Thinker in Residence: A Q&A with G. Richard Shell

Sally Haldorson

September 06, 2013


Happiness is fascinating. It is both one of the simplest things in life and one of the most complicated things to write about. ~G.

Happiness is fascinating. It is both one of the simplest things in life and one of the most complicated things to write about.

~G. Richard Shell

Q: Why did you feel it was important to include your personal story as an introduction to Springboard? GRS: Part of understanding your own, unique concept of success is coming to terms with your own, unique life story. What significant conflicts have you encountered and overcome to become the person you are today? How have those twists and turns in life shaped you and your values? I felt it was important in Springboard to give the reader a chance to understand how my story has shaped my character, interests, and passions. How else could readers trust me as a guide for their journeys? As a college student, I faced a huge conflict with my father over the Vietnam War. He was a general in the U.S. Marine Corps and I became a war protester and pacifist. My grandparents on both my mother's and father's side had also been career officers in the military. I was attending college on a military scholarship. So you can imagine the identity conflict that my stand on the war caused for me and the pain it caused my family. It took me over a decade of soul searching to sort that conflict out. I did not start my career as a college teacher until I was 37 years old. But when I at last started teaching, I had laid the personal foundations I needed to have true confidence in myself. I had reconciled with my family, married my college sweetheart, and was completely clear that teaching was the right thing for me to do. That commitment has made a huge difference in my success – both at work and at home. Springboard is about the reader – not me. But I thought it was important for readers to know the outlines of my own personal journey so they would see why I keep saying that patience and compassion are so important on the road to success. Q: Why do you think there is such dissonance between the inner and outer values of success? And how do we separate ourselves from society's definition of success? GRS: There are two sides to success – outer achievement and inner satisfaction -- and most of Springboard is about helping people come to terms with their own attitudes about these two strands of "success DNA." The outer values of achievement are culturally driven – we do things that others will praise us for. And I do not think you can really separate yourself completely from those cultural values. The best you can do is become aware of them and try to channel them into constructive pursuits that renew rather than deplete your energies. Burnout is the enemy of success. The inner values of pleasure and happiness are more emotional – and thus they are different for each of us based on our genes, families, and personalities. But these can be overdone, as well. If you think success is just about happiness, then you may end up sitting on a beach somewhere with nothing to show for your time on earth. In fact, a life spent chasing happiness may end up becoming a wasted life – because happiness often finds you when you least expect it, not when you crave it most. In the book, I try to help people accept both the inner and the outer aspects of success so they can toggle between them in the way that best suits their personalities and values. Even people who are doing what they love have bad, boring days. And they will feel disrespected if nobody recognizes their hard work. The outer aspects of success are important to us all. And the hard-charging, world-famous lawyer who looks like a workaholic from the outside may be experiencing more satisfactions than you imagine from the thrills that come from winning a case, a negotiation, or a legal argument. These people just need to be careful to keep their work under control so they can have meaningful relationships. Nobody succeeds alone. Q: You open your section on defining success with a chapter on happiness. Is happiness a true indicator of success? Is happiness a bi-product of success? GRS: Happiness is fascinating. It is both one of the simplest things in life and one of the most complicated things to write about. In researching Springboard, I discovered that we really need three words rather than one to talk about happiness. As an emotion, happiness is simple. As Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz once summed it up, "Happiness is a warm puppy." You do not need to be a big success to feel happiness. You just need to get a great massage, to taste your favorite food, or help an older person get back on their feet if they fall. Happiness is also a judgment – as in "I was happy for the first five years I was married." In this sense, happiness is more based on how well something worked out relative to your expectations. It can also be an evaluation of how close you came to fulfilling some long-sought, hard-to-achieve goal – such as getting married, becoming a doctor, or earning $1 million. This kind of happiness is a by-product of some achievement or time unit of your past experience. The third kind of happiness is better captured by the word "joy" and has to do with a spiritual sense of connection to other people, to the world of nature, or to a sense of the divine. Overall, as I point out in Springboard, you have to be careful what you are wishing for when you say, "I just want to be happy." You may get a form of happiness that does not feel as good as you expected. Q: Is Springboard written with a certain generation in mind? It seems the millennials are getting quite a bad rap for being unfocused and/or unmotivated. How can they, or any generation for that matter, benefit from Springboard? GRS: When it comes to success, I think every generation has the same problem. Millennials – just like Baby Boomers and GenY'ers – need to define success for themselves if they want to live a life that feels full and intentional. The tools they use to investigate this problem may change, but the problem is the same. I started out writing Springboard for people who might need a trustworthy guidebook for what I call their "Odyssey Years" – roughly between college and marriage. But the deeper I got into the book, the more I realized it was for anyone who faced a major transition in life. That could be from college to work, from one career to the next, or from a career to retirement. At each of these transitions, the exercises, profilers, and examples I give in Springboard can help someone focus in the right direction – toward their deepest inner self – as they consider what their next step in life should be. Q: In a section on meaningful work, you encourage people to look at "what your heart tells you rather than ...what your family or culture say you "should" be doing. How does meaning help us find success? GRS: There are a few "sweet spots" in life where you can get it all: a sense of profound achievement, praise from others for a job well done, feelings of momentary happiness, satisfaction from accomplishing difficult goals, and meaningful relationships with other people. Meaningful work is one such sweet spot. Meaningful work comes from the inside out – you do something you