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Richard Shell on Hungry Ghosts and the Odyssey Years


Richard Shell is the Chair of the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at the Wharton School. He is also a consultant, an author, and a scholar. Based on his acclaimed Success course for Wharton MBAs, his book "Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success" examines hidden influences on what we view as success and how we can figure out what gives us meaning in our lives.

The Odyssey Years

You talk about this concept of Odyssey years in your book, that period between twenty and thirty, this defining decade. What does that period mean to you? What were you like during those years?

The term “the Odyssey years” I actually borrowed from David Brooks, who is a New York Times columnist. I don't want to take credit for thinking of something that I didn't think of, but it's very apt. Now, different people get married at different times, but these days people usually have a gap between college and marriage. There's a kind of opportunity or almost a default time when young people just quest a little bit. It may be that they're in a career that they got into out of college whether it's in New York or in Hollywood or working in a Starbucks, but whatever it is, they're really exploring in the way that Odysseus explored. And so somewhere in the subconscious or subroutines of your brain, there's this sort of testing sampling going on, saying, "Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?"

And some people are more overt about it. I think you see that with students who graduate and in their final year. They kind of go through an identity crisis because everybody looks like they have a job, and they don't, so then they start thinking, “Well, what's a job that you can have when you don't have a job?” Then, they end up at the Peace Corps or Teach for America or something like that, something that they know is not going to be their career, but it's still something that looks interesting. And so these are overt choices of embarking on your Odyssey years. But even if you're less overt, and you are in Deutsche Bank or someplace, I think it's often the case that underneath, you're really on a quest.

I talk to a lot of students after they graduate, two or three years out, and I often get phone calls or emails and there's somebody sitting in Central Park, at lunch from whatever consulting firm they're working at and they're in great despair that whatever they’re doing is not the answer. I usually congratulate them for having finally arrived at the present moment, and they were probably actually sitting on that park bench since sophomore year in college, but they didn't know it, and now they finally kind of caught up with their actual state of mind. I don't give advice. I just try to be encouraging and helpful and reassuring.

The most recent example I have of someone who actually did that - that is, called me from a park bench in Central Park - had just reached a point where she just couldn't bear working at this place that she was working. And I said, “Good. Your dissatisfaction can be your motivation to do something different. If you're never dissatisfied, then you don't have any reason to move.” She kind of took that into account, and the next thing I heard from her was about two months later. She had just found a job through a friend of a friend of a friend who knew a friend, and she was totally excited and really motivated, and now she was really in something that made her eyes light up.

So the Odyssey years concept is really the period of time when you're still single, you don't have children or your responsibilities, you're more of a self entrepreneur for yourself, and you have the freedom to kind of sample and drop and move and do different things that you might not have otherwise.

So what’s your story around those years? I think you became a pacifist very early in your life at a time when the war was going on. Could you talk about that a bit?

Sure. My story is a little unusual, because I was of a generation where the Vietnam War was very hot and salient and the protests around it broke out while I was in college. I had been in a military family and actually had a military scholarship in college. I had this huge identity crisis, culture crisis, a crisis of every kind, to try to come to terms with what I was going to be called to do as a military person in the face of what I came to understand as a very unjust war. Unlike people now, where it's really about optimizing and thinking about how you take where you are with an Ivy League degree and make something of yourself that's going to be meaningful, for me, it was more my life fell apart, and my family relationships fell apart, and I had to kind of pick myself up from being on the floor and just try to get back into motion again. It's a little different than the situation that people face now. Although, if you imagine that if there was a draft in the United States and all young people had to decide what to do about going into the military, which in some societies is still very much a part of their youth, and the war that they were calling you to aligned with something you objected to on principle, you'd face the same basic problem. I had it a little bit more because my family was a military family, but it sent me on an Odyssey, a very literal one, because for me it meant leaving the country and traveling and searching, and it took a couple years.

Did you know what you were looking for at that time?

