An Interview With Mark Albion
Pamela Gerloff and Mara Peluso
Albion is a writer, speaker, and social entrepreneur. He has
co-founded six start-up companies and business networks, including
Net Impact (formerly called Students for Responsible Business)
and You & Company, which helps people lead lives of service
in the business world. He is the author of the New York Times'
Making a Life, Making a Living
2000), and the creator of "ML2," an electronic newsletter
read by students and executives in 87 countries. Previously,
Mr. Albion was a professor of marketing at Harvard Business
School and consulted to major corporations, including Coca-Cola
and Proctor & Gamble.
What do you do
now for work, and why do you do it?
I help people
find their path of service. I do that in lots of different
ways: through writing, speaking, working in companies or
in the government -whatever is required. But
do I do it? That's like asking me why do I breathe. I do
it because I'm compelled to. It's how I interface with the
world. It's where my "greatest gifts meet the world's greatest
needs." It's my "right place."
In the movie
not that Jerry hates his job-he just knows he's in the wrong
place. I think that when you're in the right place and you
feel that you are doing what God intended, then there just
aren't any other options. I've seen that with some great
entrepreneurs. They're doing what they do because that's
what they're "supposed" to do.
My real passion is to be connected to something-to
something bigger than myself. I love to be able to touch
the world and feel good about myself-to play some role in
making the world a better place and relieve some of the
suffering on our planet. That's why I do what I do.
Did you always
take this approach to work?
No. The first
half of my life was focused on what might be thought of
as conventional economic pursuits: Get the best job you
can, and make the most money you can. Then, in my mid- 30s,
my mother got cancer. She ended up beating it, but it was
a wake-up call for me. I wouldn't say it was a sudden turning
point; like most things, it was an evolutionary process.
I just started to ask myself, "Why am I here? Is this the
best use of my life energy?" I was teaching at Harvard Business
School, and I looked around and saw where I would be at
Harvard in 25 years-if I were really lucky-and I thought,
"That's not my place." I began to realize that I wasn't
happy because I wasn't serving and using my talents in the
way they were meant to be used.
So I certainly wasn't always doing what
I do now, mainly because I didn't always measure success
the way that I do now.
How do you measure
success for yourself?
it on the basis of being able to act daily on what I believe
in. It means that some days I'm taking care of my 13-year-old-which
can be very difficult! Erich Fromm said it beautifully when
he talked about "freedom from" and "freedom to." I think
money can give us the freedom to do certain things. For
a lot of us it's the freedom to be able to serve in the
ways we think are important so that we can look back and
say, "Hey! I'm doing things that I feel really good about"-as
opposed to watching the clock. When people ask me how many
hours a week I work, I say, "I don't know. Who's counting?"
Work is one way I express myself. It's joyous to me. (Not
that I don't have bad days!)
Would you say
more about change as an evolutionary process? I know it
took you ten years after your mother had cancer to make
the changes in your work that you talk about.
I think such
changes are evolutionary in the sense that, for any of us,
our whole life is about trying to be ourselves or find ourselves.
(I don't subscribe to the belief that there is only one
ultimate self. I believe that we each have many.) A lot
of people, when they try to make changes with their work,
expect to fall into the right thing right away. But, in
my experience, that's not how it works. My colleagues and
I have counseled thousands of people over the years, and
we've found that it's pretty much the same for all of us.
It's an evolutionary process because you're really changing
your identity or your notions of integrity.
Who Are Your Heroes?
When I speak at leading business schools, I ask students
two questions: 1)
What did you dream of being and
doing before you felt compelled to get an MBA?
Who are your heroes?
Less than five percent of these
talented people in their late twenties know what
they really want to do. Nor have the vast majority
of them ever known it in such a way as to make them
feel they could make a living doing it.
By contrast, more than 7,000 MBA
students have responded to my heroes question with
exemplary names heavily weighted in favor of those
who have served humankind. Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer,
Mother Teresa. Moms and dads are mentioned often.
So, too, are personal teachers. Few businesspeople
make the list.
Most of these MBA students admire
people for their hearts more than their heads-they
admire people who do good. But why, if you greatly
respect one way of life, would you feel compelled
to pursue an entirely different course?
It isn't easy to give yourself permission
to pursue your dreams, follow your heroes, and seek
your inner truth. It isn't easy to work to express
your true self rather than to play a role that isn't
you and answer a calling that something or someone
else has determined for you. Mother Teresa said
it best: "To work without love is slavery."
Making a Life,
Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion
in Business and Life
by Mark Albion, Warner
Books, 2000, pp. 10-11
you say more about that?
I think that, usually, changes around work are really about
issues of integrity. Choices and dilemmas about work often
arise out of an unwillingness to violate your own identity.
So you go through a process of re-forming your identity,
and that doesn't happen overnight. It's not as simple as
just taking another job; you're changing all of your relationships.
And it's not just about money; it's about changing your
relationship to yourself and to other people. Changes around
work can be especially complicated when you have a lot of
money-earned or inherited-because part of your identity
is wrapped up with the fact that you've got a certain amount
of money or you have a certain family name. You can't just
, because it's part of who you are.
