A More Just Future, With Dolly Chugh
America is widely seen as the greatest free country in the world, but that doesn't mean it hasn't suffered from horrible things in the past. What can we learn from the American Revolution, the Slave Trade, the Civil War, Columbus Day, and other pivotal moments in history if we scrutinize them through the lens of social psychology? J.R. Lowry sits down with author and social psychologist Dolly Chugh to look more deeply than America’s Instagrammed version and delve into its highly complicated history. She explains what it takes for people to come to terms with the controversial events of this country’s past with empathy, to shape effective leaders, and build a progressive society today. Dolly also discusses her own career journey and its various meanderings over the years that led toward her current work as a business school professor and author.
Check out the full series of "Career Sessions, Career Lessons" podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/dolly-chugh/.
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A More Just Future, With Dolly Chugh
On Revisiting America's Past Through A Lens of Social Psychology
My guest is Dolly Chugh. Dolly is Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. She is also the author of two books, The Person You Mean to Be and her recently published A More Just Future. Her 2018 TEDx Talk has been viewed over four million times.
Dolly began her career in finance, working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley. She then went to business school at Harvard and went into publishing as a Marketing Manager for Scholastic. After that, and four years in the human capital consulting business, she briefly returned to financial services, this time in a leadership development role, before returning to Harvard to earn her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Social Psychology.
She began teaching at NYU in 2005, where she has been ever since. Dolly also devoted a week or two each year over about ten years to work with Kipp, training and developing school leaders in underserved communities. Apart from her dual Harvard degrees, she has a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Economics and Psychology. She and her family live in the New York City area.
Dolly, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.
JR, it is so good to be on the show and talking to you after so many years.
A lot of these episodes, for me, turn out to be like the reunion tour, catching up with people that I haven't connected with in a long time.
Let's start. You are a professor at NYU. Talk a little bit about what your area of specialty is.
I'm a social psychologist with an orientation toward Organizational Behavior like the class that you and I took in our first year of business school, which was focused on psychology as it relates to the workplace. I'm a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business. I teach MBA students Management and Leadership courses. My research focuses on what I call the psychology of good people. I've written two books, The Person You Mean to Be and A More Just Future.
You grew up mostly in New Jersey. I know you moved around a little bit when you were younger but you ended up as a kid settling in New Jersey. When you were in your teenage years, what did you envision yourself doing professionally back then?
We lived in West Texas until I was nine. I moved every year, never went to the same school for more than one year in a row, and then to New Jersey. By the time I was a teenager, I don't think I had a solidified view of that. I was and am the person who wishes she had a dozen lives to lead a dozen different paths because I remember in college once a month calling my parents and being like, “I'm pre-med.” The next month I was like, “I'm pre-law.” It wasn't because I lost interest in the other thing. It was because I learned about some new world that existed that I didn't know about and got excited about that. I could get excited about a lot of things.
Did you ever see yourself potentially becoming a writer back then?
I never imagined. Let me say two things. I wish I could go 24 hours without having the thought like, “My parents were right again.” It seems like they are always right. My mother, when I was a teenager, got me a subscription to Psychology Today, the magazine. I had never asked for that. I don't think I even knew what it was, but she had learned about this magazine and often heard me musing about how people are and why they are the way they are and said then, “You would be interested in psychology.”
I would go on years later to get a PhD in Psychology, but it took me a decade and a half to catch up to where my mom was then. My dad, before the internet, found this book or this journal that had writing contests. It was like a digest of all these writing contests you could enter.
I have no idea how he found it but he saw me enjoying writing and felt I was good at it and used to encourage me to enter these writing contests as a kid. I would like to tell you that I did win the Arbor Day Writers Contest in my town. I got a free tree as a result. There was something that they saw then about writing and psychology that, it turns out many years later, would be the core of my career.
They were right. You mentioned your mother getting you a subscription to Psychology Today That brought back a memory. My parents, one year for Christmas, I was maybe eleven, got me a subscription to National Geographic. I remember thinking, “These articles are really long.” It was too advanced for me. I dutifully collected them. I kept them in a closet for years until they maybe realized I wasn't reading any of them. It was a waste of money.
I imagine your father sensed a curious mind, and look at you now, with a show where your curiosity is at the center.
