Harvard’s Kaplan Says to Succeed Know What You Want

“You’ve got to take ownership of your own life,” says Robert Steven Kaplan.

He’s written “What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Road Map for Reaching Your Unique Potential” to show people how to find satisfaction in their careers and their lives.

It’s not a touchy-feely self-help tome, but a step-by-step guide to finding your true path written by a former investment banker: Kaplan moved to the Harvard Business School in 2005 from the Goldman Sachs Group, where he was vice-chairman.

We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.

Lundborg: We’re living in tough times in terms of the job market, so perhaps people don’t have the luxury to do what they’re really meant to do?

Kaplan: All this is relative to your options. If you’ve got no option but to wash dishes, my advice is wash dishes. I still want you to think about your strengths and weaknesses.

I want you to take a little time on the weekend or whatever to step back. Don’t let crisis management become a way of life.

Lundborg: If I’m young and smart, why wouldn’t I go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley?

Hedgie Depression

Kaplan: It might be the right thing to do if you’re interested in the markets or tech. But I meet more people who went to hedge funds or Wall Street who are now in a state of depression and hate it -- they’re trying to figure out how to reconnect with what they love.

You’ve got to try to find some joy in what you do, and if it’s just money, you’re going to run out of gas. If you don’t love it, you’re going to be mediocre. You’re not going to do well.

Lundborg: Doesn’t being mediocre on Wall Street beat being mediocre in another job?

Kaplan: Not any more. Wall Street is not as lucrative as it was, and today it’s even more back-end loaded. You’re going to have to sustain it for 10 or 15 years.

Every person has to decide what satisfaction is important: impact on the world, desire to be loved, desire to be important, to play a role, to do something you have a passion for.

What I’ve learned over a long period of time is not that money is irrelevant, but if you don’t have any of those things, you may well find yourself looking back with a lot of bitterness and regret.

Getting Feedback

Lundborg: So, “know thyself” is still the rule to follow?

Kaplan: You have to understand yourself and a lot of people do not want to go there. It hurts. You need to understand your passions, to understand your life story, to develop relations, to get feedback. Ironically, you’ll ultimately make more money.

The truth is if you add value to the world and you’re superb at it, money has a funny way of finding you.

Lundborg: Why do smart people underperform?

Kaplan: The two biggest reasons are isolation and the inability to learn and adapt.

Everyone around them sees their strengths and weaknesses, everyone knows but them. Most of us are walking blind spots. So that’s what I call isolation. They don’t have relationships with people who care enough to tell them, “Hey, you screwed that up.”

Lundborg: Why do people resist change?

Kaplan: Even when they do find out they need to change, they’re stubborn. They have a million reasons why they shouldn’t or they can’t.

What makes you a great junior person is not what makes you a great middle level person; what makes you a great middle level person is not what makes you a great senior person.

Mid-Career Plateaus

Lundborg: What causes mid-career plateaus?

Kaplan: It’s back to character and leadership. Stakes get higher. They might have been very outspoken. They realize: I’m making a lot more money, I’ve got more bills, I’m dealing now with more senior people including the CEO, so I’ve got to be more careful. They start playing it safe and then they get out of their game.

Lundborg: You put a lot of emphasis on relationships -- why are they so important?

Kaplan: You can’t do this alone. You need to find mutual trust, understanding and respect, and that means self-disclosure to get there. Many people who come to me for advice have very few relationships and some have none like that. Connectedness on Facebook is not enough.

Relationships take time, effort and concentration. I do a relationship muscle-building exercise with executives who start off very cynical, but by the time we’re done, half of them are crying because they’re disclosing a person they hardly know.

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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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