I’m currently writing a recommendation letter for a former employee who is applying to the Wharton MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the questions they ask is “How would you describe the applicant’s sense of humor (seriously)?”
Yes, that is the question they ask–verbatim.
I was a bit surprised and quite pleased to see this question asked as part of an MBA application.
In my office I have a small life preserver hanging on a wooden plaque. Across the life preserver are the words “SENSE OF HUMOR.” I’ll have to post a photo here sometime once I get a digital camera. Yeah, I don’t have a digital camera, can you believe that?
As an entrepreneur and business owner, I’ve had my share of challenges and I recognize the importance of being able to laugh at yourself and find the humorous side of what might otherwise be a devastating situation. Sometimes a sense of humor is the only thing that keeps a person from freezing up and becoming incapable of doing what needs to be done. Sometimes a sense of humor helps people work through difficult situations that other, more serious, people might not be able to work through.
I believe a sense of humor is one of the character traits that helps people progress in business as well as in life, and I believe it is an integral part of what makes the U.S. economy so successful.
Lets suppose the purpose of an economic system is to provide as high of a standard of living as possible for its members. Certainly there is little doubt the U.S. does this better and on a larger scale than any other country in the world, all other things being equal…or even not.
Given that purpose, what factors contribute to the success of an economic system? Natural resources, educational systems, and legal systems all play a role. So does worker productivity in a large way. I believe the Soviet Union failed, in part, due to the inability of atheistic communism to provide compelling motivation for its workforce compared to capitalism, but that’s another topic altogether.
Suffice it to say, worker productivity is a large part of what makes an economic system successful. Well, what is “worker productivity?” Isn’t it synonymous with “getting things done?” If a worker is getting things done, he’s producing. If he’s not getting things done, he’s not producing.
Ok, I’m going to tell a story, the facts of which are a bit hazy to me, but I’m going to tell it as though it’s all fact. If I’m not right on all the facts I’m at least pretty close.
In 1997 I was part of a small group that had the opportunity to visit with the managing director a metals commodities exchange in New York City. This guy told the story of how when he was younger and less experienced he had been responsible for tens of millions of dollars for investors at a commodities exchange, and one day he made some bad trade and he lost it all. Years of work–gone. Tens of millions of dollars that didn’t belong to him–gone. His job–gone. His reputation–gone.
He had known of other traders in similar situations who had committed suicide, and he contemplated it himself. But as he walked home thinking about how he had just ruined his own life as well as the financial lives of his investors, he passed an art gallery and walked in. A few minutes later he walked out with an expensive painting he had just purchased.
When we visited him, the painting was hanging in his office. A reminder that no matter how much money you lose in one day, that doesn’t need to stop you from going and spending a couple grand more on an expensive painting to commemorate the event.
To me, that’s a sense of humor, and that evening it kept someone from committing suicide. Not only did a sense of humor preserve a human being’s life, but today that man is the managing director of an important financial institution that directly impacts the global economy. If he had committed suicide, there would have been a smaller pool of candidates for that director position, and perhaps the person who would have been chosen in his place wouldn’t have done as good of a job. As a result, the exchange would not run as well, and the economy would not be as successful.
Multiply this experience by a tens of millions, and the impact of what seems almost immaterial becomes critical.
Are other countries successful that don’t have such a sense of humor built into their culture? Yes. Look at Japan. Those people, especially some of the older ones, are some of the most serious, stiff, people in the world. If I were the guy who hosts the Prairie Home Companion, this would be a great place to have added “second only to Lutherans” but since I’m not Lutheran I guess I can’t crack that joke.
Japan is the world’s second largest economy, despite being a country of serious folk. This is a country known for its high suicide rate among business people. They put incredible pressure on success in education and career, but they don’t have a cultural sense of humor to deal with failure the way we do in the U.S. Still, they are incredibly successful, I just think they would be even more successful if they still had all the bright minds who have killed themselves over the years.
But backing away from the death as a detractor of worker productivity, what about the more common effects of not having a sense of humor? Not having a sense of humor can affect health, relationships, and your simple ability to function. Yes, you certainly don’t get things done for an economy when you’re dead, but you also aren’t getting things done as well when you’re sick, fighting with your wife, or playing video games at work because you’re stressed out and can’t concentrate on the work that needs to be done (I’m not talking about you Kent, it’s just an example).
A sense of humor allows someone to take something that could otherwise paralyze them for hours or days and simply move on and continue getting things done. That is why for me, as an employer, I believe it’s vitally important for my employees to have a good sense of humor. It’s gives my company an edge over more serious companies not only from a productivity standpoint, but from a worker satisfaction point of view as well.Liked it? Share it!
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