Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

7 minute read

Dialed

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]