Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

5 Profound Insights On Success From A Wharton Prof Devoted To Understanding It

When Wharton Business School professor Richard Shell was faced with a life-threatening illness, he was forced to think about the big picture. What was success to him? Since then, Shell has dedicated his life to helping folks find true meaning in their own lives and work.

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

—Henry David Thoreau

Last summer, Parade magazine and Yahoo! Finance jointly surveyed 26,000 Americans and discovered that nearly 60% of them fully regretted their career choices.

That’s an incredibly sad statistic, of course—especially when you consider that job satisfaction has become the most critical factor to a person’s sense of well-being and overall happiness with life.

So how is it that so many people have found themselves in careers that leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled? According to Wharton Business School professor Richard Shell, one likely reason is they didn’t ask the right questions at the start.

"I think that for a lot of these people," says Shell, "they hadn’t thoughtfully defined what success would look like in their own terms before pursuing work that aligned more closely with family, social or cultural expectations. They hadn’t thought at the beginning to look for a suit of clothes that would fit them."

Shell speaks from experience. In the early 1970s, immediately after earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton, he had no clear idea of the work he wanted to do—or to which he was ideally matched. He took jobs as a house painter, a social worker and a fundraiser, and found himself miserable in all of them. Lost and unsure of what to do next, he became a modern-day Odysseus traveling aimlessly around the globe. That is until he fatefully contracted hepatitis in Afghanistan.

It was the sudden and life-threatening illness that ultimately shifted Shell’s perspective, and influenced him to dive deeply into understanding his own motivations, interests, and talents. He learned the basics of Buddhist meditation and devoted himself to long stretches of contemplation and soul searching. From this pivot point in his late twenties, he enrolled in law school, went on to work as an attorney and, at the not-so-tender age of 37, began a university teaching career that has proved to be his life’s calling.

Over the 27-year span since he first became a professor, Shell never stopped thinking about the concept of success—and the process by which people best discover their own values and purpose. He read Aristotle, Plato, Charles Lindbergh, Dale Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin, and myriad others before finally distilling the collective wisdom into a university-wide seminar called, "The Literature Of Success." With clear intention, Shell designed the curriculum he "would have wanted to have taken when I was a senior in college" to ensure his students left school far better prepared to make the important life choices that lay ahead for them.

After teaching his course to students and faculty for more than a decade, Shell now has documented his lessons in his recently released book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search For Success.

Regardless of whether you are just about to finish college or are at the threshold of considering a career change, Springboard is written to help you discover what gives your life the greatest meaning—so you can set your own path and define success on your own terms.

Here’s what I found to be five of the author’s most profound and helpful insights:

1. You Must Decide What Success Means For You.

Shell is convinced that the career choices many of us make are greatly (and often unconsciously) influenced by family expectations and cultural beliefs. One reason so many people are unhappy and disengaged in their jobs today is because they took on work that fails to match with their skills, interests, and passions. Consequently, Shell insists we ask ourselves: "What makes my heart sing?" "What is success for me?"

"One of the great ironies in the study of success," Shell writes, "is that many people believe the secrets to achieving it lie ‘out there’ somewhere—in a far-off, hard-to-find place. The truth is much simpler: The answer lies within yourself."

Even when armed with sufficient self-knowledge, however, it’s all too easy for people to still take the safe career path—rather than one they find more deeply inspiring.

In hopes that we’ll all choose to be far braver and more daring with our choices, Shell invokes Steve Job’s poignant observation: "Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life . . . And, most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become."

2. We Discover Our Purpose By Trial And Error.

"Finding out what success means to you often involves trial and error," says Shell, "not just theoretical contemplation. It involves taking risks and experimentation. Success is not a static, one-done process; it’s dynamic."

To that end, Shell directs us to become observers of our own lives and to the unfolding of our experiences. "Your activities allow you to experience life—and from these you learn what works, what excites you and fulfills you," he says. "You also recognize when things feel empty, hollow, cynical ,or materialistic in a way that doesn’t satisfy you, and you learn to reject those things."