A curious mind, yes. I wrote a short story when I was in seventh grade and went to a writing conference. What I remember most about that writing conference is meeting Marc Brown, who created Arthur the aardvark. I got some custom artwork from him. Then a succession of mean-spirited English teachers beat the love of the English language right out of me until I was an adult.
That's awful. Maybe you will circle back to it someday if you haven't already.
I have a little bit already but nothing like what you are doing. Anyway, did you do any interesting jobs while you were in high school or college?
I did all sorts of things. I bussed tables at a busy Mexican restaurant in my town. I worked for a temp agency where you would get sent out to different things.
I did that too.
I liked that because it was different things, from collating brochures to data entry. There was one perfume company where I had to help them organize all the perfume. It was all different stuff. I worked as a camp counselor for many years at a camp that I had attended as a kid. I loved doing that. That was the job that I said I would do for free. They wouldn't have had to pay me. I would happily have done that job for the rest of my life. Now, I see elements of that job in what I do now, in the teaching part of my job.
My temp assignments were probably not nearly as interesting. I was at a car dealer. I was doing data entry at all of them, for company that made extruded plastic materials and at a hospital. All random things.
The coolest thing about working through a temp agency is, usually, we only know the work lives of the adults in our immediate childhood. To suddenly be able to see, in the span of a short time, all these different workplaces and adult lives. I thought that was pretty interesting.
Different cultures, and what work feels like in very different places in probably both our jobs.
You went to Cornell undergrad. How did you end up at Morgan Stanley in financial services when you graduated?
I didn't have a very specific thing that I had decided I wanted to be when I grew up. I was interested in a lot of things when I was a Liberal Arts, Psychology, and Economics major at Cornell. When it came time to start thinking about what to do next, we had an on-campus recruiting process that was very fortunate to have companies fly all the way to Ithaca, New York or drive there and recruit on-campus.
Honestly, I put my resume in for everything like being a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue and being an editorial intern at Readers Digest and working as a financial analyst and in investment banking. I put my resume in broadly. I was very fortunate, in that I got a lot of interviews. I learned decades later about research that's shown that when someone plays a varsity sport in college, what a leg up it gives them in the eyes of recruiters, rightly or wrongly, but it somehow stands out in a way. I played varsity tennis in college.
I realize now that my grades were okay. I B plus-ed and A minus-ed my way through college but I did play this varsity sport. As a result, I had a lot of choices. My father - when we moved to New Jersey, it was because he was moving from working at Texaco in the petroleum industry to working in financial services. I had been exposed to that world, and the analyst programs at investment banks were two years long. They still are in many places. Meaning you knew the day you started when you would leave. It was a very long summer internship, you might say.
You would work 100 hours a week while you were there. You would learn a lot but then you would have an exit. That seemed perfect for someone like me who did not know what she wanted to be when she grew up but wanted to learn a lot, was willing to work hard, had some exposure to financial services through my father, and ended up having a lot of options of where to work in financial services. Morgan Stanley, I don't know what it was, but something just resonated with the people and the culture, so I went for that.
How did you like it?
I don't regret doing it but I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. It was hard work. I was pretty sleep-deprived for two years. It was in service of what I figured out very quickly was not the life I wanted to lead long-term. I wasn't intrinsically that motivated by the work. I was very intrinsically motivated by my colleagues to be a good colleague to them and my managing director. I wanted to serve clients well but worked in the leasing and project finance group. The idea of off-balance sheet financing was not the thing that got me excited intrinsically. I'm glad I did it. I learned a lot. I made very dear friends amongst my colleagues, and I'm also glad to have moved on.
When did you decide to think about business school?
My not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up continued into Morgan Stanley. A lot of people in these analyst programs apply to business schools and go to business schools, so that seemed like a logical thing to do. I remember getting into business schools and HBS and telling my parents that I didn't think I was going to go because I didn't know why [I wanted to go].
I wanted to have a why. I wanted to have a purpose and know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since I didn't know what, it seemed wise to pursue this degree. My parents, I'm sure they were panicking inside, but outside they were like, “Let's talk about this.” They wanted me to go. They did not want me to turn away this amazing opportunity that they had never dreamed of having as immigrants to this country.
