When Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his fireside chats in 1933, he did so because he wanted to have a more intimate and personal conversation with the American people about the important issues of the day.
On Tuesday, September 24, 2019, Dr. Moses Pava, former dean of the Sy Syms School of Business, and currently the Alvin H. Einbender University Professor in Business Ethics and director of the Business Honors and Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, and Dr. Noam Wasserman, the new Sy Syms dean, took that same intimate and personal approach when they met at WeWork Corporate Headquarters with 60 Honors-program students for a fireside chat about passion, patience and the prospects for future success. Thanks to the generosity of Sharon and Avram Blumenthal and other donors, the school is making major investments in the Sy Syms Honors program, including growing the number of Honors courses by more than 40% this year and organizing special events like the Fireside Chat.
Tuning into Our Natural Inclinations
For Dr. Wasserman, known for his bestselling research into founders of startups and the culture of innovation, the challenges of bringing a new venture to life are not much different from living life itself, an insight suggested by a student a decade ago. This is a point he makes in his second book, Life Is a Startup: What Founders Can Teach Us about Making Choices and Managing Change (signed copies of which were given to each person attending), and it was a theme to which he returned several times in his answers to Dr. Pava’s questions.
In response to a question from Dr. Pava about the advice to “follow your passion,” Dr. Wasserman polled the audience and found unanimous agreement that passion is key for anyone wanting to risk starting something new in life or business. Dr. Wasserman pushed everyone to think more deeply about the potential perils of doing this, raising cautions about blindly following one’s passion. “Passion has to be handled carefully,” he warned, “because it can mislead you by making you over-read your readiness to succeed at taking a leap. Passion is a crucial ingredient, but not if it’s blind passion.” He continued, “If you can see through your passion to proactively identify where you are underestimating the challenges you’ll face, and you do so with enough time to strengthen yourself against those challenges, you’ll increase your chances of success.” One other solution: “Find someone to throw cold water on your ideas so that you can see them more clearly and dispassionately.”
Just as passion can be problematic when assessing your circumstances, there’s another natural human inclination that can get you into trouble: homophily, which Dr. Wasserman described as the strong tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together. We feel much more comfortable and attracted to people who are just like us.” When a founder puts together a management team, there is a tendency to recruit those who are most like the founder in temperament and skillset, which often leads to failure because of tension-inducing overlap and unfilled holes in the team. “The best way to avoid stepping on the landmine of homophily is to take a structured approach to the checklist of what you need to succeed, checking off the ones you cover yourself, avoiding double-checking boxes by attracting those like you and filling in the unchecked boxes with people who have those other capabilities.”
College is a Startup: Simcha, Solidity, and Social Glue
Outside of entrepreneurship, Dr. Wasserman also advised the students to take the time in college to build a solid foundation for their lives that will last decades. “Don’t be in a rush,” he said. “It’s far better to do things right than to do things fast!”
He used his own life as an illustration, noting how he was driven to finish college by the age of 19, only to rethink the plan when he went to yeshiva after high school and realized that he should slow down to do things right. After starting as an engineer, he explored other “pillars” that would complement engineering and ended up adding on an undergraduate business degree at the Wharton School. “Exploration is crucial to foundation-building. Take the time to explore new classes in other departments and schools. However, don’t only be focused on your studies. Join a club in something completely different, sit with different people if you stay for Shabbos on campus. Explore finding something ‘dual’ to do—a second major or minor, or a bachelor’s degree plus a master’s degree—and be ready to pivot if new opportunities arise. Building that stronger foundation for life takes a little more time and thought, but when we’re in a rush to get through college, we shortchange that foundation-building.”
He noted that as he has spent time on campus speaking to students and working with his faculty, he finds that he wants to promote what he called the “three S’s.” The first is simcha, which he defined as joy: “Education is serious work, but we have to enjoy it, too! Let’s bring more fun and enjoyment to what we’re doing.” The second is solidity, both in building the strong academic foundation as mentioned above but also focusing on “educating you for the full 24 hours of your life, not just the 9-to-5 of your professional lives, by infusing in you the Jewish values and timeless wisdom about living a fulfilling life at home and in the community.” The third is social glue, and he used the recent name cards created for students as an example. “Name cards typically have your name only on one side, so that the professor can see who you are. Our name cards have the names on both sides so that you can also get to know the person sitting next to you and develop the ties that will last a lifetime!”
Finale: Siyum and Maariv
To end the evening, Dr. Wasserman made a siyum [gathering celebrating the completion of a unit of Torah study] on Maseches Kereisos [the tractate of Kereisos] that he had finished as part of Daf Yomi [a daily page-per-day regimen of learning the Talmud]. He took the students through two brief segments of the Gemara, the first (from the middle of the volume) emphasizing the importance of bringing a Torah orientation into the marketplace, and the second (from the end of the volume) emphasizing how our children are the building blocks of our future. The night ended with Maariv [third of three daily prayers] in the WeWork auditorium.