I didn't know what I was looking for when I left, except that I knew I couldn't stay in the situation I was in. Basically, I'd gone through some unemployment and some period of semi-employment, and it was at that time that I finally decided to chuck it all. I was working in Washington DC for a consulting firm. It was a fundraising consulting firm that my degree in English qualified me to write for, and even though nominally we were working for good causes like the Harvard Society of Fellows or the Community Action Group, I still didn't find that I was getting satisfaction from it because I still had all these conflicts that were unresolved, and the only way I could figure them out was to try to resolve them. So I decided to just change the situation and change the environment. Even then, it took a while for me to figure out that I actually needed to be looking inside instead of outside. And once I figured that out, then it kind of didn't matter where I was, and I happened to be in India and Sri Lanka at the time, and I found meditation. It was a kind of instruction in how to focus on yourself inside and that turned out to be a very useful thing for me.

How tied to your career path do you think that search is? Do you think finding your career path is that search, or do you think it’s separate?

Well, I think wherever you go, there you are. And so I was at that period in my life looking for some sense of self, and I found it. Having found it, I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.

Somebody once said there are three important questions you have to answer at some point in your life:
Who are you?
What do you want to do?
And who are you going to do it with?

They don't necessarily get answered in that order. But for me, it was who am I? Second, it was who am I going to do it with? And the third was what am I going to do? And so I was sort of anchored - I was living at home in my parents' basement. I decided I needed to make a living, so I went to law school, but I still didn't think I wanted to be a lawyer. And then in law school, I got excited about the idea of teaching law, and so every step gave me new input, and I realized that the teaching profession was going to give me an opportunity to do a whole lot of different things I already knew how to do. I'd been an improvisational actor back in the day, I was really good with language, and I loved interacting with people on a smaller scale. I'm not like a motivational speaker type of person much, but I just recognized that that being a college teacher was a chance to combine a bunch of those things if I could only figure out how to be one. So then I took counsel on how to be a law professor and did things to do that, and I didn't actually understand that you could be a professor at the Wharton School and teach law. I didn't even know what the Wharton School was when I was recruiting for jobs, and I got a call from the Wharton School that has a legal studies department, which I'm chair of now, and they said they were in the market for law professors. I was interviewing at law schools, and I went, “Really? That's sort of weird,” and I went home and I said, “I just got a call today from this place called the Wharton School. Do you know anything about that?” And my wife said, “Yes, I know something about that. My brother went to the Wharton School, you're very lucky to get their call.” And so then when it came down to it, I got this job and some other choices, and then my wife said if I didn't take this job, I was the stupidest man in the world, and she was right as she is about most things, and so I've been here ever since.

On Exploring Religion

So you spoke a lot about religion in your book, and there’s this chapter when you go through the many different approaches from different faiths on happiness. There’s been an overall decline among the establishment of organized religion, especially among our age group, and I’m wondering if you’ve seen that affect the happiness of students during your time at Penn.

Wow. I was never much one for organized religion myself. So when I had the freedom to think about it, I realized that religion actually interested me a lot. But it was more the roots of religion than it was a religion. So during these travels, I began to study the Bible and the New Testament and Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism and the whole lot, so I became a student of religion and Buddhism, and it ended up appealing to me in a personal way. My sense of students is that they're no less spiritual than most other generations. They just aren't necessarily channeled into organized religions in a way that is a cultural default setting. I know quite a few Jewish students on campus, and they're very organized around their religion. They may or may not be spiritual. Religion provides people with a structure that's a community and a cultural understanding, and their identity is toward their Judaism, but it isn’t necessarily toward one theological school or another. I also know a fair number of students who aren't affiliated with any denomination, but who are introspective and thoughtful and try to investigate their spiritual life. And so I can't say I really have noticed a great deal of difference. I mean there might be a difference between the 19th century and now, but I doubt if there's a difference between 1980 and now.

I had a conversation recently where someone was saying that because religion is no longer the default setting in our society, it actually causes people to be a lot more deliberate because they don’t have to be a part of it, especially at our age, so if you’re in it, you’ve really given thought to it and you’re all in.

