How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Tal ben Shahar fuses:
- research & practice
- technology & human well-being
- personal happiness & public programs
"What is most personal is most universal."
— Carl Rogers
"Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life."
— Omar Khayyam
"Don't take life too seriously. You'll never get out of it alive."
— Elbert Hubbard
Harvard University's Registrar had a problem — but a good one, perhaps. Nearly 900 students had enrolled in a single course.
What field of study would garner such mass appeal? Something that elevated the intellect, like philosophy, or focused on the body, like medicine? No, the course was one that dealt with a more unlikely topic — the human heart.
"Positive Psychology 1504" uncovered for its enrolees the scientific study of optimal human functioning — the psychological aspects of fulfillment and flourishing, including love, friendship, empathy, spirituality, creativity, humor, achievement, and happiness.
When added to his "Psychology of Leadership" course, Dr. Tal ben Shahar in the Spring of 2006 was teaching over 1,400 students.
The term "Positive Psychology" originated in a 1954 book by Abraham Maslow. A select group of psychologists around that time were increasingly studying mental health. However, the field of psychology as a whole remained largely consumed with treating illness. During those decades focusing on ill-being instead of well-being, was there a reduction in mental illness and acute psychological suffering? Since wellbeing has not traditionally been tracked at scale, an answer may emerge from the other extreme — suicide.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the last 45 years, the suicide rate has increased worldwide by 60%. As of 2017, nearly 800,000 people commit suicide each year — one every 40 seconds. For every death, there are indications that another 20 attempt. It is the third-leading cause of death among those aged 15–44 and the second-leading cause of death for those aged 15–29.
A 2005 study* showed that 8–20% of adolescents under the age of 18 had mental disorders. In the US, nearly 10% of children had a depressive episode before age 14. Up to 20% of those aged 16–17 had an anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or substance abuse. In one study, 25% of American students reported being "unhappy," "terrible," or having highly-negative experiences in school or family.
'No wonder happiness — or lack thereof — is a topic of interest, especially among the young.
Recognizing that prevention is often the best medicine and that lack of illness does not necessarily promote wellness, Martin Seligman, President of the American Psychological Association, issued a rallying-cry in 1998 to re-orient the field away from its nearly-exclusive focus on illness, towards wellness.
Psychologists teamed up with biologists, chemists, neurologists, and others, and scientifically-valid psychology studies on wellness-promotion proliferated. New measures were created to track individual happiness and the effectiveness of interventions. Doctors began recommending treatments for wellness in addition to illness, and Positive Psychology flourished.
Tal didn't stop with university students. At InterDiscilinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, he established a program for schoolchildren and teachers called Maytiv (Hebrew for "Doing Good"). The program trains teachers in positive psychology and gives them teaching materials and tools to help them be positive change agents in their classrooms and communities, promoting happiness, fulfillment, meaning, and self-realization.
The program has impacted over 50,000 children and teens and over 5,000 teachers across Israel, the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and China.
In studies involving thousands of students, the program was shown to reduce depression, anxiety, distress, and violent incidents, while improving positive emotions, peer relations, emotional and cognitive engagement in school, grades, and self-esteem:
Not only is wellbeing a concern for students and teachers, it's also a key issue for business leaders. So, Tal co-founded Potentialife to bring positive-psychology leadership development to companies. With a blended approach (in-person plus the use of various technologies), programs to develop positive organizational leaders can be mass-personalized, target behavioral change (instead of learning-only), drive behaviours that actually drive performance, and roll out at-scale to tens of thousands of employees.
Beyond schools and businesses, to reach individuals en masse, Tal wrote a series of international best-selling books (now translated into over 25 languages) and influences even more through happier.tv.
What kind of person would immerse himself in this blend of psychology, technology, and the physical sciences, in order to bring research findings to laymen?
Tal was born in Israel and at the age of 9 moved with his family to South Africa. His was an intellectual household, with extremely open-minded, Jewish-Orthodox parents. In a broader environment that wasn't notably open-minded, his parents showed him that it's okay to be different. His mother regularly interacted with a wide variety of people and welcomed everyone into the house — young, old, educated, non-educated, military, trade. Tal's teacher always said, "If you want to see what hospitality is, go to Tal's house."
