Have you ever stopped to think about what you really want your life to be like?
Dr. Richard Shell, an award-winning scholar, teacher, and author at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has found that most people don’t. Luckily, he can help you get started.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Richard Shell share advice on:
- Defining success for yourself
- How to navigate the Odyssey years when you’re 18 to 32
- The benefits of having a 5-year life plan
- How to set personal goals for 2020 and make a plan for your life
- Attainable New Year’s Resolutions
- How many New Year’s Resolutions you should make
Want to hear more from Dr. Richard Shell?
Coursera: [00:00:00] From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today I’m speaking with Dr. Richard Shell, an award-winning scholar, teacher, and author at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Since Dr. Shell teaches a course on Success, we’re hearing from him on why it’s so important to define success for you personally, how you can create meaningful life goals and if New Year’s is really the right time to make a change in your life.
Let’s go ahead and get started.
I’d love to hear how your idea of success changed from when you were, say, 18 to what it looks like today.
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:00:38] Oh, wow. I think my story is pretty unusual. When I was 18, I was a Navy ROTC freshman in college, assuming I was going to go into a Naval career from a family that had a military tradition in three generations. And then by the time I graduated from college, I was a pacifist and protesting and resisting the Vietnam War and becoming a Quaker. So just in those four years, I think I just, you know, turned upside down.
But the amount of learning and growing and changing of ideas
that people you know, undergo roughly between 18 and 32 is pretty dramatic.
So, the phrase that I use to kind of characterize those
years is the Odyssey years. So, people between college and marriage, I think,
for most, but even after marriage for some really go on Odyssey.
They try to discover who they are and what they want to do and experiment, and, you know, do things that are not likely to be the final thing that they settle on. But they are parts of what they’ll settle on.
So I think as, as you get older success at one stage your life may simply be learning or trial and error, trying to see who you are and then success a little further down the road is excellence at some activity that you’ve narrowed yourself to.
Coursera: [00:02:04] Do you have any tips for someone who’s in that Odyssey stage of 18 to 32 trying to figure out what they want in life?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:02:13] A lot of very bright people these days are rewarded for having answers to questions, uh, through college as a kind of an achievement, performance thing.
And so not knowing the answer makes them quite anxious. I
think it’s a really good idea for people to embrace uncertainty as a state.
And then think of the goal instead of being, find the answer
tomorrow. Think of the goal more like, how do I learn to swim? You know, how do
I travel when I go to a new country?
It’s much more exploratory. And maybe some days are good.
Some days are bad because you didn’t know what you were going to do, but you
learn something every day about what you like and about what excites you.
If you just had goals that are more on the nature of
learning goals as opposed to outcome goals, those can be more useful, I think
at this stage of life.
Coursera: [00:03:05] I’m really curious to hear what your thoughts are on having, you know, a five-year life plan. Do you think that’s a useful practice or exercise?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:03:15] Well, I think it can be for some people. Some people are obsessive goal-setters already. But other people who are a little less focused really get a lot out of the exercise of envisioning a short-term, intermediate, long-term goal.
There’s a wonderful book called “Designing Your
Life.” It’s by a couple of Stanford professors in the design school. And
the way they do it, which I think is really good, is that sort of design way of
You sketch out Plan A, but then you also sketch out while
suppose Plan A doesn’t work, then what’s Plan B? And then suppose Plan B,
doesn’t work, and then what’s Plan C?
And I think that’s the kind of thinking that gets you outside of your box and starts getting you to start thinking about goals that are more likely to be encountering uncertainty and surprises and you know, frustrations and obstacles. And that’s what life’s like.
So, it’s not about setting goals because you’re going to
achieve them. It’s about setting goals because that’s your imagination and it
helps you to think and observe and process reality for opportunities.
Coursera: [00:04:21] Do you find that most people have that idea of what they want their life to look like?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:04:27] Uh, no. I think many people who are in their younger years have goals that actually they haven’t formulated themselves. They’ve absorbed them from expectations of people.
Coursera: [00:04:40] So how do you get to that place where you stop absorbing goals and shift to focus on what success and happiness looks like for yourself? How do you start that process?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:04:53] First of all, I think being slightly dissatisfied with the array of goals that you’ve sort of been [00:05:00] operating on, like on automatic pilot. “Oh dear, you know, uh, what am I going to do?”
I think the first thing is to embrace it and go, “Oh, okay. So that’s the discomfort that’s going to motivate me to start my own journey.”
Your own journey may end up endorsing some of the goals that
other people had for you. You never know. But it’s still your own when you get
back to it that way.
I think there are online courses that you can do at your own
pace, in your own way that allow you to ask deeper questions, engage with other
people who are on the same sort of quest from all over the world, and that’s a
wonderful environment I think in which to have a sort of self-timed version of
a kind of a review of your life and where you’re going and where you might want
to pivot to.