I ended up going but feeling perplexed as to why I was going and feeling like, “This is the commitment I'm going to make to myself. I'm going to find an industry that I'm a passionate consumer of so that I can get excited about working in it.” Like building this industry because I'm someone who is on the receiving end of the industry and loves it. I went into my job search, which began, as you might remember two weeks after we arrived. They started asking for our resumes. I went into it with that mindset and with the mindset that I would not do on-campus recruiting. That I would do an independent job search, so I was sure to broaden my horizons.Commit yourself to an industry where you can be a passionate consumer who is always excited to work in it. Click To Tweet
I know you ended up working for Scholastic. What did you do between years of business school?
I worked at Sports Illustrated when Time Inc owned Sports Illustrated, People, InStyle, and Fortune. I decided on the industry. I was excited about what was publishing because I loved reading. I loved magazines and books. I wanted to be in that world of publishing, and Time Inc was a fabulous opportunity. I was very grateful.
You weren't [in publishing] all that long, and then you ended up shifting over into more human capital consulting.
Sports Illustrated was the summer internship. I had the opportunity to go back afterward, but by that point, I had also cultivated this relationship with Scholastic, in the educational publishing space. I was excited about that because that merged two things. I was excited about the publishing side of it and also the education side.
I decided to go for that opportunity instead of the Time Inc opportunity, even though I had a great internship at Time Inc. I had planned to stay at Scholastic much longer than I did. We had a family emergency. I was living in New York City and working at Scholastic. The family emergency was taking place in New Jersey.
I rented an apartment in the city and had fully intended to live a post-MBA New York City life, but instead ended up commuting a lot. This was at a time when we didn't have the internet and email the way we do now. Commuting was complicated. On the train, on one of these many train rides, I was very sleep-deprived, trying to deal with all the pulls in my life at that moment.
I remember almost falling asleep then I hear someone say, “Dolly?” I look up, and I don't know, you might have known her. She goes by Kim Keating. She was Kim Minton when I first met her. Kim Minton was in my Analyst class at Morgan Stanley and also was at HBS, though a year behind us. We had crossed paths multiple times in our lives, and now, here again on a New Jersey Transit train, we had run into each other. We had lost track of what each of us was doing.
It turned out she had this job she loved in human capital consulting miles from my parent’s home and was going into the city to see friends. I was commuting for my job and was like, “Tell me about this job.” I didn't do a single consulting interview in business school, and that was by design, because I had made a choice not to go into professional services. Again, I wanted to work in an industry where I was a passionate consumer.
This was a circumstance where I was very interested in being closer to my family and having that flexibility. She said, “I would love to introduce you to some people,” and she did. The company at the time was called Sibson, and I ended up going to work there. It was an amazing five years. I'm so grateful that I ran into Kim that day on the train.
That's a serendipitous conversation, if there ever was one. After that, I know you doubled down on Harvard and went back to get your PhD. How did you decide to pursue a PhD, and why the particular areas that you chose?
I don't remember specifically if you were in the room, but the way we are going to tell this story, you were in the room when I made the decision. It was our fifth-year MBA reunion. Remember that was in 1999 with the internet going wild. I was dreading going to that reunion. I'm the person who goes to reunions and shows up to things. I'm that person, but I didn't want to go to this reunion. It wasn't that I was so upset with my life. We were hearing about all these classmates doing these sexy things, and I was single and didn't want to be single.
Even though I'm not an envious person, I was going to feel envious there. The envious side of me was going to come out, and I didn't want to go, but I made myself go because I go to things. What ended up happening was that first day when you are interacting more with your classmates, I was enjoying the conversations. It was fascinating to hear all these internet things that people were doing or the World Wide Web. Maybe we were calling it that at the time. I wasn't feeling this, “I should be doing it.” I wasn't feeling the envy take over the way I thought it would.
The second day rolled around that Saturday, and we went to the research presentations that the faculty did. That's the day when suddenly, I felt envious of the faculty of all people. I will be honest. When we were MBA students, I don't think I realized they were doing research. They were so good in the classroom and seemed to know us so well. I had the sense that they spent all day, every day, thinking about us.
I did not realize that they went back to their offices, collected data, ran experiments, and wrote papers in peer-reviewed journals. I had no idea. I didn't know any professors in my life at that point, either. When we went to that second day of the reunion and saw them present their research, I was blown away. I was like, “Someone pays them to do this? To think about what they find interesting and are curious about? They go learn more about it, write it down, and share it with other people?” I'm oversimplifying it dramatically but at the time, that's what it looked like to me. I was blown away.