In my recent conversation with Shell, he emphasized that devoting focused time to this kind of reflection is essential to the process. "The amount of stimulation that’s available today via social media can easily distract people from having the kind of discernment that will help them discover what they might do in their lives."

3. Discover What You Do Better Than Most.

"Success starts with the things you do better than most," says Shell. "It usually resides in the unique combination of capabilities you bring to what you do. The future opens up when your past interests, experiences, and skills start resonating perfectly with an opportunity you find in the present."

Shell believes that it is human nature to assume our own unique talents are far more widely shared by other people than they actually are. When making an inventory of our abilities, therefore, we must resist the impulse to negate any of them and scratch them off our list.

Shell also suggests we solicit the observation of our peers, friends, and even bosses, as they each have a unique optic into our strengths, weaknesses, personality, and capabilities. "We learn a lot when we see ourselves reflected in the looking glass of other people’s perceptions," he says. "And gaining a greater and more accurate self-understanding is essential to finding the kind of work that will fulfill us."

4. There Are Two Sides To Success.

In evaluating the success we’re having in our lives, we tend to employ two different scorecards.

The first relates to the inner feelings of fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness that we derive from our families, relationships, and having meaningful work. The second, outer perspective ties directly to our desires for achievement, social recognition, and respect.

While some people measure their success primarily in terms of achievements—and others specifically in terms of inner satisfaction and fulfillment—most of us seek some kind of balance between the two.

After arguably spending more time pondering the concept of success than most people on the planet, Shell makes clear which side of the fulcrum he believes leads to the greatest happiness in life.

He tells the story of a lecture where he asked his students to share their ideas on what a happy life would look like. After several students contributed, an elderly man (obviously not a student), stood up and said, "Happiness is just three things: good health, meaningful work, and love."

From Shell’s perspective, this "wise angel" was basically correct. "Although earning a lot of money can be very good for your sense of pride and self-esteem, money has very little effect on the day-to-day joy you experience, and none whatsoever on the larger, more spiritual dimensions of happiness that many consider the most important in their lives."

5. Ask The Lottery Question.

Acknowledging that not everyone reading this holds a workplace leadership position, Shell’s final insight, nevertheless, is fascinating and useful to us all.

He advises managers to ask this one important question every time they interview candidates for a job on their team:

"Imagine you’ve won the lottery, and money no longer is a primary motivator. Your family is now taken care of, and you’ve earned a certain amount of notoriety by having the winning ticket. What would you do next in your life?"

Shell believes that the candidate’s answer to this one question provides direct access into their hearts. "If they want to be of service to something, that tells you the kind of work they find very meaningful. If they want to teach, this tells you what people find fulfilling right now."

Having "meaningful work," philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, makes all [people] happy in their soul, in spite of all outward troubles and difficulties." So, before you ask the lottery question in a job interview, you might first ask it of yourself.

[Image: Flickr user Prince Lang]

Add New Comment


  • Marcy Rosenbaum

    For two years, I've been interviewing people who find themselves rethinking their professional identities, and taking back ownership of their career paths from corporate HR departments. I invite you to check them out and would welcome your thoughts.

  • Rick Marro

    1- I would Bust the Teachers Union and Ebolish the Department of Education + treat them WELL
    2- I would Repeal the Affordable Care Act and Grant EVERYONE HEALTH CARE not mandates
    3- I would Create the Comity of 100 , revolving BILLIONAIRES doing community service
    4- I would Hold the biggest Bon Fire EVER at the IRS, cause it would be gone
    5- I would Follow the IRS fiasco with a Marshmallow Roast at the Federal Reserve
    6- I would Tax EVERYONE EQUALLY from $2  - $2,000,000 
    7- I would Put 50% of income above $2m into the Comity of 100 for Public Advancement 
    8- I would bring the troops HOME and retrain them for the 21st century Living not Killing
    9- WASHINGTON ------ I will empty it in a decade , and True Americans will go there to SERVE not to GET RICH OFF OF STEALING PEOPLE RIGHTS AND SELLING THEM TO CORPORATIONS ! !

    and that is just the beginning, anyone want to buy me some lottery tickets ??

