Thinker in Residence: G. Richard Shell

Sally Haldorson

September 05, 2013


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.

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.

"Given what I do now, most people are surprised to learn that I did not start my academic career until I was thirty-seven and spent most of my twenties unemployed, much of the time deeply uncertain about who I was and what I wanted to do. But I count those years as the most important of my life. It was during that intense period of living with failure that I gained my first insights into the meaning of success."

Recommending Springboard:

"Chapter 1 gets you started by allowing you to choose your own life."

I can get behind a book that promises to give readers that kind of power! Author G. Richard Shell is actually referring to his Six Lives Exercise which he presents in his opening chapter of Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success. The goal of the exercise is to assess where you are at in your life, and whether it is the life you would choose if you had control, carte blanche. The Six Lives Exercise offers brief descriptions of careers/lifestyles--Teacher, Banker, Wealthy Investor, Stone Mason, Tennis Pro, Nonprofit Executive--, and asks that you rank them 1-6 in terms of success. Shell, though a professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics, and Management at the Wharton School, brings his English literature background to bear on these description as he fleshes out these characters one by one. Each of the descriptions contains a complex mix of differing professional and private successes and failures.

It is your life story you are writing, after all.

I won't disclose which of the options is most often ranked #1, but Shell makes it clear that it doesn't really matter. (Though there is one that is chosen most commonly, and I too put that one at the head of my list.) Because no matter which life his students chose, he explains, "I often challenge them with a question: if the [xx] represents success to you, what steps might you take right now to move your life closer to that ideal?"

Then Shell puts this question to readers: "Think about the six profiles again and imagine you had one (and only one) child. Then imagine that you must pick one (and only one) of these lives for that only child to live out." This new perspective did change my choices, but not my #1 choice.

Shell concludes the first chapter with this reminder:

[Y]ou have begun the important process of clarifying and choosing the success values you want to embrace for the next stage of your life. It is your life story you are writing, after all. So you get to select the character traits and motivations for the person playing the central role.

The reason I chose this exercise to open this review is because it's a fine exemplar of the interesting take Shell gives to an oft-addressed subject, success. He himself struggled to discover what he was born to do, not deciding on a teaching career until his late-30s. And now he is a professor at Wharton teaching a popular course called The Literature of Success: Ethical and Historical Perspectives that "distills...hundreds of how-to books, philosophical works, biographies, and psychological research papers on success, extending from ancient to modern times." Shell tells his own story with great humility and insight, and the entire book is written in a voice that is both instructive and generous.

This book will help you do two things that are firmly within your grasp: clarify your goals and understand better how to make progress achieving them. Outliers explains how Bill Gates, the Beatles, and various Nobel Prize winners scored their remarkable achievements. This book has a different goal. I want to help you start where you are today, regardless of your current advantages or disadvantages. Then you can use this book as a springboard for launching your search to find a truly personal vision of success. From what my students tell me, this work can change your life.

Springboard is divided into two sections in order to answer these two questions: "What is Success?" and "How Will I Achieve It?" The first section concerns happiness, how to balance that pursuit with society's expectations, and how to zero in on work that will matter to you. The second half of the book emphasizes a lesson Shell himself learned as a young man, one that helped him take his first step forward toward his goal: "Discover What You Can Do Better Than Most." For him, that skill was to write and/or use words. I found myself as comforted and motivated now as Shell likely did then when mulling over those words. Sometimes success literature presents the unattainable under the guise of the achievable. This serves readers in the opposite way. It allows us to believe we can achieve success based purely on our own talents. Success takes work, Shell warns. Not nose to the grindstone kind of work, though there can be plenty of that, but internal efforts to understand ourselves. With this new self-awareness comes the time to get motivated, gain confidence, focus, and involve others. All chapters of their own within the book.

Consider how many of your success beliefs derive from unconscious assumptions you have absorbed from your family and culture.

Springboard is not a book that will help you make millions hand over fist--unless that's what you consider successful. Springboard is also not a book that will tell you to quit your day job and become and entrepreneur--unless that's what you consider successful. Shell doesn't define success as much as give readers the tools to define it accurately and authentically for themselves. But reading Springboard is the right place to start as you chart your own path to success.

"At this may be thinking "You and I can both be thankful that you do not have to turn in a paper [like the students who take my course], but you do have to decide how you will live your life going forward. That has been the point of all our work together. What, in the end, do you think success really is? And with that idea in mind, what specific steps can you take to achieve it? These are the big questions...."


Check in with us tomorrow as we continue our Thinker in Residence series on G. Richard Shell with his Q&A interview on Springboard.

We have updated our privacy policy. Click here to read our full policy.