I was like, “I should have been a professor. I've missed the boat on this.” It would take about another year and a half before the notion, which at the time it was like, “I also should have been a rock star. I could have been Madonna.” It seemed that unrealistic, like “Good for you that you thought you should have been a professor.”
The notion hit me in 1999 but then, over the next 12 to 18 months, these little serendipitous things kept happening, In each of those serendipitous things, which probably were happening all along, I wasn't [immediately] noticing them. I was learning more about the world of being a professor, which dispelled a few myths I had. I thought you had to be a rocket scientist genius to be a professor, because that's how I saw all my professors.
I'm not a rocket science genius. I'm above-average intelligence and very hardworking. It turns out that's good enough for my line of work. Business school had been expensive, and I thought it would be five more years of tuition like business school tuition. I learned that, at least for the kinds of programs I was looking at, organizational behavior pays you to go to school.To be a professor, you don't have to be a rocket scientist or genius. Having above-average intelligence and hard work is good enough. Click To Tweet
You get paid a stipend. It's not much. It was $30,000. I was making a lot more than that, but it wasn't the same as paying tuition. Those myths got dispelled as I had these serendipitous conversations with people. I got to the point where I was like, “I'm going to go for this. At age 33, I’m going to start over and go get a PhD.”
I'm sure your parents are probably having another one of those internal nervous conversations then too.
They were worried, and I felt for them. Now that I'm a parent, I'm like, “That lack of control over what's happening and giving up a sure thing for this. Who knows what's going to come of this?” They were very supportive and worried.
It's obviously worked out. You've been a professor for 17 years now. What do you like and not like about it? You've been doing it for a long time. I know you're in a New York University studio, so this is a little bit unfair to ask you when you're at work.
This is a wonderful studio [put together by] Bob Kerr, who was a producer in the news world before he came to NYU, and it helps us have these conversations in a way that gives you, hopefully, good sound and video quality.
There are many things I like and many things I don't, to be honest. I love my students. I love teaching. I love research in the purest sense of the peace I loved at the beginning of it: “What are you interested in? How can you create knowledge by collecting data or analyzing data that helps shed light on something that could be useful to people in the real world?”
I love that part. I love my colleagues. I'm in an amazing department with wonderful colleagues. What I don't love about it is the system of higher education. This is not specific to NYU, though. NYU is certainly in the same position as a lot of institutions. I personally think that teaching and research should be equal in importance, and in research universities, that's not true. Many professors are deeply committed to teaching and are amazing teachers but the system isn't generating that as much as people's individual commitment to the students or their love of that work.
It's a system that seems to perpetuate itself. There are a lot of things, if we were building a university now, some pieces we would do differently, but it is this system. Faculty are tenured. It's hard to make changes in higher ed. Those pieces of it are frustrating.
The last thing, and this isn't a comment on the system of higher ed. This is a comment on my preferences. I have also gotten more interested in speaking to general audiences through my book writing and my newsletter. I have a TEDx Talk. I value doing that. It's appropriate that some universities care about that and some universities don't but it's becoming increasingly important to me that it be part of how I spend my days. That's something I'm trying to figure out, how to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Let's talk about your book, the second one, he one that was released, A More Just Future. Congratulations on getting that published on top of your prior one. Give our audience an overview.
A More Just Future is a book that I wrote because I felt like I needed to read it, honestly. I have been grappling with my emotional relationship with my country, the United States of America, this country I deeply love, and having moments where I'm not sure what to think about learning that our forefathers enslaved humans or learning about when read the Little House on the Prairie series to my kids, which I spent a whole year doing and even went on vacation to take them to all the places [in the books], realizing late in the game of doing so that I had forgotten to teach my kids about how that land was Native American land, and I didn't know how to talk about it.
These little moments, I felt like I was grappling with the Instagram version of my country, which was what I had been taught. I wanted to learn the real story, but every time I tried, these emotions would come up of shame, guilt, disbelief, or anger, and I would just shut down.
I'm not a historian. To be completely transparent. I'm not even a history buff, if I'm being honest, but I am a psychologist. I think about our relationships with other people - why we behave the way we do - and our emotional relationship with our country feels like it can be helped with the tools of psychology. That's why I wrote this book.
You started it in 2019 before George Floyd was murdered, before everything that's happened since then. What was the catalyst for you to write the book?
