Before he was an award-winning Wharton professor, Richard Shell was a lost young man. He had defied his father, a U.S. Marine Corps General, by deciding that a life in the military wasn’t for him. It was the Vietnam era and Shell turned in his draft card to become a pacifist. But now he was lost. His life was no longer narrated for him. After a few years wandering from job-to-job, he set out to travel the world with his life savings of $3,000. Traveling from monastery to hostel, in country after country, reading philosophy, doing drugs, and trying to “find himself,” he succeeded only in finding rock bottom. Not everyone can clearly identify the exact moment they hit the bottom, but professor Shell can. It was the day he contracted hepatitis and passed out on the side of a road in Kabul. He says, “Something shifted in my life. I had pushed myself to my psychological and physical limits and had ended up alone, filthy, sick, and no closer to finding my direction than I was a year earlier” (p. 5).
It would take Shell many years to finally find his true productive purpose: teaching. As a senior faculty member at Wharton School of Business, he created the popular course “The Literature of Success: Ethical and Historical Perspectives.” His book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, is a wonderful condensation of this course. It takes the reader through thousands of years of “success literature” (as he identifies the genre) from Plato and Aristotle down to Covey and Gladwell.
Springboard is broken into two parts, both designed to be a guide for the reader. The goal is to answer for oneself two big questions: What is success? How will I achieve it?
In his first four chapters, Shell explains how we come to think about the concept of success. Often, we are more influenced by our culture, our parents, our peers and teachers, than we realize. For example parents who begin conversations with their children by saying “when you get a PhD” or “when you become a doctor” are unwittingly putting pressure on their children to regard achievement in that field as the standard of success. This pressure is applied at a time when a child is struggling to discover his own personal interests.
To help readers assess their own view of success, Shell created what he calls the “Six Lives Exercise” (You can take the exercise at www.GRichardShell.com). The exercise briefly describes the lives of six individuals, each considered to be successful in different respects. For example, one life features a man whose profession is stone mason. He makes enough money to live well, but he has had some money problems in his life. On the positive side, he loves his work. As the mason, which is based on a real person says, “Every piece of stone you pick up is different…In my work, I can see what I did the first day I started and watch it grow. And I go back years later and it is still there to see. It’s a good day laying brick or stone.” The exercise asks you to rank these six individuals in terms of how you view their success; the goal is to help you clarify your own priorities in life. Interestingly, Professor Shell notes how his audience almost always chooses Stone Mason as the most successful life, even over “Wealthy Investor” or “Banker.” This makes sense, because his audience consists of Wall Street executives, doctors, pharmaceutical researchers, business students and government officials. He surmises that “these people lead lives considerably more complicated than the Stone Mason’s. The gap between the Stone Mason’s life and the lives they are actually living is striking.” Thus, he asks them the question: “What steps might you take right now to move your life closer to that ideal?”
Among other things, this exercise reveals the very real trade-offs in all successful lives. For example, a “Teacher” in one life finds meaning in her work, but she has lost touch with one of her children. “The Wealthy Investor” goes on exciting trips, but is unmarried.
Chapters five through nine provide dozens of anecdotes and case studies from psychology, biography, and philosophy. This section is aimed at providing numerous concretes to help the reader answer the question “How Will I Achieve [Success]?”
The motif throughout Springboard is that the critical element missing in most self-help books is you—a consideration of your particular characteristics and values. Shell rejects the dichotomy of either “follow your passion” or “follow the money” when picking a career. Instead, he suggests searching for your unique combination of skills, aptitudes, and passions. And then you should consider what activities others will reward you for doing. Shell calls this melding of personal traits and career opportunities the “sweet spot,” and finding it is the critical moment in every success story Shell has ever encountered.
One story he tells is of the first television celebrity chef, Julia Child. She originally wanted to be a famous novelist, but after moving to New York she discovered that the only work she could get was copywriting. WWII began and Child decided to work toward the cause of winning the war. She got a job in Washington, DC, compiling large amounts of written data on classified communications from Asia. After the war she lived in France and fell in love with French cuisine. With her unique combination of strong writing skills and love of cooking she wrote, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This led to a brief appearance on a public television show, where she demonstrated how to cook an omelet. When she accidentally dropped an ingredient on the floor, she said to the audience, “Remember you are alone in the kitchen, so who is going to see you?” (p. 119). The audience fell in love.
Every step of the way Child utilized the skills she had previously gained to launch herself into the next phase of her career. Writing her cookbook
combined virtually all of the skills she had learned up to that time, including her writing ability, her ability to organize large amounts of written data, and her newfound passion for French Cooking. The resulting work, the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking . . . went on to become one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time. (p. 118)
By pursuing a new venue, television, Child discovered a new skill and passion—she loved “hamming it up” with the audience. “Her signature style involved pratfalls, whoops, shrieks, and picking up ingredients she had dropped onto the floor” (p. 119).
Success, Shell points out,
usually resides in the unique combination of capabilities you bring to what you do. Tens of millions of people are passionate about cooking. An equal number are interested in and talented at writing. But how many cooks also write exceptionally well? Relatively few. And how many of those take the time to actually write a book about cooking? Fewer still. (p 119)
Discovering your view of success, honing it, and then attaining it is an arduous task. Shell didn’t find success until he was thirty-seven. Taking the time to assess what success means to you is critical to leading a happy flourishing life. As Shell writes (p. 10), “You do not have ‘one true purpose’ for your life that it is your duty to find or die trying. The raw materials for success are tucked away inside you and your next big goal is probably within arm’s reach—if only you have the clarity of mind to see it.”