Tal's top priority had always been to become a professional athlete, which was odd, growing up in a scholarly, religious household that emphasized study and learning, not sports. Tal tried basketball, running, tennis, table tennis, long jump, and long-distance running. One day, when Tal was 11, he went with a friend and his father to the squash court, and it was love at first sight (or first strike).
This was his sport. He gave up everything else he was doing in life and wanted just this one thing. He wanted to become the world champion and didn't read anything beyond squash. Squash was the focal point, and he'd read from any discipline IF he could apply it to squash.
Tal's parents were notably liberal and always supportive of the things he did (despite the fact that neither could hold a racket properly, let alone hit a ball). Whatever his interest, they treated it seriously.
Extra cash was a rarity, but they managed to pay for six private lessons. Unfortunately, tournaments were not held in their small town. They were held in Johannesburg on Saturdays. As Orthodox Jews, they couldn't drive on the Sabbath, so there was also the extra expense of going to tournaments all weekend and renting a hotel room. They didn't pressure their kids (3 of them) to achieve particular goals, but they sacrificed (without complaint) to enable them — to invest in them. Their aim was to expose them to whatever was of interest that the world had to offer.
They did, however, demand perseverance, respect, and manners. Discipline was strict, and actions had consequences. Tal wanted to turn pro as soon as possible, but his parents said, "No — not until you complete school. That's the only thing we'll require of you." So he studied hard and graduated from high school at 16 in Israel (having returned two years before). He turned professional, left home, and moved to England — the mecca of World Squash.
At age 16, Tal became the youngest-ever Israeli national champion, and one of the best junior squash players in the world. At the time, he occasionally thought, "What am I going to do when I'm 30? When I have to give up professional sports, what would I do with my life? What else is there?"
For a successful player, there's always coaching, so he assumed that would be his beyond-30 future. Two years later, he joined the Israeli military (a national requirement). Two years beyond that, he discovered he had a permanent back injury.
No more squash. No career as a retired-sportsman-coach. No money for anything else.
Tal realized some universities gave sports scholarships, and when he investigated, he found squash was included among the Ivy League scholarship sports. Unable to play professionally, but able to play at college level, he applied, thinking maybe he'd become a chiropractor or something. He entered Harvard.
"In school, I wasn't very happy. My first year was studying computer science, and I did OK. One thing I really liked about Harvard was they encouraged us to try things, so I explored. I tried economics and thought that might be it. I tried history and a few other things. But I realised that what I really wanted was to be happy. So I studied psychology and philosophy and fell in love with them. At last, I found a second love after squash."
He became increasingly-intrigued with the Science of Happiness, especially as applied to organisations. After graduating and finding work with an Israeli company in Singapore, he realised he had no interest in business. However, the people who worked in organizations were fascinating.
Seeing a lack of enthusiasm for the business but a great passion for the people, Tal's boss asked, "What do you want to do?" Tal said, "I want to be an organisational behaviourist." The boss replied, "Fine, do that" and set a 24-year-old with no experience free to do whatever it is a behaviourist does, in a multi-million-dollar company with thousands of employees.
What Tal did — and does to this day — is notice patterns and see systems.
"I'm a noticer when it comes to people, environment, and ideas. If someone's a little bit off, I notice it. If someone is interested in something, I can hear it. I see systems and make connections. My philosophy teacher once said, 'You'll understand philosophy when you can see a connection between pizza and politics."
Indeed, seeing connections (including the non-obvious, like pizza and politics) may be the foundation for seeing systems as Tal does. After all, what is a system but a collection of connections? ('Some that function and some that do not.)
As a consultant, he continued to notice things, make connections, and see systems. At one client, he uncovered systemic dishonesty that tainted everything the employees did. He saw an environment in which it was not safe to admit failure (especially in face-saving Asia), traced it through the C-suite to the board, and helped them overcome their basic fear and dishonesty that had rippled through the organization with predictable results. Another company was filled with people who neither took nor were given responsibility, and he also helped them change.
Every time he enters an organization or lectures on a new topic, he faces the unknown but realizes that with openness and trust, he will begin to notice things related to what he's seeking. Then, he'll make the connections he needs.
"I trust that my mind will be able to make the connections to put together a coherent finding — and an interesting one. Where does this trust come from — this self-efficacy? From doing things well and trying the next."
Except for the company in Singapore, Tal has "never been a full-time anything." He works on many different things at once. An effective approach to his creative work today, it almost got him into trouble at school.