The incident with the Little House on the Prairie and my children happened many years ago, and I had been thinking about it for the past decade. There was some unlearning I needed to do, and I didn't know how to do it, so I didn't do it. I laid it in the lap of my kids. Over the last decade, I feel like, time and time again I had moments like that. It's not a parenting book specifically, but that was something very personally motivating to me.
After I wrote my first book, which came out in 2018, I knew I wanted to write another one because I appreciated and enjoyed the process of writing and the process of seeing readers discover the book. I don't use this term loosely but some readers would talk about how life-changing it was. I wanted to do that again, but I didn't know what I wanted to write about. I still do a lot of reading print newspapers. I like to tear out articles when they are interesting to me.
I decided to look at my desk and all the torn-out articles that, by the way, I'm tearing them out, so I will read them someday. Someday never comes, but at least they are on my desk. I decided to see if there were any themes in the torn-out articles, and some that were printed out as well. It turned out there was this pretty big pile of articles. There were things like, “The so and so university is debating whether to rename a dormitory because it's named after somebody who was a leader in the slave trade, or a team is trying to figure out what their mascot should be. They've always had a mascot that demonizes Native Americans.”
Our current events were historical events, and I had a big pile of those stories. That said, to me, there's something I'm stewing on, confused by, looking for guidance on, and interested in. There's something the general public is interested in. There's a reason why the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and all these other outlets keeps publishing these stories.
I started playing with this idea. When I went to my agent, Leila Campoli, she got it immediately. [It was] the same with my first book. She got the idea immediately. She was excited for us to put a proposal together. When we went out to the publishing industry, we got a lot of interest in me writing another book but not a lot of interest in me writing the book I was proposing.
I remember some people being like, “Here are three other things you could write about. We would love to work with you on those things. I don't think people are thinking too much about whose land this was." I was sure that wasn't true. By that point, I had started tuning in. I had seen that pile of newspaper articles. I started tuning into these conversations. I saw young people having them. I saw them happening on social media. I saw them happening in our policies and our laws. It was happening everywhere from what I could see.
Maybe it hadn't become the national conversation yet, but I knew it was coming. I'm a very risk-averse person. There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be a national conversation, and my book was going to speak to it. I felt very confident. Thankfully, Stephanie Hitchcock, who was the editor of my first book, she jumped in to work with me on the second one and also saw that it was a conversation that was coming. That was in 2019 when we signed the book deal with Simon & Schuster. By 2020 and 2021, this was a national conversation.
It's also a divisive one. I know you were a little bit nervous [about it]. You talk in the prologue of the book about lying awake at night worrying about whether you were doing the right thing in writing this book. What has been the reaction so far?
It went from a conversation that maybe wasn't as much in the spotlight to being suddenly in the spotlight. Critical race theory, which was a term I knew in 2019 because I'm an academic, only academics knew that term then. Suddenly, it was a household word and wasn't being used accurately. It was part of this conversation that felt very explosive.
I wasn't looking to be part of an explosive conversation, to be honest. That's what was keeping me awake at night. The reaction has been, so far, and its early days now, incredibly positive - more positive than I expected from readers. It's because of the way I was grappling with and searching for a path to thinking about these issues and needing solid ground to do it. A lot of people are doing the same thing. This book offers seven psychological tools for how to engage with the past.
It's a great companion, prequel or sequel, if you are thinking about how your family celebrates Thanksgiving and you are hearing Thanksgiving isn't what you thought it was in terms of its historical roots. Or you're wondering why Columbus Day is being called Indigenous People's Day or you didn't know the GI Bill was primarily for White veterans and not Black veterans. Now someone is saying that, and you are like, “What?” You are hearing about Juneteenth. In all of these moments of discomfort and confusion for some of us, there are psychological tools that can help us.
You talked in the beginning of the book about the love you have for the country. Coming out of World War II, from then on, it was like America was the best country in the world. We were in the heart of the Cold War. There was an ideological component of the Cold War. You have whole generations of people who were brought up with a very ultimately biased view of American history. Some people are struggling to come to terms with that now that there's more discussion on it.
You're a social psychologist. Why do you think people struggle so much to come to terms with America's past and the good and bad of it?