I've actually met students who are both very spiritual and very much into their organized religion, whether they're Mormons or whether they're Baptists or Catholics or whatever, and I envy them. I think if you're the type of person who gets sustenance from an organized religion, it takes care of a lot of things because it provides you with a kind of an organizing principle for how the world works and why we’re here, and it gives you a set of practices and rituals that anchor you and help you come back when you stray and help you manage grief if something terrible happens or gives you an explanation when it looks like there's just sort of hopelessness. To have all that already available and with a community that comes attached to it and stories that come attached to it, and it’s thousands of years old - that just seems very fortunate. It’s really hard for any one person to reinvent that with the same level of awe. So I've never been able myself to buy into an organized religion, but I really respect what religion does.

The Concept of Hungry Ghosts and Social Media

You also talk about how social media is mostly responsible for creating hungry ghosts in the world. Could you talk about this idea and whether you notice anything about how Instagram and social media and might be playing into affecting students on campus?

So the concept of a hungry ghost is a Buddhist idea; basically, a hungry ghost is a spiritual being in the afterlife who has a body the size of an elephant and a mouth the size of the head of a pin. So they spend all of eternity trying to feed themselves, and they're plagued and tortured by gnawing hunger because its mouth is so small it can never feed this giant body. You get reborn as a hungry ghost if you spent your life being avaricious, an attention seeker, being someone consumed with fame and fortune or attention and never being able to get enough. So you step on other people's lives, and you fail to show any compassion for anyone else because you're busy feeding yourself all the time. And your reward for that is you are going to be hungry for the rest of eternity.

I think people can be hungry ghosts for almost any appetite in the world that we're in. At Wharton, there some salient examples of alumni who have been exceedingly wealthy billionaires but who are now in jail. There's a couple every three or four years, and the most famous one in recent history is Raj Rajaratnam, who ran the galley and hedge fund, was a billionaire and worked with the global head of McKinsey, Rajat Gupta, to fix trades on the stock market and both were convicted of insider trading. Here you have one of the most powerful business executives in the world without a saleable status and another person who was a multi-billionaire with unassailable wealth, and they combined to try to cheat people out of a hundred million dollars by trading on inside information. They get caught and they go to jail. How can you explain that except as a hungry ghost situation?

Now in a student context, I think hungry ghosts are people who can't get enough attention, can't get enough social media followers, who are waking up every morning feeling insecure, and their cups are half empty. They need to keep filling them with reassurance and echoes of status from the cultural environment they're in, or their grades, or whatever it is they're keeping score on, and they're all extrinsically motivated. There's nothing intrinsic. It's all about, who do these people need me to be? How can I be more of that? It’s not, who do I need to be, and how can I find out more about who I am?

I think when a young person is a hungry ghost, there's hope because somebody who loves them may knock them over the head with their shoe and say, “Wake up, there's more to life than what you’re pursuing,” and they may actually wake up, and there's still a whole lifetime to try to answer some other questions. But when you see someone who's fifty or sixty still doing it, you sort of lose hope. I think social media is a problem. I don't partake of it at all. I don't have a Facebook page. I don't have a Twitter account. The whole thing mystifies me.

I think you can get addicted to seeing yourself through others’ eyes and then attempting to project an image that you think this audience will pay attention to. The more you do that, the more you separate who you are from the image you're creating.

Then eventually, you're in some sort of imposter syndrome where you're pretending to be somebody you're not, but you can't stop because all of your social relationships are premised on this image, and none of them are premised on the real deal, and then you're in a cycle.

What’s going to happen to a hungry ghost after they’re caught? Do they usually reform?

What happens? I don't know. Actually, Rajat Gupta got out of jail. I think Rajat Gupta's probably woken up. I think after five years in jail when you lose all your status, and your social network thinks you're poison - that will cause you to look in other places to find your self-esteem and your anchor. I wouldn't be surprised if he's living a more humble life and trying to do some good in the world, whatever that is. I can't tell for sure because I haven't Googled him lately, but I'm guessing that that happens. And that can happen to anybody at any time. You don't have to go to jail. You just have to have some corrective that knocks you off of the path and wakes you up to the illusions that are motivating your life.

