Talking One-on-One with Professor Epley about Designing the Good Life

One of the best classes I have had the opportunity to take at Booth thus far is Designing a Good Life taught by Professor Nicholas Epley. While there are other courses at Booth that cover the topics of management and behavioral science, Professor Epley’s class is interesting in that it explores managerial behavior with the lens of ethics. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Epley one-on-one. Read on to see the highlights of our conversation.

MS: Where did the thought for Designing a Good Life come from?

Professor Epley: I entered graduate school being interested in ethics. I was trying to understand why good people do bad things and yet still think of themselves as good people. I was always interested in why people fall short of how they would want to behave. Beyond my time in graduate school, to the point where I became ready to teach this class, the field really advanced in our understanding of ethical behavior. I thought we now had a lot of interesting stuff to say on how to help people be better, particularly how to think about ethics as a problem with a context that people are in rather than a problem with the type of people that they are.

Professor Richard Thaler had done a great job of popularizing the concept of a nudge, or a situational influence and the importance of thinking about things as situational design problems. I thought this perspective on ethics was one that was constructive for students as it gives you something to do as a leader of an organization and to actually think about ethics in a constructive way. This was different from the traditional view on ethics where it is seen as a problem in people’s beliefs.

My other motivation for the class came from some new connections and research being done demonstrating how surprisingly good it felt to do good and how good people feel doing good for others. The concept of ethics seemed to align with doing good things in organizations and feeling good. I thought we had a constructive way to help students do that in their careers.

MS: Where does this course fit into the Booth curriculum?

Epley: This is very much a leadership class that is oriented towards helping folks lead and manage other people. I would like to think with the interest in ethics that a lot of our other faculty have, the course cuts across other areas of the school as well. For example, the course touches on finance where we have lots of examples of otherwise good people doing not such great things. But overall, the course is intended to help leaders and managers be good for the long run.

I also think it fits another important niche, which isn’t exactly touted. While it is expected that you come to get an MBA to succeed in business, what a lot of the classes at Booth give you is ideas about the kind of life you’d like to live. The curriculum here is designed for personal development, starting off with LEAD and expanding to a lot of the other classes where you get to think about the kind of life you want to create for yourself and how to go about doing that.

MS: What are some ways Boothies can benefit from the lessons taught in your class even if they don’t get a chance to take it?

Epley: Our stance here is primarily that we don’t dictate the type of courses students take at this school. We let you figure out what you think is most important during your time at Booth. However, Booth does offer a lot of additional programming for students outside of just the classes you take. So, you can be somebody who has taken primarily finance classes and yet see a lot of the behavioral science faculty members speak at different events.

MS: One of the most interesting parts of the course was the Best Self exercise, where students had to create a profile of what their best ethical selves looked like through self-reflection and interviewing friends, family and members of the Booth community. As someone who has read all of these profiles, what is your impression of the what Boothies best selves look like?

Epley: As with anything, in the very particular details of these profiles there is a lot of variance. Overwhelmingly, these stories are about courage of some kind… a time where you stood up for a value that was universally important, or about a time when you were just being really nice and decent. Most of the stories are about how you helped somebody in some way. Fewer of the stories are about ways in which you were brilliant or really smart in some way. The goal of the exercise is to talk about times when you were particularly ethical, so they oriented in that direction. But student self-stories tended to be about times when they were sort of smart in some way. However, that was not the story that people typically got from other people. Courage and kindness were two things that stood out most.

MS: According to you, what are the three main takeaways of this course?

Epley: The first one is that people’s behavior is a function of the type of situation they are in and much less about the type of person they are, compared to what we typically expect. Second, it is about the importance of altering the type of situations that people find themselves in. Changing the situation that others are in has a concrete effect on what they actually do. Good people can end up doing bad things when they are put in situations where you are not attending to the context of helping people be good. The last takeaway is that doing good feels surprisingly good. There is not nearly as much of a trade-off between self-interest and social interest as most people think. Life is not a zero sum in that way, at least in terms of well-being. Doing things that are oriented towards helping others and treating other people well and generally things that we would consider ethical don’t come at a cost to your sense of meaning, purpose, or well-being. Often those are the very things that enhance it the most.

One thing that MBA students may not realize is how much of their life and career still lie ahead of them. You’ve got to orient your career in a way that makes it sustainable. You have to feel good about what you’re doing and feel that you are doing meaningful and valuable work. Sustainability is really central to this.

The reason why I call the course Designing a Good Life is because of this sustainability argument. The business case for ethics is creating organizations that can survive and thrive in the long haul. The personal case is to help you create a sustainable career that you can feel excited and passionate about where you both feel and do good. For both scenarios, ethics are at the core of where you would begin.

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