I'm in this group that struggles, so I speak with empathy. There are two elements of it. One is that some of the narratives we learned were partial, incomplete, and sometimes not even fully true narratives. It's hard to unlearn things. There's lots of research that says, “It's easier to learn something than unlearn and relearn something.” That's intuitive. A lot of us have experienced that in many aspects of our lives. That's one part of it but the other part of it is nostalgia.
Nostalgia is the most seductive thing ever. There are billion-dollar industries built off of nostalgia, [such as] fashion, tourism, and music. Nostalgia, the research says, gives us a sense of belonging. It makes us feel more interpersonally connected, like we can interact with people more effectively. It makes us feel good. Nostalgic narratives tend to be positive.
Some of the narratives that we are learning now puncture that nostalgia, and that feels awful. It's not just unlearning. It's an identity I care about that has some nostalgia, whether it's my ancestors or my town, my state, or my school. There is a narrative that I love that's being flattened with what I'm learning. We resist both things. We resist the unlearning and the things that are nostalgia busters. That puts us in a tough position when someone says, “There are some things that maybe you didn't know.”
I didn't know that many of our forefathers enslaved other people while they were writing those documents about equality, liberty, and justice. I didn't know that until a few years ago. Maybe it was something I should have read once, but it wasn't the headline of how we talk about our country.
You focus primarily on the United States in your book. Do you think the United States is unique in having these challenges of coming to terms with its past?
I don't feel super well-equipped to comment on that because I don't think I've done a deep enough dive into other countries. In my book, I talk about South Africa and Germany a bit, and what I've learned about their grappling with their own history and some similarities and differences between how it's emerging in their countries and ours. We see this in that comparison.
In Germany, there are more physical markers than we seem to have in public places of the atrocities that took place there. I don't know that we are better or worse. I grew up in a home where we still talk about this country as the greatest country on Earth. That will always be true.
That's the narrative, and both things can be true. This could be the greatest country on Earth - a matter of opinion but let's go with it. It could also be true that there are some very horrible things that have happened in this country. It may have even contributed to some of the ways in which we have called ourselves the greatest country on Earth.America is still the greatest country on earth. But it cannot be denied that some horrible things have happened in this country and contributed to its greatness. Click To Tweet
That concept of "both and" rather than "either or." For me, that's the thing I keep thinking about, having finished the book a week or so ago. If you can accept in your country's history, if you can accept that the person that you are friends with or your family member or whoever - that there are both good and bad attributes to everybody - you accept it. It allows you almost to suspend judgment. You don't have to declare somebody as good or bad. Everybody is both to varying degrees. That concept in the book, as I said, was the thing I most took away.
The "both and" thinking, which I draw from considerably in my book, that research is by Wendy Smith, Marianne Lewis, and others. Their book came out earlier. That has been life-changing for me, quite frankly, that way of thinking. The research says that when we do allow ourselves, like you said, to allow contradictory things to be true at the same time, we experience greater resilience.
We are able to push through setbacks. We experience greater creativity. We are able to see solutions around us. Maybe because our bandwidth is released from trying to resolve this contradiction, and being able to focus [instead] on other things. Mentally, basically, our brains loosen and open up when we activate what they call a paradox mindset.
This is a career-focused show. Most of the discussions are about career journeys and related topics. How do you feel about the lessons from the book? How can people apply those in the way they think about their professional lives and the organizations they work in, and the careers of ethnic groups who have been affected by some of these things over the years? How can you take this into the work world?
Every organization now is either genuinely, performatively, or something in, between talking about DEI - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Being able to engage in a meaningful way on these topics is now part of everyone's job description to some extent. I teach MBAs. Most of them are in their 20s or 30s. What I'm seeing in that generation of MBAs is a clear expectation amongst many of them.
Managers and leaders need to be able to engage meaningfully on these issues. Not just DEI but on societal issues. There have been studies that have also shown that we are expecting more out of leaders and out of CEOs across multiple stakeholder groups as opposed to [just] pure shareholders. The more tools we have in our toolkits to do that, the better.
For people navigating careers now, part of it is like, let's begin by knowing what not to do. Building some awareness there, and then maybe adding some tools to a toolkit on how to support the values that maybe we are bringing in but don't know how to manifest.
