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Democratising Inspiration with Tanya Menon
Tanya Menon is Professor of Management and Human Resources at Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University. She studies how people think about relationships, and how this affects the way they make decisions, collaborate, and lead at work.
Menon earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Harvard University in 1995 and her Ph.D. from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior to graduate school, Menon was a research assistant in INCAE Business School in Costa Rica and an intern in Morgan Stanley's London office. She is currently Associate Editor at Management Science Journal. She wrote a book with Dr. Leigh Thompson, Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to transform wasteful habits (2016, Harvard Business Review Press). Her Ted talk, originally presented at Tedx Ohio State University, has reached over 1.8 Million views and was named as one of the top 7 TED talks of 2018 (so far) by entrepreneur.com, and one of TED.com's most popular talks of 2018.
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What do you do?
I'm a business school professor: I do research on how people think and act in organizations. I teach classes on management, persuasion, and negotiations.
Why do you do what you do?
My job allows me to learn every day: I can study topics I care about. And I learn from my students every time I teach them. every year i get to meet hundreds of new people through the classes i teach. it is a wonderful gift to be able to connect with so many diverse people.
What is the one thing you believe to be true but others rarely agree with you on?
The most common advice I hear, is be yourself. I think it is awful advice. It often frees you up to just do whatever you want without thinking about it, and it legitimates your worst self. It also assumes you have one 'authentic' self. Instead, think about your best self: the times that you are truly in your element, and bring it to the situation. Develop that best self, find the appropriate self for the situation--these are more complex ways to think about how you can present yourself and use your many aspects to your advantage.
Which failure or apparent failure set you up for success?
I had a very easy life in my twenties and thirties. I got into the colleges I wanted, I got a dream first job at the University of Chicago, and I married the love of my life at the perfect time. It couldn't have been mapped out more perfectly.
Then, some transformative life changes happened in a few months: I didn't get tenured at the University of Chicago, I also had a baby, and got sick afterwards. I decided not to take the job offers I had and I stepped off the tenure track for two years as a mom. This isn't done in academia, in fact, I can't think of any women who have stepped off the tenure track in this way and then returned to a tenure track position. I heard from many people that this choice meant my career was over.
I remember the day I told the university that I couldn't take the job how lost I felt. I had always had an organized path and now it was gone. there was tremendous uncertainty and I was not comfortable with it.
While I stayed home with my daughter for those years, I also developed certain skills I never would have otherwise. I was previously locked in a path that was single-mindedly focused on research. But I ended up doing a lot of consulting, which caused me to really understand what business people cared about more deeply and how to offer them value. Additionally, my coauthor Leigh Thompson and I wrote up a book proposal which Harvard Business Review Press accepted. I had never written a book, and this too was a new skillset for me. By being forced to take this different route, I am so much better at what I do.
What is the best investment you have made in yourself?
It's a cliché to say it, but the best investment I've made is in learning a sport. I was a tennis player when I was younger. In addition to simply being good exercise, sports teach you so many life lessons about how you learn and improve (e.g. your ability to respond to coaching and practice with discipline), compete and cooperate on teams, how you perform under pressure, and how you respond to losing and failure. Sports are especially critical for women, because, not only do they allow for collaboration, they are a domain where competitive and aggressive behaviors are okay as well- attributes that are often under-nurtured in girls.
What is the role of mentors in your life?
My advisor in college (who was also my great tennis partner by the way) advised me to pursue a career in academia. In my college, undergrads tended to envision overly narrow path to success: some were on the law school track others on the med school track, and I was on the business school track. I had landed a fancy internship in Morgan Stanley in London when I was 20. I was truly awful at this job in all ways, and uninterested too, but I lacked the self knowledge to realize it. Being in London was fun, and I loved the people I met and I have had friendships for life from that job. And of course, it was high status: everyone was 'impressed' when I mentioned this internship. So I was continuing on in that path, applying for future banking positions, and actually landing interviews and final rounds at all the top banks and consulting companies.
But what was interesting was that my advisor had set me up with another job for the summer-before my internship began. I was doing research in inner city boston and writing my senior thesis. He also told me to apply for a PHD. I was not particularly excited about going back to school, half-heartedly followed his advice, applying to only three programs.
Whenever I went for the banking/consulting interviews, I had really nothing to say about my internship in London, and I had endless conversation about my research. The number one feedback I received on these interviews was that I had more interest in research than banking/consulting. I can say with certainty that I would have been terrible in banking/consulting and am so grateful my advisor pushed me to a path that was a better fit for me.
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
One thing I wished is that I had kept in better touch with the different wonderful people I met at different parts of my life... not only because those people end up doing interesting things, but because they remind you of your past selves/lives. I think it's easier for this generation because of facebook and linkedin which allow us to better capture a memory of our past networks.
The other thing is to avoid the illusion of a narrow path to success. that illusion causes people to crowd into the same competitive "high status" spots (rather than pursuing more unique opportunities). We also put too much pressure on ourselves, becoming overly focused on whether our peers are impressed with our choices, and becoming stressed out when we miss these tiny targets. I am so impressed by my younger MBAs who, rather than accepting the 'traditional' and easier paths laid out by our career services (based on the companies that happen to be doing on-campus recruiting), have the self-knowledge, comfort with uncertainty, immunity to social pressure, and initiative to design their own path forward.
I will always do my research, writing, and teaching, but I hope i can do all of these in a way that matters to real people and companies.