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A Slave to His Passions

Tal Ben-Shachar

By Elissa L. Gootman

Tal Ben-Shachar '96 is a self-described slave to his passions. His internal masters are many, ranging from the athletic to the intellectual to the interpersonal. He speaks about them in measured words, in an accent that ever so slightly reveals his Israeli origins and years spent in South Africa.

Ben-Shachar's first great passion has made his name familiar to the readers of campus press--particularly the sports section of The Harvard Crimson. He served as co-captain of Harvard's varsity squash team for two years, and he was the Israeli national champion, as well as the U.S. inter-collegiate champion.

When Ben-Shachar was nine, his father's work as an engineer moved the family from Israel to South Africa for five years. The Ben-Shachars lived in a tiny village 80 kilometers south of Johannesburg where, Ben-Shachar recalls, "there was nothing to do."

"My friends lived far away from me, there was no public transportation, and school wasn't that challenging, so the only thing that I had left was play squash," he remembers. After school, Ben-Shachar would hit squash balls up and down the court, alone. He began to play in tournaments when he was 13.

When he was 14, Ben-Shachar's family moved back to Israel. Luckily, Israel's only commercial squash court was a five-minute walk from his house in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Here, Ben-Shachar's training consisted of a ten-mile run before school and about three hours of on-court afternoon practice. "My life was basically squash," he says. When given the option of graduating from high school early, Ben-Shachar accepted it. Graduating at 16 meant that he had two years to devote to squash before fulfilling his obligatory service in the Israeli army. On his final day of high school, he won his first Israeli squash championship.

Of his two free years, Ben-Shachar spent one and a half abroad, based in London (during the remaining time, he earned money to initiate his squash career). "In England, my goal was to improve as quickly as I could," he says. "I thought the best way to do it would be to play the best player that I could find."

The world champion was also based in London at the time. Ben-Shachar went to the club where the champion trained and waited "from sunrise to sunset," hoping that he would need a partner at some point. The world champion began to notice Ben-Shachar, and would play with him once in a while. Meanwhile, Ben-Shachar continued training six hours a day and "improved very quickly." After a few months, he and the world champion were regular training partners, and Ben-Shachar's world squash ranking climbed to number six.

The success of Ben-Shachar's training partner was not the only interesting element of their alliance. The world champion was a Pakistani Muslim, Ben-Shachar an Israeli Jew. "We had many interesting discussions about this," Ben-Shachar remembers. Through tournaments, he also met and befriended the Jordanian squash champion. "And then wasn't now," he points out. "Now there is peace, but then it was a little more difficult."

Ben-Shachar recalls one particularly poignant experience when politics--the hostile relationship Israel has with many Arab countries and their allies--became eminently personal. During the junior world championships, the Israeli squash team was slated to play the Malaysian team. But the Malaysian government had other plans.

The team's manager approached the Israeli players personally. "[He] came up to us and said, 'We all like you very much and we're close friends, but our government won't let us play.' I thought it was very nice for him to say, 'Here is politics. We have to adhere to that. They're sponsoring this tournament for us.' But they were able to look at [us] as human beings instead of political subjects. It helped transcend the limiting boundaries of politics."

Ben-Shachar had his own set of political commitments. Before coming to Harvard, he served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) for three years.

When he arrived at Harvard, Ben-Shachar's greatest passion was still his sport. In high school and the years that followed, "everything revolved around squash." Ben-Shachar attributes his pre-college academic success not to genuine intellectual passion, but to his sense that doing well in school "was the right thing to do." He studied hard, he says, because this "was a value I was brought up with...but my true passion was not in academics." During what Ben-Shachar describes as the "four best years of [his] life," he became enslaved to his intellectual curiosity.

Yet the defining element of these four years, says Ben-Shachar, has been personal friendships, not academics. "From the outset...I realized that this was the most important resource Harvard had to offer. So my first priority was meeting people.... The friendships [with which I am leaving] Harvard are the most important things I gained from Harvard."

One of Ben-Shachar's favorite memories took place at the end of his first year, by which time he was 22 years old. He and some friends from his dormitory, Massachusetts Hall, had returned from a night out on the Square. Amidst peals of laughter and pun-peppered conversation (puns are another Ben-Shachar passion), one friend "suddenly stopped. She looked at me very seriously and intensely, and she said to me, 'Tal, you have really immatured.'" Ben-Shachar says his immaturity process is never-ending, though he hopes it is not infinitely regressive.

Ben-Shachar began Harvard as a computer science concentrator and as a "perfectionist," which, he explains, he distinguishes from his current ideal of excellence. After brief stints with economics, cognitive science, history, math, applied math and various combinations of all those with psychology, he is graduating with a double concentration in philosophy and psychology.

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.

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 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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