I teach a class. This is not the title of the class but in my head what I call it is basically how to be a great boss. By the end of the semester, the punchline, and it's not a course about DEI at all, but the punchline by the time you get to the end of the course is that, “If you are not an inclusive boss, you are not a great boss.” If you are not an inclusive boss, you are only a great boss to a few people, not to everybody. If anybody has any aspirations toward their career going down the managerial or leadership path, this is an important set of skills and tools.
Pretty much any institution is stacked in favor of a certain population. Some companies do a better job of overcoming that but on balance, the work world has been skewed in favor of White men. Even now, we are trying hard, but we are not there yet in terms of creating true equality. The way to think about it is, "I can't make up for the things that happened in the 1960s and the Mad Men era, all of the bad behavior that happened 50 or 60 years ago, but I can at least be sensitive to the fact that, even though it was 50 or 60 years ago, the things that it resulted in are still relevant now."
It's still having an impact, even a couple of generations later. You've got to work hard. Empathy certainly is part of what makes a great leader. Being empathetic to the fact that the work world now is not an even playing field and doing your level best to make it an even playing field is what all of us can be thinking about doing.
I can't remember if it was in The Advice Trap or The Coaching Habit but in one of Michael Bungay Stanier's books, he talks about the WAIT Rule, the Why Am I Talking Rule, which I find useful in so many domains in my life.
That's a good acronym.
My students love it. It's a good one in navigating one's career as well. There are spaces where it makes sense to listen.
This is your second book. Your first one was much more focused on being a good person. That's probably the easiest way to describe it. You were a professor toiling away, working hard, teaching your students. You published that book, and all of a sudden, you had a coming-out moment. You were on TV and being interviewed in all these different places. What was that like for you back then?
It's a little exciting and scary. It also comes and goes pretty quickly. It's amazing how quickly people's attention moves on to other things.
That has to be a little bit of a letdown when it starts to happen.
Yes. Who doesn't like validation? I loved the validation and the attention of it but then, on the other hand, [it was a lot], especially since I'm an introvert. There's a level of engagement, especially with social media that's expected.
When you write a book, what a lot of people don't realize is that writing a book is 50% writing and 50% marketing your book That's expected even if you are at the biggest publishing company. My first book was HarperCollins. My second was Simon & Schuster. I think of myself almost as an entrepreneur out there, hustling and marketing my book. It doesn't have to be, but the easiest way to do that is through social media. That engagement is also fun. It's like a party. It's fun for a while, and then I want to go home. I'm exhausted. I'm very grateful for the opportunities and visibility I have. At the same time, I'm also grateful that I'm not like “famous.” My work is visible in certain circles, but most people don't know who I am, and that's perfectly fine with me.
It's good to have a sense of accomplishment without it necessarily running away from you, which obviously happens to people who achieve a high level of fame. You took that book and translated it into your "Dear Good People" newsletter that you put out. How has that following grown over the years?
For a while, my editor, my agent, and readers had suggested I should do something like that. I was resisting it, honestly. I was like, “Who needs another email in their inbox?” Nor could I figure out what I would be saying in this newsletter. After George Floyd was murdered, I suddenly felt like I had things to say, so I decided to go ahead and start in June 2020.
It has been a labor of love and has become one of my favorite things I do every month. The newsletter idea, when I originally heard about it, sounded like something inauthentic and forced and business-y like marketing-ish. The newsletter I put out every month is genuinely coming from what I'm thinking about, what I'm wrestling with, and what I'm having fun with. I'm still doing Wordle every day with my husband, but when I was obsessed with Wordle in January 2022, one of my issues was about Wordle and why DEI efforts are not like Wordle.
We love Wordle because it's bounded and simplistic. Not simple but simplistic. It has a clear right or wrong answer. It has a beginning, middle, and end. That all feels good. That is not what DEI efforts feel like. I use Wordle as a way to talk about that difference. Now I'm obsessed with Pickleball, so I've used the fable of where Pickleball got its name to talk about racial fables and how they sometimes set us up to misunderstand the world we live in.
I'm able to take what's happening in my life and what's relatable for a lot of people and in the zeitgeist and connect it to DEI. It's gone from being something I felt I had to do to now being something where I feel this incredible connection to the readers. I get lots of very nice notes afterward. It has been an incredible community we’ve built.
One thing I've found with some of the short-form writing that I do is that it gives you a chance to put into words something you are thinking about right then and there that sometimes forms the kernel of an idea that turns into something bigger over time. I like being able to go back to some of those things and saying, “Here's the long version of it.” I'm going to expand on that concept and make it into something bigger. Some of them are whimsical ideas. They never go past that point, but some of them turn into bigger ideas that stick with me. That part I find helpful.