Well, how do you wrap your identification with money into
your personality? How do you fit your identity as Someone-with-a-lot-of-money
into doing meaningful work for yourself and others?
says, "It's really complicated. I have to work for money."
But you really don't. It may be true to some extent, but
a funny quote I love says, "The chief value of money lies
in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated."
You generally don't need to work for as much money as you
think you do.
to get people to focus on not making their identity so tied
in with that stack of money they've been given or have made.
I try to get them to use that money as a freedom to find
ways to serve others. I tell people, "Just think about how
you can use that money to make a difference out there."
And all of that takes time.
That's right. It's a process. I've said before that wealth
isn't measured by how much you have, but by how much you
give away-but that's a huge shift of perspective to make.
Easy to say, but hard to do.
Because it involves an identity shift?
Yes. The difficulty, particularly if you have inherited
money, is in establishing your own integrity and identity-because
your big way of measuring what a cool person you are has
been taken away. So how are you going to develop yourself
in such a way as to consider yourself a successful person?
If you're thinking of working in the family business, for
example, how do you develop your own identity, so that you
feel OK when people say, "Oh, he just has the job because
his dad is the boss."
A study of business school graduates tracked the careers
of 1,500 people from 1960-1980. From the beginning,
the graduates were grouped into two categories. Category
A consisted of people who said they wanted to make
money first so that they could do what they really
wanted to do later-after they had taken care of their
financial concerns. Those in Category B pursued their
true interests first, sure that the money would eventually
What percentage fell into each category?
Of the 1,500 graduates in the survey,
the money-now Category As comprised 83 percent or
1,245 people. Category B risk-takers made up 17
percent or 255 graduates.
After 20 years there were 101 millionaires
in the group. One came from Category A, and 100
came from Category B.
The study's author, Srully Blotnick,
concluded that "the overwhelming majority of people
who have become wealthy have become so thanks to
work they found profoundly absorbing.. Their 'luck'
arose from the accidental dedication they had to
an area they enjoyed."
Making a Life,
Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion
in Business and Life
by Mark Albion, Warner
Books, 2000, p. 17
you do that?
It can be done in many different ways, but we usually advise
young people not to work in the family business for five
to ten years. We say they should establish a reputation
outside the business and then come back. Very few do that.
What is the business supposed to do for that five to ten
years if it's a small family business?
Well, this is the problem, particularly if the parents are
counting on the son or daughter. What we try to do then
is to have the child begin to develop at least a piece of
the business that is distinct from what the parent has developed.
For example, in a large company we have worked with, the
son developed the whole Internet part of the business, which
is really the future of the company; and he is now developing
the market in China, which is something his father would
never do. This has allowed the son to establish his own
Do you have strategies you recommend to people for finding
their "right place?"
If you say to people, "What's your passion?" most won't
know. A lot of people haven't thought about it. So the first
thing we do is diagnostics. For example, we tell people
to look at who their heroes are. We say, "Give me three
heroes. Why are they your heroes? What kind of work might
you see yourself doing that in some way would be moving
in the direction of honoring the people you most admire
in your life?" We also say to look at yourself as an 11-
or 12-year-old. What was it that you were really excited
about? A third diagnostic is to go back to your childhood
and think of one book that you really loved. Then go through
the story of that book in your mind and see how it might
relate to what you love.
diagnostics can be helpful, but frankly, my thinking about
this has changed over the years. Now, I think that most
of us find what we love just by going out and doing things
and then learning from what we did and the mistakes we made.
A lot of people don't get to try out different kinds of
work activities when they're young, so they don't get the
chance to discover what they love to do or what their path
of service is. Kids don't generally get this in schools,
and parents often have their own ideas of what is acceptable
work for their children. This leaves young people stepping
into adulthood with very little sense of what their talents
are or what kind of work or volunteer activity would genuinely
Yes, and that's why it's important for parents and other
adults to help young people discover their interests and
talents. But no matter what your age, it is never to late
thing to remember is that, most of the time, what people
are really looking for from their work is not money. What
I think we want is love and intimacy, adventure, and a sense
of purpose. And we want respect. So really, the notion I
think people have to get out of their heads is that they
have to earn money to be doing something valuable.
How do people get that out of their heads?
Usually, through pain. I find it hard to get people to change
unless they have gone through some sort of pain; it's only
when the pain becomes greater than the fear of change that
people begin to make changes. That's why I find people in
their 40s and 50s more ready to change than people in their
20s and 30s. They've experienced more pain. Choosing and/or
changing careers can be a wonderful process, as long as
we can help people develop a new personal measurement system
for success and start thinking about doing something valuable
that is not predicated on personal finances. For adults,
we start by asking them what their hobbies or volunteer
In your book
Making a Life, Making a Living
cite a study that found that people who did what they loved
ended up making more money than those who sought to make
money first and then do what they loved.