  • Cedricj

    One of the most useful tools I have found in determining work/life satisfaction is the Signature Strengths Test by Prof Marty Seligman. When we are expressing our top signature strengths in life the experience of satisfaction/success greatly increases.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • tgsf

    I have often asked the "Lottery Question", and even though my answers are usually a little vague and malleable, the underscoring theme I've always seen is (*cringes for the ensuing namecalling*): not much. I like being alone, doing things alone, and exploring and discovering things for myself. I've turned down opportunities to go into professional art, pop music (performance and production), retail management, commercial photography, and even now am faced with the dilemma of whether to become a SCUBA instructor (I'm currently an Asst Instr, also working fulltime as a brokerage supervisor).
    I do all of these things rather well, hence the opportunities, but I don't WANT to do any of them whole-hog.
    Nowadays, this might be seen as "broadly skilled" and "creative talent", but while I was growing up was simply called "lazy, unfocused and undisciplined" - and that's certainly how I feel. If I didn't have to work, I simply wouldn't.

  • Cossard

    The economy just doesn't have enough nice jobs for everyone to follow their dreams. Some people are going to have to be pizza delivery guys, even though it sucks. No amount of self-help motivational thinking is going to change this. Most people are going to have jobs they don't enjoy. THAT'S WHY YOU GET PAID FOR DOING THEM.

  • Katie Lewis

    Great post. I'd like to add that defining success will also determine how you will compete in your career. If you have an end goal in mind, you’re able to make decisions that align or lead to success for you. Now for how to define success, I came across a great article on how to do that. Pretty interesting stuff -

  • TriBeCa

    Thank you Mark for this
    it's extremely valuable and indeed profound.
    I can't express enough about how true and relative Dr. Shell's above 5 point statements are to my life and relative success.
    I am in complete content with his uncovering.

  • Doitupdynamite

    Great information to know! Also good to know:
    Mark's information in the article for Twitter and Website are incorrect. It should be directed to
    @MarkCCrowley" and his website ""...I only commented on this because I wanted to follow him, and found the error.

  • Stephen Sweid

    I feel the five points are essential for success, but not sufficient. There are many other factors involved. Success is a combination of many things, and this is what makes it more difficult. 

  • Mark C Crowley

    In response to all these comments I'll add some additional perspective.  

    The typical college student readying for graduation is in their early 20's (late 20's for MBAs). Even today, few of them have yet to marry or have children.  Even though students leave college with greater debt today, just like their parents, they're still very limited in the kind of self-awareness it takes to make fully informed choices about how best to spend the next 30 years of their lives.  

    Swiss author and work expert, Alain de Botton, suggests that way too many people ignore the seriousness of choosing one's work and, as the statistics bare out, inevitably find themselves in positions that have little or no connection to their own aspirations and purpose.  "I studied the world of career counseling and was amazed by just how casually people fall into jobs. Most of us are still in jobs chosen by our 22-year-selves.  We speak endlessly about waste: waste of energy, resources, of water.  But the most shameful waste is of people's talents."

    What Richard Shell is doing for his students (and for anyone who reads his book) is to provide them with tools and diagnostics that can help them make more informed career choices when it matters most.

    I believe we all should be compassionate toward all the people who now regret the paths they followed and, because of tenure, income, etc. now see no way of turning back. At the same time, the first person I had read my article (and now Shell's book) is my son -- who I had while I was still an undergraduate.  I want him to make the most informed decisions about how he pursues a livelihood and success. Shell's insights will most certainly help!

  • DrPFairlie

    I conduct academic research on meaningful work, and I can say that he's reproduced some key things that we tend to study. When followed, some of these things do predict very positive outcomes for people. The challenge, as other people have pointed out, is available opportunity. The other side of meaningful work, as well, as whether you can 'find' meaning in the work that you are presently doing. Meaning can be inherent in things that are 'out there' (i.e., there are work characteristics that are deemed meaningful by most people), as well as perceived (e.g., Viktor Frankl's work on finding meaning in suffering).