I always think it’s a really good exercise to think about
two or three things that when you think about it would be like dream jobs– not
crazy. Like, you know, maybe a dream job for me would be an NBA basketball
player, but I’m 70 years old and you know, way out of shape. So not a dream
that would realistic. So, don’t be crazy.
But dreams that are based on enthusiasms that you have as
well as talents. And then find a way to get into the office of, or in the
workspace of two or three people that actually do it. Whatever it is.
[00:06:20] People love to talk about themselves, and they’re
always willing to give time to those who are aspiring to be in the same kind of
work that they’re in.
And when did you get a chance to sit down and talk to some
people who are doing what you might think is impossible for you, it turns out
they’ll inspire you. And also, you’ll realize, wait a minute, they’re not
geniuses or exceptionally talented. It’s
real for them. And then it gets a little realer for you.
And then you find out, well, how did you get there? And they
say, well, I did it this way. And then you think, well, I can do the first step
And so then suddenly you have a goal of taking that first
step on a path that had led at least one other person to this outcome that you
like. And then it starts getting to be fun.
Coursera: [00:07:09] Interesting. Okay. I just saw this Gallup Study that came out, and it asked Americans specifically how they look at success, and the results were so interesting.
Because when you ask someone what they thought other people thought success was, they said fame and fortune.
And yet when they asked the individual what does success look like for you? Their idea of success was so different and varied. So, I wonder if within the last couple of years if you’ve seen a shift in how people are looking at success as well?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:07:40] Yeah. I wouldn’t say the last couple of years. I would say probably the last 15 years.
In my class on success, the first class, I say, okay, we’re
not going to use the word success for the next 14 weeks, because the final
paper is going to be your paper on defining that word. So in between, we’re going
to either use achievement or happiness.
And then there’s lots of things that can make you happy or
unhappy, and there are lots of things you can achieve or not achieve. And then
at the end of the day, you can define success with some combination of those
And so, I think that’s a better way to think about it and
not get too stuck on well, I’m not successful because I haven’t got this or
And the truth is success is also always inner life, not just
outer life. It’s not just a life of
status. It’s also a life of relationships and compassion and, sort of sharing
and, and service.
And so, if you’re wildly accomplished and deeply unhappy,
you’re not successful.
[00:08:47] If you’re a goal-driven person, you should think
more intentionally about your inner happiness world.
If you’re an introspective, kind of spiritual person, then
you probably need to pay a little more attention to your outer achievement
world, to make sure that you, you know, have, the kind of influence you’d like
to have on others, requires some status and some platform.
So different people really actually end up needing to set
goals about different things.
Coursera: [00:09:15] But either way, it starts with setting a goal, right?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:09:18] I believe goals are really important.
Coursera: [00:09:20] Why do you think goal setting is important when it comes to achievement, happiness, and changing your life?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:09:27] First of all, I have practiced a lot of meditation over the years. I’ve lived in some monasteries. And so, whenever you, engage in meditation for any period of time, you realize that you have a monkey inside your mind that’s jumping all around all the time.
Going from one thought to the next, from one feeling to the next, from one fear to memory. These different inner experiences, just, you know, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.
And without a goal, your mind just sort of… It’s like
being on a choppy sea. It just jumps and
reacts and responds.
With a goal, you bring some order to your perceptions, and
the order that you bring is a kind of focus on this zone.
So, take happiness since it seems easier to set an
achievement goal, like, you know, make the honor roll or get an A.
It might be: spend 10 minutes in silence. It might be practice five minutes of gratitude at the end of every day. It might be: do one volunteer effort on my community once a month and spend time helping others. Might be: call my parents and share what I’m doing with them even though it’s inconvenient.
But in general, it’s the kind of thing that when you’re done
doing it, you realize it was a very good idea, and you feel pretty good about
it. And you’re happier.
Coursera: [00:10:46] Those are great goals, and I think they are really different than the goals that we’re used to hearing.
New Year’s Resolutions are how we often talk about goals and thinking about how we’d like to change things.
And you hear the same, couple points. Eat healthier, be active, lose weight.
So how do you go from choosing a goal that everyone has to crafting a really personal goal for yourself? `
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:11:14] Again, everybody’s different, but I would say start with values rather than goals. And then you’ll get your goals from your values.
So, for example, the way I define success, at least at the
moment, is actually derived from something that I heard a person say once, but
I just thought it resonated really deeply.
And for me, success is three targets: good health, meaningful work, and love.
So, those are values. And so, there’s no harm in setting
diet goals or fitness goals that center on good health.
I think where people, end up breaking their resolutions is
because they’re not really sure why they have the goal. And it basically ends
up interfering with some other goal that they actually have but didn’t think
about. But you know, the goal of, you know, go to the movies a lot that
interferes with the exercise goal.