Yes, the study found that, basically, if you followed your
natural path of passion, you would be financially better
off. [See sidebar, p. 8.] There have been a lot of studies
done on this subject, and there is still a lot of controversy
around them, but ultimately, the research says that it's
not about the money you make, it's about the journey you
take. So why not take a journey you enjoy? It goes back
to Joseph Campbell's idea of following your bliss. We don't
necessarily know what our bliss is, but we certainly know
what it isn't; we learn pretty quickly what we
like, though we don't necessarily move ahead quickly to
like. The point is to just keep following
your bliss. You don't know whether the money will follow
or not, but one thing does seem clear: you won't care about
the money as much.
other thing is that when you're doing things you love, you're
meeting other people who love the same things. And they're
sort of like angels who will help you along the way. If
you're not doing that sort of work, you won't see the angels.
It seems to me that one of the reasons people don't pursue
their passion is that they don't know that there can be
that level of joy in life. Do you think that's true?
Yes, I do. In December 1999 the well-known child psychiatrist
Robert Coles was teaching a course on life reflection for
seniors at Harvard College. I had the opportunity to meet
in small groups with about 400 of those students just as
they were starting to look for jobs.
most striking and repeated comment I heard from them was,
"I don't know any adult, starting with my parents, who is
happy. They're always stressed out. I haven't seen one adult
who's happy." In fact, at about
The way we treat money is the most decisive test of
our character. If you really want to know something
about anybody, look at how they treat their money.
is an African expression that says there are two
hungers: the lesser and the greater. The lesser
hunger is for money and what it buys, such as goods
and services and things that sustain life. But the
greater hunger is to answer the question
Why are we here? What's our life for?
is no longer something you have to be concerned
with, this is the stuff you really worry about.
is an interesting story about Alfred Nobel, the
inventor of dynamite. When his brother died, The
London Telegraph thought it was Alfred who had died,
so Alfred had the unusual experience of reading
his own obituary. The obituary told how he had created
dynamite and made a fortune from it-and how dynamite
was used to blow up nations and kill people. From
that point on, Alfred decided to dedicate his life
to humanity and philanthropy. He created, of course,
the Nobel Prize, and now he is remembered for his
good works in the world rather than for the destructive
effects of his invention.
an amazing story of reversing branding. For me,
the heroes are the people who have made money and
then used it as a platform for service.
Ellen Galinsky of the Work/Family Institute published a book
that included lots of research on children's attitudes [
(Quill, 2000)]. She reported that kids weren't
saying, "I want to spend more time with Mom and Dad." They
were saying, "When I
spend time with Mom and Dad
I want them to be less stressed out. I just don't see anybody
being happy around here."
right about how easily we can get away from that joy and
happiness we found in different things as a child. Several
years ago, when my daughter was a young teenager, I went
to a lot of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I remember seeing all
those 13-year-old boys and girls and noticing how full of
life they were. Their parents would say all these wonderful
things about them, and then I would see the same young people
later on in business school, when they were in their late
twenties and early thirties, and it was if they were all
completely different people. What happened? What did we
do to them?
I've seen that, too. It seems to be a strong argument for
helping kids follow their passions and talents early on
and keep that sense of aliveness into adulthood.
What other advice would you give to parents who want to
help their children navigate their relationship to money
The first thing I would say is to try to help your children
understand that we're here on this planet to serve. I think
it's important to help young people understand that money
is here to help us serve humankind. We have four billion
people on the planet who aren't getting two meals a day.
None of us, no matter what our resources are, can cure that
problem, but each of us can make a difference. Pick your
spot where you want to make a difference. It might be your
hometown. It might be the environment. Just pick one place.
I would say that you can use money to promote education
and experience. Give your children a chance to discover
what they love to do and where they can serve most effectively.
Help them find their path.
Let's assume that the path you're talking about leads to
increased happiness. Yet it also seems to require a certain
amount of courage. What gives you the courage to keep going
down the road you're going?
That's a question I ask myself sometimes, and sometimes
I wonder, "How stupid
I?" In my family, I've been
surrounded by money, but I have chosen another path. I gave
up my position at Harvard Business School. I've watched
some of my friends make more lucrative career choices. But
I go back to the idea that, in a hundred years, when people
in my family look at the ancestral tree, I want to be thought
of in the same way that I think of my grandfather.
1940s my grandfather was the biggest purchaser of wool in
the world. He ran huge textile mills in Massachusetts and
Vermont, and when the time came for the company to move
those mills south, he refused to do it because he employed
thousands of families, many of whom had worked for his family
for a couple of generations.
growing up and hearing about how my grandfather was really
a smart and good man, but that he was too soft in business;
he couldn't make the hard decisions. But the truth is-as
I found out later on-it was just the opposite. He was a
man of tremendous integrity. He was a man who made quite
a difference for a lot of families. Instead of amassing
money for himself, he spread it out through a lot of families
whom he kept employed for another 15 years or so when those
towns had no other employment. If the mills had been lost,
lots of people would have been out of jobs. He left a meaningful
Luther King, Jr. once said how he wanted to be remembered
after he died. He didn't want to be remembered for his honorary
degrees and Nobel Prize. He wanted to be remembered because
he tried to love and serve and make a difference.
ask people, "What do you want your kids to know about you?"
The question for me is, "What do I want my kids to take
away from how their father acts?" That's what compels me
to try to be the type of father and ancestor I would be
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