Doing Deep Work

You discuss how millennials are known for wanting to have immediate gratification for a lot of things. Whether that’s a first job or whatever it might be, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on patterns for engaging in deep work when you don’t know what that deep work necessarily should be for you yet. You talk about exploring, and you have a chapter about developing capabilities and what’s unique to you, but when you don’t know what that is, like many students at Penn, how do you develop those capabilities and do deep work?

It's a good question. It's very hard. I think at the Odyssey level, there are sort of two different ways, and it depends on your personality. I think more open-minded people that are sort of creative and intellectually randomly curious, the kind of people who like to read all kinds of different things, tend to Odyssey the way I did, which is by sampling and sort of tasting and seeing what is appealing.

But I think if you're more of a conscientious type whose habit of practice in life is to go into something and then go into it in a big way and that's your way of sampling, I think there's another path, and that other path is to do things that you are capable of doing well, whatever they are. In my case, writing would have been one. But some people are gifted in math or athletics or whatever it is, and they become excellent relative to some peer group in some social context. So in this case, your goal is not to find yourself. Your goal is to find something you can do excellently well, and then practice it to a point where you're actually better than most at it. The surprising thing is, on a non-random probability basis, you'll learn to love it because you're good at it and because it brings you social recognition because you're pretty good, and then people come to ask you to consult with you about things because you're pretty good. Then, you get better at things because they've consulted with you and you've learned things.

So excellence can actually be a pathway to meaning in that practice, and that has nothing to do with meditation or introspection. It really has to do with a commitment to something that you do well when you're not sure if you like it or not.

And so then you still have to make choices. It isn't like you just randomly pick something. But if you're good at coding, then just get better at coding and keeping getting better at coding, and then in the other parts of your life, read stuff you like to read and go to plays or concerts or parties or whatever you enjoy doing, but just keep getting better at coding. At some level on that journey toward becoming better than most of the other people that do it, there's a turn where that level of excellence begins to generate a whole set of meaningful emotions and opportunities and interests and social networks. And so you kind of come out the other end with the work or meaningful work, but you didn't go in looking for it, you went in looking for excellence, and I think for some people, that's probably more likely way to do it.

For me, however, I'm a quester. I'm much more on the more nonconscientious side; all you have to do is look at all the different careers I tried and each of those little experiments. I didn't start work here as an assistant professor until I was thirty-seven, so when I came into this profession, I brought a whole lot of skills that contributed to my ability to be successful in this environment and also to be a little different. Most Wharton professors are not like me at all; most have been doing economics or finance or psychology since they were twenty-two. Most professors are specialists in domains and have found excellence through this ability to be better than most at it. I'm the oddball by virtue of my humanism; I'm much more like a liberal arts professor than a Wharton professor, but in Wharton, that makes me add value, whereas if I were in an English Department, I'd probably be pretty mediocre. I think I'm lucky in that respect. I found myself in a spot where I could contribute the most with the quirky mindset that I've got.

On Gratitude

Finally, I want to conclude by asking if there’s anyone in your life you have wronged and would like to apologize to or if there’s anyone who you are grateful for you would like to thank.

Well, I try to keep current in my accounts. So the people who I look back on and have the greatest gratitude toward, I’ve thanked and continue to thank. I'm very fortunate that the people who really picked me up when I was down are people who are still living. I had a high school teacher who was very influential in my writing, and I still see him, and I thank him a lot. He's getting on in years now, but you know, it's still a privilege to be able to have that relationship. I have a guy who's a godfather to my older son who's in ill health now, but I certainly am actually helping him and thanking him by helping his wife with their finances because he's got a health crisis, and she's not that sophisticated in financial matters, so I'm trying to help them manage his illness through giving some advice on that. And that's a way of showing gratitude.

There are all kinds of people that I could apologize to, and many of them are people whose names I don't even remember that I wasn't as generous to or didn't show gratitude to in sufficient ways that made a difference in my life at some point, but I'm pretty good with apologies in the sense of not really feeling too proud to apologize. But what I have recognized at my stage of life is that sometimes you wrong people and you're not aware of it, and so then you should apologize or you should have apologized, but you just didn't know that you could cause an injury. So I'm sort of constantly in mind of the fact that it's possible that I owe an apology to someone, and I wish I knew who it was.


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