"When I was doing my PhD, I flunked my qualifying exam and was almost thrown out — and deservedly so. I earned that. I was doing 20 other things at the same time, just like today. Now, with the freedom to pursue what I want, I run a few companies, I lecture, I write, and I spent a lot of time with my family."
Tal doesn't do research. He connects people to academia. He gathers the 1% inspiration researchers produce and then develops and launches programs to bring the new insights to the world (the 99% perspiration).
He launches lots of programs. Some succeed, some don't. He partners with people who can put systems around them (he sees systems but doesn't build them) — people who can sell, run, manage, and grow an enterprise. That way, Tal is able to move on to the next vision, make new connections, and do many things at once.
"When he gets to the boring details, he loses his interest. Very, very fast he moves on to the next thing, and getting the right partner (before he rushes off) is everything. With the right partner, it succeeds. With the wrong one, it fails."
— Arik Praisman, Maytiv CEO
"He brings the content, the knowledge, the product, and then I bring all those things which he would never want to do, like marketing, logistics, planning, negotiating, etc."
— CJ Lonoff, Speaking Agent
Friends describe him as humble, self-effacing, adaptable, flexible, authentic ("walking the talk"), loyal, generous, grateful, and focused (on work, family, or whatever he's doing at the moment). A boundary crosser, voracious reader, and introvert, he's more comfortable listening than lecturing. He keeps a gratitude journal, exercises, writes, sleeps well, meditates, and does yoga. Inspiration comes from books, meeting people, and travel.
"He's just a very, very, very hard worker. He pursues what interests him and then invests the time to make it happen."
— Arik Praisman, Maytiv CEO
"I'm always working and never working. Once a friend of mine asked me, 'How many hours a day do you work?' and I said, 'I don't know.' When I go to the movies or work or write or enjoy the kids, very often things happen, and I use the stories in my programs or books. It's just life. Things happen and you use them."
Hard-working or not, he's continually growing and learning, professionally and personally, whether investigating a new thread of psychology research or becoming a certified yoga teacher. He has the drive to be excellent but does not compete. He just enjoys excellence.
At the same time, he also gives himself permission to be human — to experience failure and learn from it. And he extends that grace to others. Highly forgiving, arguments are rare or non-existent.
"This man is one of the most exceptional human beings I've ever met."
– CJ Lonoff, Speaking Agent
Tal is happy again, bringing the building blocks of happiness to others. He'll never again need to give up his passion, as long as he has a mind to create, hands to write, and a mouth to speak. When asked for advice for others who would like to create, he says,
"Just follow your passion — do what you love. Along with that will come many things, in a personal odyssey. While you're on that hero's journey, you will have to be open to experiences and willing to fail."
His own journey has been marked with openness to experience, making connections, sensing opportunities, and integrating a variety of insights and people in a host of new programs and enterprises. To put academic research to use in-practice in his cross-disciplinary field, he integrates technology and human development, the fundamentally-personal in public programs, delivered at scale for mass-impact.
"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."
- Albert Schweitzer
So, for Tal, more important than success or failure — the outward outcomes of particular projects — is his ever-growing internal capacity to create. This internal capacity is rooted in happiness and helping others build it, too.
What do you love doing?
What makes you happy?
What personal odyssey will you launch, and where might it lead?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Dr. Tal ben Shahar is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Potentialife, a leadership-development program that leverages technology and behavioral science to enable client organizations to grow high-performing leaders at scale. He is also the founder of Maytiv ("Doing Good" in Hebrew) at InterDisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. This best-selling author, teacher, and organizational founder is "from" Israel, Singapore, South Africa, UK, and the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see : LinkedIn, PotentiaLife, Maytiv, andHappier.TV. His international best-selling books are available on Amazon, including his latest (co-authored with Angus Ridgway), The Joy of Leadership.
*as cited in Anat Shoshani and Sarit Steinmetz, "Positive Psychology at School: A School-Based Intervention to Promote Adolescents' Mental Health and Well-Being," Journal of Happiness Studies, 24 September, 2013.
also ref: Anat Shoshani, Sarit Steinmetz, and Yaniv Kanat-Maymon, "Effects of the Maytiv Positive Psychology School Program on Early Adolescents' Well-Being, Engagement, and Achievement," Journal of School Psychology, Volume 57, August 2016, pp. 73–92.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Tal ben Shahar, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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