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's your students' response to "Springboard," and how has it affected them?

Some people actually haven't thought about success at all, so the first half of the book really challenges them to understand that they may have been pursuing the wrong goal. I'll give you an example: Just last week, I wrote two letters of recommendation for Wharton students. One of them was for a young lady who has been out of school for two years and is now reapplying to nursing school. Not only is it a sharp change, but she's going back to undergraduate studies. That's the kind of change people make when they read a book like this and think about it carefully. She had a great degree, wrong career. So now she's going to restart, and someday I predict she'll be the head of a hospital someplace, because she'll eventually combine the Wharton degree with her nursing experience and become a wonderful administrator in health care. So that's what can happen when people re-engage with fundamental questions about who they are and what they ought to do. I also wrote a recommendation for someone who has been out of school a couple of years, and he's actually applying to go to school in England to study international relations and become a diplomat.

[Read: 6 Tips for Making a Successful Career Change.]

After someone has formed their personal definition of success, what are their next steps to choose a career? Could you relate it to your personal experience?

Once you've begun defining the theory of success that's meaningful for you, and you've gotten over being the most famous person, the richest person and you get on with what your life is really going to be about, then the process is one of looking inside. See what you're competitively good at, the combination of things you do well and then look to see what types of activities, careers and volunteer work call on you to do those things so that you can get experience.

In my case, I spent a couple of years traveling the world thinking about these fundamental questions. I came back to the United States and started thinking: I'm better at words than I am at math, so what kinds of professions require you to use words? I went to law school and realized I didn't like law that much, but I did still love words. One day I was sitting in a classroom with 150 students, and there was a wonderful teacher in the front of the room who had every single one of us sitting on the edge of our seat, waiting to answer his questions. All of a sudden, I had this moment of self-awareness, and I realized that I didn't want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a teacher. I spent the next five years trying to figure out how to use what I knew to find a professional career in teaching, and that's where I am now. I've been teaching at Wharton for 27 years and loving every day of it.