Stewart Friedman: “The Infinite Mystery of Children Is a Wondrous, Ever-Bountiful Source of Happiness.”

Portrait of Stewart Friedman

I met Stewart Friedman several years ago, during a visit to The Wharton School. He’s a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton as well as the founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and Work/Life Integration Project.

He’s been recognized twice as one of “HR’s Most Influential International Thinkers.” He was chosen by Working Mother as one of America’s 25 most influential men to have made things better for working parents, and honored by the Families and Work Institute with the Work Life Legacy Award.

He’s written many books, such as Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life and Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life and  and now he has a new book, with Alyssa Westring, that just hit the shelves: Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Stewart about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Stewart: I go for a walk each day in our local botanical park with one of my children and we say “Hello and good day” to everyone we meet. I feel healthier, just walking in the outdoors, and more connected to my community, which makes me happier. It’s almost always refreshing (steamy summer days notwithstanding) and this boosts my productivity.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

The infinite mystery of children is a wondrous, ever-bountiful source of happiness. My latest book, Parents Who Lead, was inspired my three children, whom I asked, for my 65th birthday a few years ago, to tell me what they’d want me to be doing for the remainder of my productive life and how, by my doing so, they might be happier. This book is for them and for their children and their children…

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

The biggest, best surprise in my research is that people discover, through intentional and meaningful dialogue with the most important people in the different parts of their lives, that they have more love and support surrounding them than they had previously thought. I’ve seen this for decades now, with my Total Leadership course at Wharton and its application in organizations around the world, and recently in our Parents Who Lead workshops.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit smoking cold turkey on the day I left the University of Chicago, in 1980, just prior to the start of classes, to transfer to the University of Michigan’s PhD program in Organizational Psychology in order to be with my then-fiancée, who was in the Clinical Psychology program at Michigan. Making those two big changes at the same time made it easier to make each of them—I was doing both for her, for love. [Gretchen: This is a great example of using the Strategy of the Clean Slate for habit change!]

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m surely a Questioner. I love to ask questions—I’m incredibly nosy—and that suits me well in all aspects of my work, from teaching to researching to hosting my SiriusXM Wharton Business Radio show.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Some days it’s hard to prioritize my meditation practice and my exercise routine because urgent matters overwhelm my waking moments. But when I keep in mind that I am taking care of myself not just for myself, but for my family—those whom I love and who love me—it strengthens my resolve. We help working parents develop this mindset, of seeing how the different parts of life are interconnected, in Parents Who Lead.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I’ve been hit by lightning bolts, figuratively speaking, a few times. One was when I met my first child the moment he was born. Everything changed for me when I became a father, from my understanding of my role in my family to my research path. I have been addressing the question of how we lead in all aspects of our lives since that time.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

“Everyone’s different,” was our family motto when our children were young. My wife and I used these words to convey the idea that we would treat them differently, according to their needs.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning illuminated in the most powerful way the survival value of service to others. I have tried to live my life, especially as an educator, in this way. And all three of my children have pursued lives of service, which makes me proud and happy.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

“Work/life balance” is the wrong metaphor for grasping the relationship between work and the rest of life because it’s impossible and forces us to think in terms of sacrifice and trade-off. It’s more useful to look for harmony and pursue what I call “four-way wins”—possibilities for improved performance at work, at home, in the community, and for the private self (mind, body, spirit). A better metaphor than scales in balance is a jazz quartet trying to make beautiful music together, over time, as they listen to each other and improvise and allow for some parts to rest while others play. And this is why, way back in the early 1990s, I named our Wharton program the Work/Life Integration Project and not the Work/Life Balance Project. It’s very gratifying to see that this increasingly being adopted at the term of art.

More on Stewart Friedman.



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