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A Slave to His Passions

Tal Ben-Shachar

Ben-Shachar says his experience is testimony to the virtues of two of Harvard's most notoriously unpopular programs: Expository Writing and the Core Curriculum. Professor Stanley Cavell's Moral Reasoning core, Moral Perfectionism, inspired him to study philosophy. This was already a nascent interest: During his first year at Harvard, Ben-Shachar founded the campus Objectivist Club, but by his sophomore year he no longer ran it. Now he doesn't considers himself an Objectivist, noting the irony that Ayn Rand's highly individualist philosophy spawns "blind commitment" from her ideological "followers."

Maxine Rodberg's Expos class turned him on to writing, which is curently his "greatest passion." Ben-Shachar, who is a Crimson editor, has had his editorials published not only on the pages of The Crimson, but also in Israeli newspapers Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv. He plans to convert his thesis, "Honesty Pays," a psychological and philosophical defense of what he believes is indeed the best policy, into a book for "what philosophers would call the 'ordinary man.'"

Ben-Shachar's study of psychology has already ventured far beyond the ivory tower. In the past three years, he has worked as an organizational consultant for a multibillion dollar corporation.

Ben-Shachar spent the summer after his first year at Harvard in Singapore completing a management-track internship at The Ofer Group, an international corporation. At the end of the summer he was invited to return the following summer and, ultimately, to work for the company after graduating. He declined the offer, explaining that he was not interested in pursuing a career in business. Though the offer was attractive, Ben-Shachar notes that being a slave to his passions means he is not a slave to anything else.

Yet throughout the summer, Ben-Shachar says he had detected flaws within the workings of the corporation. Three months later, he contacted the managers and offered them an independent project: he would spend the coming summer researching ways in which the company could increase efficiency and worker satisfaction. They accepted his offer on a trial basis.

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The summer after his sophomore year, Ben-Shachar interviewed employees at all levels of the company and consulted with Harvard Psychology Professor J. Richard Hackman.

"I'd only taken one course in organizational behavior...so as far as I was concerned, I was on virgin territory," he says. "So I relied basically on listening. I just listened to many people and tried to extract the main principles. I [worked according to] trial and error, and through the advice of [Professor] Hackman, I was able to minimize the errors and improve the organization." Ben-Shachar's conclusions yielded "substantial changes" in the organization and, he says, "they were successful."

Last December and again last summer, he returned to Singapore to lead workshops on motivation, excellence and leadership for the company's general staff as well as its top management team. He came up with the material for these workshops by reading "everything [he] could get [his] hands on," and by reflecting upon his own experience as a leader (squash co-captain) and as "one who is being led" (IDF soldier). "Issues of leadership and motivation are things that I've been grappling with my whole life," he says, "whether it was in the army, whether it was in squash, in terms of motivation, whether it was as captain of the squash team--so I did have experience, even though I did not have experience in business organization."

This summer, Ben-Shachar will continue to lead workshops in Singapore. He is also helping to coordinate a two-week leadership program for next year's seven South African Nieman Fellows. In August, he and Lana Israel '97 will lead a week-long educational intervention program for township children in South Africa. Their goal, he says, is to "empower these children--to increase their belief in themselves, help them set goals, clarify their values [and] get a vision for themselves and for their community, so they can give back to their community." The program is being sponsored by Argus, a South African newspaper. Ben-Shachar and Israel conceive of it as a pilot program, which they hope to implement in other countries in the future.

Ultimately, Ben-Shachar plans to meld his interests in education, philosophy and psychology. Having received Harvard's John Eliot Fellowship, next year Ben-Shachar is off to Cambridge, where he will study "education from a psychological and philosophic perspective." Afterwards, he plans to attend graduate school in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program that will allow him to explore his interest in the synergistic relationship among these three fields--perhaps Harvard's Organizational Behavior program, which includes coursework in the psychology or sociology departments and at Harvard Business School, and which offers an "ethics and the professions" program that would allow Ben-Shachar to continue philosophizing.

Ben-Shachar notes that others are often amazed by his definitive-sounding future plans. He finds this amusing, pointing out that "if you had asked me at [another] stage of my life, 'What do you want to do?' I would have told you, 'I definitely want to be a doctor.'" After explaining his plans for the future, Ben-Shachar made a point of "qualifying it with the fact that they are bound to change."

"I'm a slave to my passions," he smiles. "So my passions change, and my career path changes."

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