G. Richard Shell: Success Includes Trial and Error

Wharton professor opines on how to craft achievement and choose a career.

G. Richard Shell
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What does it mean to be successful? And how does one achieve success?

Each year, G. Richard Shell asks his MBA students to write a final paper answering those two questions as a culmination to The Literature of Success course they're finishing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And every year since 2005 – when he first began teaching the course – his students have submitted their papers and asked, "Well, Professor Shell, where's your final paper?"

Those annual nudgings are part of what led Shell to write "Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success," which was published this year. "The book was essentially my final paper for the course, on what I think the most useful steps are for understanding the meaning of success for yourself, and also the steps most people take to achieve their vision," says Shell, a professor of legal studies and business ethics and management.

In the book, Shell relates his personal views on success and the winding journey he took to achieve his version of it. But he also offers insight for others hoping to craft their own definition. U.S. News spoke with Shell about how career ideals evolve with time and how the road to success should always include a few speed bumps and failures. His responses have been edited.

[See: 20 Work-Life Balance Hacks.]

What have you found to be the general notion of success when people first enter the work world? How is success redefined as people mature and become more established?

When I teach undergraduates, their big question is, "Will I get my first job?" My job is to get them to think for themselves what their own goals and career aspirations should be, and not just for them to do what their parents and their families suggested was the most important thing. For some of those young people, the more exotic ideas about success are usually derived from television, professional sports, celebrity culture. So I try to get them to wake up to their own unique talents and think about what success might mean for them.

MBA students usually have a career in mind, so for them it's about balancing a professional life with having a family, having significant relationships, pursuing hobbies and work-life balance. I also teach a group of students who are about 50 years old. For them, I talk about how they can mentor other people. I help them understand how their own unique visions of success may not be shared by everybody that works for them.

You have great insight about failure in your book. How do mistakes fit into finding and achieving success?

Failure is probably the most important thing to learn if you're going to be truly successful. If you're afraid to fail, you tend to do the same thing over and over. You're not going to take as many risks, and so you're not going to learn as much. Failure itself can be devastating. When a big failure comes, it often means you have to re-establish your sense of self-worth, establish your relationships again and remember that you're a competent person. When little failures come, that's where you learn. Just like when you were a kid and you tried to learn a new sport or new musical instrument, you have to be willing to flub it up to get better. That's true for public speaking, it's true for negotiations, it's true for any job skill. Trial and error is part of the process of success.

One other point I want to make is that the success industry is very keen on positive feelings of happiness, on positive thinking, and I'm a big fan of that. But negative emotions – fear, the sense that you haven't done your best work – these can be very important messages to help you learn that you need to change direction, to learn that you're not as good as you thought you were and you ought to take some time to get better. Being positive is good, but you have to be open to sometimes being dissatisfied, sometimes getting a little down. That teaches you things.

[Read: The 8 Most Common Job Search Mistakes of Recent Grads.]