Once you got your values straight, uh, and so that becomes
your sort of priority list. Then the goals that you set will have meaning to
you, and they’ll be steps on a path leading to something bigger than the goal
itself. And that’s really what motivates
Setting goals in and of itself is just a kind of game. But
goals that have meaning are goals that are worth living with.
And maybe you’d have more success doing this on January 10th
than January 1st, but it’s a salient turn of the year. So, I’m not all that
mesmerized by given days of the year, but I do think when the time is right,
that is, you’re motivated. That’s the time to set goals that advance your
Coursera: [00:12:54] So first start with the values and frame why it matters to you. Does it also help to crystallize and envision specifically what that will look like on a day to day or week to week basis?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:13:05] Yeah, I think there’s a lot of research on goal setting, and the research says specific goals always are better than general goals. Aspirational goals are always better than do your best goals. And incremental goals, what they call implementation goals are very important to the achievement of overall outcome goals.
So, it’s not just lose five pounds, but you have an implementation plan that says, no ice cream, no cookies, and, you know, eat vegetables twice a week or whatever it is.
But the implementation plan tends to define a great deal of
whether or not you’re going to achieve something.
Coursera: [00:13:45] Oh, interesting. So, having a plan could be just as important as having that good goal that relates to your values?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:13:53] I’d say it’s more important.
And then it helps you tell other people about it so that you
feel accountable to more than just yourself.
You should never think of this as a journey you take by
yourself. If you’re going take a journey, it always helps to have company.
And so, I think it’s really important for people not to
become isolated and feel like it’s sort of a hero’s journey and they do it all
Be willing to search with company, so friends, mentors,
family members, people who love you, bring them along with you.
I think it is plugging in with them periodically and,
finding out how they are, and then in the conversation, kind of beginning to
say, “Well, you know, this is what I’ve been thinking about. Do you have
any thoughts? Do you have any suggestions?”
Sometimes you just need an ear. There’s a wonderful quote from Ian Foresters,
who’s a novelist. He said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I
say? How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
And it’s very often the case that if you have someone with
whom you can have good conversations and you reach out to them to have a
conversation. You will find yourself saying something that is just what you
needed to think. But you hadn’t crystallized it until you said it.
So, being able to talk to people, especially people who are, you know, open to hearing you and, and generous, `and not judgmental, can help you think and actually discover things like what your next goal should be or why a certain activity is deeply meaningful for you. So that’s why I think it’s really important to bring other people into the end of the circle of trust.
And goal setting is something that probably benefits from
being done, not just expressed out loud at the end, but developed out loud as
you formulate them.
Coursera: [00:15:42] Right. And when you want to make a change in your life and you set a goal like that, should you plan on setting one goal at a time? Or could you do multiple goals at once?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:15:54] Great question. There’s some interesting research that the more goals you set that aren’t filled. They’re goals that are just sort of hanging there but not finished. That takes up cognitive space and actually ends up being a drain on you.
I’m not saying one is the only number, but you have to be
careful that you set a relatively small number that you work on simultaneously
and that you work on to a sense of completion.
Because once you complete a goal, then that space in your
mind is actually freed up, and the energies available for activity on another
But if you have 10 goals and you haven’t really finished,
you know nine of them, your mind is busy working on trying to finish those
nine, but you’re not doing anything about it. And so, it’s actually like a
battery draining out. And your motivation goes down.
Coursera: [00:16:45] So if you set a goal like this, then should it have a specific timeframe, like for three months, for six months? How long does it really take to make a change?
Dr. Richard Shell: [00:16:57] Wow. It depends. The deeper the goal is, the more meaningful the goal is, the more it’s a, a long-term goal.
I think there are ones that are, are short term. Some that are intermediate-term, and some that are long-term. And I think knowing the difference between those just means you’re making steady progress on the long-term ones and you’re maybe having bursts on the intermediate ones.
And then the short-term ones, you’re planning for your trip,
you know, you have to figure out your itinerary, that’s a goal. And it’s done,
you know, in a couple of days.
[00:17:31] I have a course on Coursera about success.
It is a course that walks you through how to define success
for yourself. There are some exercises that I developed that I use in my
Wharton course on Success, and we have those.
The course builds on those insights and then basically moves
through these two buckets that I separated out. And I hold the word success in
advance and say, [00:18:00] look, let’s look at achievement. How, how does that
work? And let’s look at happiness. How does that work?
And then let’s look at how you push them and meld them and
integrate them into something that’s meaningful that you could call success for
So, there are these, you know, parts to the course that
build on that and then it culminates in a short essay that everyone writes when
we finished the course.
What do I mean by success and how do I plan to achieve it?
Everybody takes away from it what they put into it.
Coursera: [00:18:33] To keep learning from Dr. Richard Shell, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in his course “Success. And that course is part of the Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization, so you can keep learning from there.
And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.