get to define success for yourself. It’s whatever personality you have that will probably affect how you define it. That’s the life you get to live. If you looked at individual aspects of success, there probably are some correlations. For example, people who achieve more are probably more conscientious. They’re more self-disciplined. They’re more likely to follow through.
On the other hand, people who are happier have more positive emotions. They have a greater sense of satisfaction. They are a little bit more emotionally intelligent, more self aware and maybe more open to novel experiences and are not so interested in controlling everything about their environment.
Those are personality traits. They probably give you aptitudes for experiencing some dimension of success. But I think no matter what your personality is, you get to define the balance that you will call success for yourself. I think that’s the unique aspect of it. You get to make your own adventure.