have a talent for, that others will reward you for, and that you feel intrinsically motivated by. For one person, that might be drawing cartoons and for another it might be giving tours of art galleries in New York. Of course, nothing lasts forever. So what is meaningful work at one stage of your life may become dreary at another stage. Part of success is recognizing when you are dissatisfied with the status quo – no matter how good it once was – and setting off to discover the next thing. Q: "Discover What You Can Do Better Than Most." Where did this phrase come from and why is it a key aspect of attaining success? GRS: When I was in my early twenties and was painting houses for a living, I was desperate to find a white collar job. Answering a newspaper ad once day, I found myself in a suburban office building interviewing for a real estate time share sales position. As part of the interview, the guy asked me, "What do you do better than most people?" I had never thought about that in quite those terms before – especially when it came to seeking employment. My attitude had been, "Tell me what you need done and I'll try to do it." When I thought about that question, I realized that one thing I could do better than most was write clearly. So I started looking for jobs that involved writing and was able to get one writing grant proposals for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. For reasons I explain in the book, that did not turn out to be "success" for me. But that question stuck with me. It is a good place to start any quest for work where your talents will be valued and useful. Q: Motivation is a tricky thing for most people. What is your favorite 'trick' for getting and staying motivated? GRS: I meditate every day. Being quiet gives me a sense of clarity that helps me stay motivated and effective. Also, just before I teach any class – whether it is undergraduates, MBAs, or executives – I visualize being in front of the group, holding their attention, and giving them the best classroom experience of their lives. And I ask for spiritual help in keeping myself focused, inspiring, truthful, and engaging. Q: Can a person have "level two confidence" without first having "level one confidence"? GRS: Not for very long. Level One Confidence is about your belief in yourself as an honorable, capable, lovable person. Level Two Confidence is about you ability to acquire some specific skill or persist in some difficult task – like starting up your own business. You can run a business or a career for a time even after you stop believing in yourself. But you will burn out pretty quickly with depression and lose of motivation. Q: How do we find focus when reason, passion, imagination and intuition all fight for number #1 in our minds. GRS: Think of your inner resources as a team. At different times and for different problems, different members of your team have different roles to play. In relationships, your emotions and passions lead. In creative work, your imagination leads. In making decisions, you need to toggle between reason and intuition. As you get to know yourself better, you begin seeing which of your inner resources are weaker and which are stronger – and you can seek help from others who are stronger in your weak spot. For example, my wife has excellent intuitions about other people. I seek her advice when I have to decide whom to trust. You also begin to see which are dominant and need to be controlled a bit – such as people who react very emotionally to things and need to bring in more rationality or people who are always imagining the worst case scenario and need help taking necessary risks. Everyone has issues when it comes to balancing their reason, passions, imaginations, and intuitions. That is why close friends and family members are important. They can help you maintain your balance. Q: Why is it important, in terms of success, to emotionally connect to people, to create a "pool of shared meaning?" GRS: As I said earlier, humans are hardwired as social creatures. It is no coincidence that the worst form of punishment in prison is solitary confinement. But to actually connect to another person is hard. The closer we get, the more complicated human interactions become. In Springboard, I try to help readers get past the usual "success book" advice about flattering people and social networking as pathways to success to the deeper problem of creating really good relationships – and that means listening, trying to understand, and showing compassion and care. When that happens, people can actually come to trust and love one another. That is what I mean by creating a "pool of shared meaning." Two people can come to see the world the same way – at least for a time. Q: You are best known for having written Bargaining for Advantage. What took you from the topic of negotiation to personal success? GRS: Success was the original topic for me. Negotiation and persuasion were tactical aspects of social life that I found fascinating, but I always knew that the most important thing was to have the right life goals. Once you have those goals, you can use your negotiating and influence skills to get thing accomplished – and you are more likely to achieve something truly worthwhile. Q: What is the one aspect of Springboard that you would hope people will retain and apply far after reading the book? GRS: My hope is that people will see success as the result of a unique process they implement in their lives rather than as an outcome that other people judge, thumbs up or thumbs down. Achievements come and go. Happiness comes and goes. But deepening your self awareness and your sense of connection to the people and world around you is something that can enliven and enrich your experience every single day – no matter what that day brings you in terms of work, health, or luck.
G. Richard Shell is the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics, and Management and the Chair of the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 1986. He also led the School's most recent innovation process to completely redesign its MBA program. Professor Shell is an internationally recognized expert in negotiations, persuasion, and strategy, as well as an award-winning teacher. He describes his work this way:
In my work, I help students and executives reach peak levels of personal and professional effectiveness through skilled negotiation, persuasion, influence, and the discovery of meaningful life goals. Three beliefs permeate everything I teach and write. First, success begins with self-awareness. Second, success progresses through excellence in practice. Third, success demands adherence to the highest standards of integrity.
He is the author of Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (2nd Edition, Penguin 2006) and The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas (Penguin/Portfolio 2007) (with Mario Moussa) and, most recently, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success (Penguin/Portfolio 2013) in which he presents a series of self-assessments and profilers (as well as inspiring stories) to help people articulate their own definitions of the word "success" and determine how to use their own unique talents and strengths to achieve their long-term life goals.

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