I love the process of seeing how ideas form and how writing develops draft-over-draft. What you said is so cool.
I have a lot more work to do on this front, though. I have not published any books.
You're busy. I want to be mindful of time. You're doing a lot of different things. What do you do to recharge?
Pickleball lately and the puppy. The puppy sometimes recharges me, and sometimes he exhausts me, but he's cute no matter what. I love to read. That's something that's important to me. I don't love to exercise but it helps me. Therefore, it's part of the recharging effort. I spend time with my family, and my husband and I go on walks, see shows, and watch sports together. My kids are teenagers, so it varies what they are interested in doing with me, but when they are engaged in the same things, the same activities. That's fun. That's the crux of it.
Last question. We haven't focused a whole lot on career lessons. What would you want people who are reading to take away from our discussion in terms of the things that you've learned over the years that you feel are most valuable career lessons that you've gained over the years?
I'm hoping the discussion we've had about my trajectory offers one possible path, which is that you don't have to know right away what you want to be when you grow up. I clearly didn't for a long time. I'm still not sure I do. I'm not sure this is my last career. My parents did not have the luxury to make those changes in their lives, and I do. If you have that luxury, you should take it seriously. I don't see any reason to feel dead inside or unhappy doing what you are doing.You don't have to know right away what you want to be when you grow up. Click To Tweet
I don't think you and I had the same professor first year for organizational behavior, but Jack Barrow was my professor. I remember him saying to us that we should all have go-to-hell money. When I became a professor, I polled some folks from my section. I was like, “What do you remember from business school?”, things I wanted to make sure my students knew. Go-to-hell-money was probably the most popular concept that came up.
That refers to the idea that - within whatever constraints you have - you may have caregiving responsibilities that cost money, you may have student debt - there may be a variety of reasons why you don't have excess money, but you have to think about not locking yourself into a lifestyle that forces you to stay in positions you don't want to be in. Jobs you don't want to be in, bosses you don't want to work for, practices you don't want to endorse, and to be in a position where you can say, “I'm out,” and walk away.
I certainly remember that as well. I've thought about it a lot over the years, as I'm sure we all have. To me, the corollary of that is to avoid the golden handcuff situation. You get into some jobs that have a lot of deferred comp. You leave, and you are walking away from so much money. You think, “I can't do that,” and so you stay. At the end of the day, people would all be better off if they could be where they are the happiest and most engaged.
I understand the concept of deferred compensation. At the same time, I have been in companies where it's worked against them because it creates a zombie class.
I told you we would keep this to an hour, so I'm going to be good to my word. It was great catching up. It has been a fun conversation. I appreciate the time.
Thank you, JR. Thank you for doing this and for having me.
I hope the book continues to have good success. I look forward to seeing it on the bookshelves and the bestseller list.
It's already on the bookshelves. We will see about the bestseller list.
I'll have to go out looking for it on the bookshelves.
That's true. I enjoy doing that. I walk into bookstores and say, “Would you like me to sign my book for you?” They always say yes. I love it.
Take care of yourself.
Thanks, Dolly. Take care.
I would like to thank Dolly for joining me and sharing her journey. If you are ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you would like more regular career insights, you can become a member. It's free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.
- The Person You Mean to Be
- A More Just Future
- TEDx Talk – Dolly Chugh
- Little House on the Prairie
- LinkedIn – PathWise
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About Dolly Chugh
Dolly Chugh is the Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. She is also the author of two books, The Person You Mean to Be and A More Just Future. Her 2018 TED Talk has been viewed over 4 million times. Dolly began her career in Finance, working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley. She then went to business school at Harvard and went into publishing as a marketing manager for Scholastic. After that and four years in the human capital consulting business, she briefly returned to Financial services, but this time in a leadership development role, before returning to Harvard to earn her PhD in Organizational Behavior and Social Pyschology.
She began teaching at NYU in 2005, where she has been ever since. Dolly also devoted a week or two each year over about 10 years to work with Kipp, training and developing school leaders in underserved communities. Apart from her dual Harvard degrees, Dolly has a Bachelors’ degree from Cornell University in Economics and Psychology. She and her family live in the New York City area.