While the introduction to Springboard focuses on Shell’s life, the rest of the book is designed to be about the reader. With exercises and questions sprinkled throughout the pages, Shell’s main objective in the first section is to help readers determine what success and happiness means to them on a personal level. And in the second section, his goal is to assist them in figuring out what their capabilities are and how they can use them to achieve their own version of success.
From the outset, Shell knew he was stepping on tricky terrain because there are many similar books in the self-help genre. A lot of them, though, are “dreadful” reads that are “full of cliché and self-indulgent memoir and motivational speaking,” he says. And they almost always go down two distinct trails. One is a do-what-I-did book written by someone who reaches the pinnacle of his or her profession (often in sports). And the other is a vague single-concept visualization of how to follow your dreams and be successful.
As a teacher—and not a preacher, he says—Shell tried to change the narrative.
“I think what differentiates my book is it’s actually designed, because of the way I designed my course, to help someone who reads it think about themselves and integrate these questions into their own experience and come up with their own theory about what steps they need to take to achieve the goals they believe in,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of success books are that open. I think they all preach.”
One of the most well-known books about success published in recent years is Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller, which suggests that luck plays a big role in why some people are more successful than others. But that theory runs counter to the view—rife in the world of self-help and espoused by some psychologists—that success is not a matter of circumstance but about having the right psychological disposition. Shell can see both sides of the debate.
“Part of what I’m trying to do in this book is bring us back to the middle,” he says. “It’s not bootstrapping. It’s not rags to riches. It’s not, ‘You can overcome any hardship and succeed.’ It’s not as simple as that. But I don’t think it’s as deterministic as there’s no free will.”
Shell certainly believes in free will, which is made apparent when he puts his readers through “The Six Lives Exercise” early in the book. In the exercise, he describes the career accomplishments of six different people before detailing their personal lives. Nobody on the list makes a lot of money and has a perfect life at home, so how you rank the lives should give you a good idea of how you’d like to ideally balance career success with family success.
The “Six Lives Exercise,” he argues, offers a chance to “choose your life.” From there, instead of preaching about how to get the life you want, he shares stories of how other people reached their goals—from famous people like aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and tennis great Andre Agassi to some of his own students. It’s a blend of storytelling that has always defined his style as an author and a teacher.
“All of the books I’ve written have been very story-driven,” Shells says. “That comes from having learned as a teacher that a class wakes up when you tell a story. People love narratives.”
One of the most telling stories Shell relates is about a Penn alumnus named Eric Adler WG’96.
When Shell first asked his former student if he was willing to be featured in a book, Adler was surprised. “Before that moment,” Adler says, “I had no idea I’d play a role in anybody’s book.” But he was also flattered by the idea and figured it was the least he could do for a professor who had meant so much to him.
“Everybody has a few teachers in life that really have a huge impact on them,” Adler says. “And Richard Shell was one of those people for me.”
When Adler attended Wharton’s MBA program in the mid-90s, Shell had not yet developed his success course. Instead, Adler got to know him by taking his legal studies and negotiation classes—“I tell people all the time that I took negotiation from the best negotiation professor in the world,” he says—and through the personal conversations they had.
Adler had been a teacher for eight years before coming to Wharton, and had confided to Shell that he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduating. Very sympathetic to that kind of mental grappling, Shell tried to offer assistance, suggesting that he could perhaps combine his business degree with his knowledge of education. But a short time later, Adler excitedly told him that he had decided he wanted to become a consultant. “Inwardly, I had my doubts,” Shell writes. “Outwardly, I congratulated him and wished him luck.”
Shell’s trepidation was not without reason. Adler landed a consulting job shortly after graduating—but stayed for less than a year. “I literally said to myself on the first day, ‘Uh-oh,’” Adler recalls. “I very quickly came to realize that I had an entrepreneurial bug. Being a management consultant is not entrepreneurial. You give advice and you leave.”
Nevertheless, Adler calls his year as a consultant his “favorite mistake”—not only because he learned what he didn’t want to do with his life but also because during that time he met his future business partner, Rajiv Vinnakota. In 1997, they launched an ambitious non-profit called The SEED Foundation, which aimed to provide boarding-school educational opportunities to disadvantaged students. Their unique model proved to be highly successful and has since been featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes and in the documentary film Waiting for “Superman.” And Adler, who always cared deeply about education, had found what Shell refers to in his book as “meaningful work—a sweet spot of success that appealed to his entrepreneurial motivations, made good use of everything he knew, and advanced a goal he believed in.”
Shell goes on to feature other Penn students, but Adler’s story is probably the best example of forging your own unique path to success. Later in the book, Shell suggests five steps to achieving success, all of which Adler seemed to follow during his brief career hiccup and ensuing non-profit startup:
- Discover what you do better than most by taking inventory of your unique capabilities;
- “Set yourself on fire” by combining your satisfaction-based and reward-based motivations;
- Earn self-confidence through trial and error; learn to fail;
- Focus the four powers of your mind—passion, imagination, intuition, and reason—on goals that inspire you;
- Influence others by establishing credibility and engaging them in genuine dialogue.
“If you ask me, ‘Who do you think is successful?’” Shell says of Adler, “I would point to people like him.”