The Merits of an ‘Unplanned’ Life

One might assume that Thomas S. Robertson ascended to his current role—Dean of the Wharton School—by design, that he achieved the top leadership position at one of the world’s foremost business schools by drawing up and then sticking to a plan formulated years ago, back when he was a young professor at Harvard Business School.

But that’s not the case at all.

Dean Thomas S. Robertson encouraged students to live a “holistic” life. (Credit: Kendall Whitehouse)

In fact, as Robertson explained to an audience of Wharton undergraduates last week, much of his career has unfolded by happenstance—a stroke of luck here, a phone call there, and of course, some hard work along the way.

“In so many ways my life has been unplanned,” Robertson said. “I never had the ambition of being a dean. I never had the ambition to go into marketing or these various other things, but this [lack of planning] has turned out to be of tremendous advantage.”

Robertson extolled the virtues of the “unplanned” life during his January 19 Legacy Lecture, a new series organized by undergraduates in which faculty members will be asked to define their legacies. Robertson served as the series’ inaugural speaker, and over the course of an hour spoke less about the realities of the marketplace than what he’s learned about life—and how best to live it—over the course of his long and accomplished career.

Robertson opened his talk by encouraging students to “take advantage of what’s unplanned.” While he said he understands that, as Wharton students, they may feel compelled—or, indeed, obligated—to pursue careers in consulting or financial services, he also said they should be prepared to accept that such paths may not actually be for them. A Wharton degree, he said, is applicable across almost any sector.

And besides, it is not at all unlikely that, after giving financial services a try, some students may discover they simply don’t enjoy the work.

“I would suggest that half of you will end up working in industries that don’t yet exist,” he said. “You have to be ready to divert and move in new directions.”

Robertson also implored students not to make their careers the entirety of their lives. In his various stops—over the years, he has taught and served in leadership positions at Harvard, the London Business School and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, and has also served as a consultant for corporations—Robertson said he has seen countless people make that mistake, and while there are certainly financial rewards to such a singular focus, a life that is all about work is ultimately not much of a life at all.

Life, Robertson said, should be approached “holistically;” sometimes, he said, you simply have to leave work early to see your child’s baseball game.

“There are people I’ve admired … who have had a more complete sense of what life is all about,” he said. “They had a good sense of humor. They were happy when their kids would beat them at basketball. They had an appreciation for the arts.”

Finally, Robertson encouraged his audience to always remember to make the effort to understand the perspective of the other. Few things are more unattractive in a person, the Dean said, than a completely selfish outlook, or an entirely inward focus.

To be a true leader—and to be a complete person—one must be able to view the world through the eyes of those around them, whether they be friends, family, coworkers or employees.

Said Robertson: “You have to be able to take the perspective of the other—especially if you want to be a leader.”

For images from the event, visit Wharton’s Flickr page.

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