Michael Shafique W’07 first crossed paths with Shell more than a decade after Adler did. But just like Adler, he leaned on his professor as he struggled with what he wanted to do upon leaving Penn.
“More than any other Wharton professor, I connected with him on a personal level,” says Shafique, who started on a pre-med track midway through his undergraduate years and is now a resident at Duke University Hospital. “He was a great influence and motivator for me. When I decided to pursue medicine, professors on both sides of the academic spectrum—finance and pre-med—would scratch their heads at my chosen path. Professor Shell, on the other hand, got it. His personal path in life, though different than mine, opened his eyes to exploration. I think that enabled him to understand my choices.”
For Shafique, the best part of Shell’s success course—which he calls “the single best class I took as an undergraduate”—was how much of the focus revolved not solely around career ambitions but around character building, family, and religion. One of the best essays Shell ever read, he says, was Shafique’s emotional account of running into an Amish family in Center City and how, despite being mentally drained from an eight-hour MCAT preparatory class, he was overcome with emotion as he listened to them break into some kind of hymn. Shafique wrote that it was his first true spiritual experience, and Shell says that reading it brought tears to his eyes. The two have remained close ever since.
“I honestly feel very lucky to have stumbled into that class back in the spring of ’06, some kind of higher power or something,” Shafique says. “I think in 20 years time, I will still be emailing him about more milestones in my life. What Professor Shell has taught me will last a lifetime.”
Shell recognizes that some of the lessons he conveys in his course and his book may be different than those of other professors and academic authors. But it’s not something he tries to hide. Years ago, during his travels, he was invited by a monk in Korea to live in a monastery and dedicate his life to the search for enlightenment. Shell gave the proposition some thought before ultimately declining and beginning his new quest for a better life at home. But he still meditates daily and has a collection of Buddhist statues lining the windowsill in his office. In fact, after a frustrating process to find a suitable title for his book, it was during one of his meditation sessions that he came up with the name Springboard.
“I’m part of a notable minority of professors within the Wharton school who are more humanists than statisticians,” he says.
Because of his multi-layered background—he also says that he’s “read and seen and listened to every play Shakespeare ever wrote”—Shell has always been a proponent of interdisciplinary learning at Penn. A few years ago, he set up a faculty seminar on success in honor of Penn founder Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday, enlisting the help of people from many different departments. One was a PhD student named Angela Duckworth Gr’06, who went on to teach at Penn and become a world-renowned psychologist [“Character’s Content,” May|June 2012].
“I’m really just deeply and genuinely grateful to him as a junior academic who benefited from his mentorship when he had no formal responsibility to do that,” Duckworth says. “And I have a feeling he must have done that for many other people, too.”
That panel turned out to be the precursor of Shell’s success course, of which Duckworth took the “virgin voyage” as a student. Immediately, she was struck by the breadth of material in the class—from the books of self-help guru Tony Robbins to ancient Greek philosophy—as well as the personal relationships that were built.
“He really cares about his students,” Duckworth says. “He takes a big interest in their particular lives. The success course is relatively small, and he develops relationships with students that are rare.”
With Springboard, Shell has taken his course beyond the walls of his classroom. And while publishing the book is part of his own personal success story—the latest twist in the unlikely path that has taken him from painting houses in DC and backpacking through Afghanistan to Penn’s campus—he hopes many others like him can carve out a life that makes them just as happy.
And maybe his book can help them along the way.
“My goal is for this book to find its audience,” Shell says. “In my dream world, there is a copy of this in many college bookstores, sitting in the window for the student who is wondering what he or she wants to do.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 is a frequent Gazette contributor.
Sidebar: Second Acts