Editor’s note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Eight years ago when I was facing becoming an empty nester and was fearful of being thrown into despondency, I became a student of Tal Ben-Shahar and studied all 22 lectures of his famed Positive Psychology 1504, the most popular course ever at Harvard. Over the years, I’ve continued my happiness work with him, and I will be receiving my diploma from him at a celebration ceremony in Cartagena this winter.

I’ve known Tim McLoughlin, managing partner of Cofounders Capital, for many years. Anyone starting a B2B software company in the Southeast knows that he is the guy to go speak to. It wasn’t until early this year, I connected the dots and realized that Tim was a psychology major at Harvard and had Tal for a professor 17 years ago.

Then this spring, I met Adriana Cosgriff, founder & CEO of Capacita, through our service on the board of the Harvard Club of the Triangle. I found out this vibrant leader was also a psychology major at Harvard and had Tal for a professor in the year he inaugurated teaching his groundbreaking course.

I introduced Tim and Adriana and brought them back together with Tal, nearly two decades later, to have a conversation and share what Harvard has taught us about happiness for life.

Watch the full interview: click here

Tal’s positive psychology legacy at Harvard: how it started

Tal experienced a revelation when he was an undergraduate computer science major and varsity squash player at Harvard, and realized that he was unhappy.  How could this be? After all, he was at Harvard, the venerated institution globally renowned for its research and producing students who go on to achieve amazing things. How many people would give their eyeteeth to be in his shoes? His a-ha was that unhappiness had to do with the internal, not the external.  While he knew very little about psychology, Tal knew that it focused on the internal, and that’s when he changed his concentration to psychology and philosophy.

With a father who graduated from the FBI Academy, Tim had grown up learning about criminal psychology and being fascinated by human behavior. As he started taking psychology courses at Harvard, he was drawn to what is normal and why people behave in ways we consider to be normal, so this passion area is where he focused his study. That’s what Tal taught – not about human maladies, but the science of positive psychology, what makes humans flourish.

Entering Harvard, Adriana, the daughter of immigrants and first in family to attend college, felt a huge responsibility.  She credits her parents for encouraging her to focus her studies wherever she had the most passion.  Social psychology and organizational psychology peaked her interest. She wanted to learn from the wisdom of the highest functioning humans, which led her to take both Positive Psychology 1504 and Psychology of Leadership from Tal.

Tal’s course at Harvard was one of the first classes taught in the world in the field of positive psychology.  He served for six years as the teaching assistant for his mentor, Professor of Psychology, Philip Stone. When Professor Stone turned over his course to his protege,Tal, Adriana was one of his first students. Stone suggested that the demand warranted moving the course from a seminar to a lecture format.  By the time Tim studied under him, Tal’s two courses had found product market fit with over 1,400 students enrolled in them.

Oprah & Arthur Brooks share secrets to happiness in ‘Build the Life You Want’

When Tal was launching both courses, he went out with a leader in the Boston community who asked him what he was teaching.  Tal responded, “Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Leadership.” His friend replied, “Oh, so you are teaching one class on happiness and one class on unhappiness.” This response gave Tal pause.

He then decided to rename and reposition his second class “Positive Leadership” to bring both worlds together.  He gave birth to the connection between happiness and leadership.  It’s little wonder that today, Arthur Brooks’ Leadership & Happiness Lab at Harvard has as its belief statement “all great leaders should be happiness teachers.” (see “Happy employes, humble leaders – impact on profitability”)

Grace Ueng with Tal Ben-Shahar (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

Learnings for Life: How to handle “crucibles”

Adriana exclaimed that she uses what she learned from Tal at Harvard every single day.

She specifically credited Tal’s “crucible” lecture as being transformational in her life.

Professor Warren Bennis, chair of MIT Sloan’s Organizational Studies department,  co-authored Crucibles of Leadership for HBR in 2002.  In interviewing more than 40 top leaders in business and the public sector, he and Robert Thomas, found all of them pointed to intense, often traumatic, unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.

They concluded that the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

They came to call the experiences that shape leaders “crucibles,” after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold. The crucible experience was a trial, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. They emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose—and forever changed.

Tim McLoughlin

How prejudice serves as a teacher

One of the most common sources of crucible moments they documented involved the experience of prejudice. In high school, I was a foreign exchange scholarship student to Germany and lived in a small village Albersloh, outside Münster. One day children in the village started taunting me and making fun of me for being Chinese.  When I came home to tell my German host mom, she was embarrassed for her fellow neighbors and explained that they were an insular small village where everyone looked similar and had unfamiliarity with Chinese cultures.

I decided not to get upset, rather to learn from the experience. That young people, having only had one narrow set of experiences, would “judge a book by its cover.”  When I went into the local school to explain what it was like to go to school in America, my young German friends would instead ask me questions about China.  I realized they had more interest in China, a country with more history than Germany, and at that time, largely unknown to them. And I had very few, if any, answers to their questions.

I took their “prejudice” and turned it toward becoming an “un-banana”.  Prior to that, I had largely grown up as a banana, not really knowing much about my Chinese ancestry. I took others’ lack of understanding into figuring out how I could become more aware.

I decided then and there that the next time I went to study or work overseas, I would strive to understand my roots.  I went on to study in Taiwan after graduating from MIT and chose to work in Hong Kong as my summer internship while at HBS. Years later, I delighted in teaching in an international MBA program at Fudan in Shanghai, in joint venture with MIT Sloan. The prejudiced taunts and curious questions made me discover my roots!

Adriana Cosgriff, Founder & CEO of Capacita

4 Essential Skills of Crucible Leaders

What allowed the leaders Warren Bennis and his colleague studied to not only cope with difficult situations but also learn from them?

  1. First is the ability to engage others to discover shared meaning leading to potentially an entirely new approach to management.
  2. Second is a distinctive and compelling voice. Think and then speak differently and calmly, caringly, and authentically.
  3. Third is carrying a sense of integrity including a strong set of values.
  4. The fourth is what the authors call “adaptive capacity.” This is, in essence, applied creativity—an almost magical ability to transcend adversity and to emerge stronger than before.This is comprised of two primary qualities: (1) the ability to grasp context, and (2) hardiness. The ability to grasp context implies an ability to weigh many factors, ranging from how very different groups of people will interpret a gesture to being able to put a situation in perspective.

Hardiness is the perseverance and toughness that enable people to emerge from devastating circumstances without losing hope.

Victor Frankl comes to mind as the classic example of hope in the midst of the most unimaginable of circumstances. This neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who penned Man’s Search for Meaning after years in the concentration camp, wrote: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

In response to Adriana’s remembrance of how much the “crucible lecture” has meant in her life, Tal said that her thoughts made him think of detached or passive optimism versus active optimism.

Often people say “Things happen for the best.”  How can COVID deaths and the Holocaust be thought of as “the best?”  He says that instead, better to reframe the phrase to,  “We can choose to make the best out of things that happen to us.”

This moves us toward growth.

Next Week: What Harvard Taught Us about Happiness for Life: Part 2

Spiral Theory of Knowledge, Good versus Bad Stress, and the Future of Happiness Schools.

 About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops ideal for retreats to move your team forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Subscribe to her Happiness & Leadership column and learn to be a happier and better leader: click here