What’s in Store for You?

Beware becoming a "hungry ghost," as depicted in this fifth section of the "Hungry Ghosts Scroll," located at the Kyoto National Museum.

Beware becoming a “hungry ghost,” as depicted in this fifth section of the “Hungry Ghosts Scroll,” located at the Kyoto National Museum.

How do you define success for yourself? How will you achieve it? Answer these two questions, and you may know what should be “next” for your life—how you can achieve success and happiness.

“This topic, what’s next, is a really difficult one for people to engage,” said G. Richard Shell, Wharton’s Thomas Gerrity Professor and chairperson of its Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.

Yes, Wharton is still a quant-driven school, but Shell is helping to ensure that its elite education also includes opportunities for introspection and dialogue about the touchy-feely and existential issues too. That education extends to alumni through Wharton Lifelong Learning—in this case, via a webinar that Shell delivered Feb. 18.

During the online session, Shell made the case that “success” possesses two dimensions: achievement (external) and happiness (internal). Traps abound for both.

The challenge with determining achievement is that it can be highly subjective and relational. People are prone to compare when assessing their own value, such as when they:

• buy into “ladder” or “pie-eating contest” analogies for careers, only to realize that the prize for winning the pie-eating contest is more pies and another contest.

Prof. G.  Richard Shell

Prof. G. Richard Shell

• base achievement on material benchmarks, which can lead to the “hungry ghost problem”—described by Shell as being based on the insatiable Buddhist mythological creature with the body of an elephant and the head the size of a pin. Such thinking can create billionaires who aren’t happy until they’re trillionaires, but it can also crush a spirit.

• lose hope when swimming in too big a pond with too many other high flyers.

• reach an “OK plateau” with their lives and never reach full potential out of fear of losing that modicum of achievement and comfort.

Happiness is even more elusive to define, and perhaps achieve.

“Happiness as a mood state is not all that it’s cracked up to be,” Shell told the webinar audience.

People might try to measure it by counting their number of “good” moods in a day. Moments of deep happiness, on the other hand, may seem rare—the fleeting “gifts of grace” that come naturally when children are born, startups get sold and we otherwise know we are doing exactly what we should be doing at a given moment.

So some may dip into chemical substances or engage in physical activities to generate moments of deep happiness

“Living the right way tends to bring more of this [bliss], but it’s not clear exactly how you can engineer them,” Shell said.

Great. Happiness seems unpredictable, achievement like a house of mirrors. Now what, professor? Shell had a suggestion—one in fact he learned from an anonymous student who spoke during a past class (Shell teaches his “Success” course to full-time and Exec Ed students). That student claimed that true happiness possesses three parts:

• Good health

• Love

• Meaningful work

For the latter, Shell added this definition: Work that you get rewarded for, that excites you emotionally, and that uses your talents and strengths.

Simple enough, right? Perhaps the No. 1 takeaway about success ought to be: positivity. Yes.

Editor’s note: Watch Shell’s “Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success” by following this link to the Wharton Webinar series sign-in page. The webinar, part of Lifelong Learning, is exclusive to Wharton alumni, students and staff.

For others—and for anyone who wants greater detail—please read Shell’s 2013 book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success.

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