G. Richard Shell’s (Law ’81) new book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, due out this week, is designed to help readers face any kind of transition in life – from college to work, from one career to the next, or from working to retirement. It distills several decades of research, work with fellow scholars, and deep discussions with students and executives.

Shell teaches a popular University of Pennsylvania course on how to define success and then achieve it.  He decided to write the book to make the ideas and self-reflection exercises in that course available to a broader audience.

From Springboard:

Success Rule #1: In Your Search for Success, Avoid Pie-Eating Contests

I do a lot of informal coaching among students and executives who are worried about what they ought to do next to make their lives more fulfilling and interesting – especially at work.  These days, many of our best and brightest have “succeeded” by learning how to win the race posed by our highly competitive educational system.  This is fine as far as it goes. For sure, you have a better chance of getting into a great university or graduate school (such as the University of Virginia) by acing standardized tests and accumulating a high grade pint average.

The problem comes once you get out of school and you continue to measure and achieve success based on checking boxes that you think lead to the next level of prestige and accomplishment.  If you never sit down with yourself and set individualized life goals, you may easily wake up one day and have the strange feeling that you have been living someone else’s life – achieving a  version of success that is neither satisfying nor fulfilling.

Let me give an example of what I mean.

An entrepreneur who was the owner of one of the largest gasoline and convenience store chains in the American South once told the students in my Success class at Wharton a story about the importance of pie-eating contests when it comes to success. Soon after his business relocated from Alabama to Georgia in the mid-1970s, he hired one of the top law firms in Atlanta to help him with his legal work. As time passed, he came to rely on a particular partner there as a trusted business adviser for his firm. After a few more years, with his company prospering, the entrepreneur decided it was time to hire a full-time, in-house lawyer to work as the firm’s general counsel. He went to his friend and asked him if there were any lawyers he might recommend for the job.

“How about me?” the lawyer said.

“Well, that would be great,” the entrepreneur replied. “But I will not be able to pay you anything close to what you are making at the law firm.”

“That’s OK,” the lawyer said. “I’ll take the job. You decide what you want to pay me.”

The entrepreneur was curious and asked if there was something wrong with his friend’s law firm work.

“No,” the lawyer said. “There is nothing wrong. It is just a question of more pie.”

“More pie?”

The lawyer explained, “Working the way I have all my life is like a pie-eating contest. I worked in high school to get into a great college. Then I worked in college to get into a great law school. Then I worked at law school to get a job at a top-flight law firm. Then I worked at the law firm to make partner. I’ve finally figured out that it is all just a big pie-eating contest. You win, and the prize is always . . . MORE PIE. Who wants that?”

The entrepreneur hired him on the spot and they have been working closely together ever since.

“Here is the funny part,” the speaker concluded. “The first day this lawyer reported for work, he wore Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He often wears sandals instead of shoes. And he is a better lawyer than ever.”

This entrepreneur’s lawyer had learned a basic lesson about success. When everyone around you agrees on what success means, it is all too easy to join them. And if you allow your surrounding culture to define your goals, there is a pretty good chance you will end up holding a prize you did not choose and do not want.

At that point, you will finally have to define success for yourself.

G. Richard Shell (Law ’81) is the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics, and Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  His previous books on negotiation and persuasion are available in 14 languages. His website is grichardshell.com.