  • Guest

    Whilst I agree on the points in general, I think this oversimplifies things way too much. The main reason some people cannot "follow their dreams" is because they have others that depend on them. Not everyone can be a Steve Jobs, in fact, for every Steve Jobs, I'm sure there are tens of thousands of those that have tried to follow their dreams and ended up in ruins, not just for themselves, but also with catastrophic results for their families.

    This is a very uninformed observation, but just noting how Prof. Shell had the option to take up a number of different jobs upon graduation, and when he didn't feel fulfilled, he had the option to just go around and travel the world, well, then he probably was in a position of privilege, or at the very least, the people who funded his undergrad studies were not relying on him to start helping the rest of the family with proceeds from a proper job. Nice position to be in, but not all of us are in such a position.

    In fact, suggestions like these can have serious ramifications if taken up by someone whom has his/her family depending on them to help them get a better life, but these persons choose to risk everything in pursuit of their dream. The big question is, at what cost do you pursue your dream, when others livelihoods are at stake.

  • Digitalvirtue11

    ...I think the piece needs to be taken in context. A lot of hard work has to buttress and accompany so~called pursuable dreams. That's the catch, I think ;)

  • zschmiez

    Well, Shell states that he devised a curriculum for a senior in college, so if one entered college knowing they had children/family members to care for upon graduation, the focus should switch to how do I do BOTH A and B.  

    In terms of financial security, he also went to school in the 60's/70's.  It was WAAAAY cheaper back then.  And he did work jobs.  Possibly saved money for these trips?

    The question you pose at the end "...when other's livelihoods are at stake?..."  Then maybe the Shell's points should be raised at an earlier age.  Before kids are in the formula ("are you ready for kids?").  I realize accidents happen, family gets sick, etc.  But your counter-point is that if you have others to help, you cannot be happy.  And thats far from true.  

    And I dont think Shell EVER notes that it will be easy.  In fact, most successful people will talk a blue streak on how HARD it is to succeed.  Those hardships come in all forms (outside pressure, family, financial, experience, etc).  But it has never been easy.  

    Except pop music.  

  • Rajendradheer1941

    Two square meals and a roof over the head are major contributors to happiness and everyone is not privileged to have these. Good to have dreams and passions etc. But, the basic necessities have to be satisfied before you you go too far i search of a mirage --- the dream that like to pursue with passion. Vast majority of people fall in this category and for them Princeton will remain a dream unfulfilled especially today. Mother nature has not made everyone brainy to get a grant or a scholarship and the loans are expensive and must be paid. 

    My opinion: Strike a balance in these areas, take a good advice and then decide what will work for you. The practiced hard work with discipline can generate passion after all work is worship in the long run.

  • Robert Brands

    Nice perspective. And although I agree with most, I believe that following your passion will give you a greater likelihood to succeed. 
    But what I found even more challenging is when you achieve Inner (and maybe also Outer) success, it is the challenge to figure out what is next...once success is achieved, one needs another goal to keep the energy, focus...and drive alive to succeed again.

  • Guest

    You're all wrong. It's the old Steven Covey story of looking at the road map over and over again, and being told to simply try harder, then finding out you're looking at the wrong road map. The problem is NOT that people are winding up in the wrong careers because they are not thinking about it. The problem is that there is a truly a shrinking ability to find careers to choose from that we Human Beings can attain satisfaction from. Let me put it this way. We humans were not intended to be at the kind of jobs that are increasingly the only ones available over the past 50 years. Another way of saying it is that the types of jobs available are increasingly INHUMAN, or, are toxic to human beings. I am sad for my children and the generations to come. We see commercials on TV showing these happy young people "communicating" via all of this technology. The truth is, watch young people after a session on their computers and phones, at work or home. They are ADHD zombies. Ever wonder why the top rated movies are about Zombies and Vampires? Use your brains and it will strike you like a lightening bolt. They are metaphors for what our young folk are experiencing inside. It's terrifically sad, and we are being marketed to that it's a marvelous, wonderful thing, all this technology. Like in the Matrix, we marvel in our own magnificence..