Sharing what’s at the heart of career success

Eric C. Sinoway (right) wrote “Howard’s Gift” about professor, mentor, and friend Howard Stevenson, whose most frequent advice is: “Live life forward.”
Eric C. Sinoway (right) wrote “Howard’s Gift” about professor, mentor, and friend Howard Stevenson, whose most frequent advice is: “Live life forward.”

When Eric C. Sinoway heard that his friend and colleague Howard Stevenson had suffered an unattended cardiac arrest, he writes that he felt “a punch to the gut.” But Sinoway, a businessman and now a first-time author, also felt inspired to share the wisdom he had learned over the years from Stevenson, who recovered from the heart attack. The resulting book, “Howard’s Gift,” details Stevenson’s philosophy for satisfaction in life and career through discussions between mentor and mentee.

A leader in the field of entrepreneurship, professor, author, and holder of many key positions at Harvard Business School, Stevenson believes failures can be seen as “inflection points” — changes in one’s life that can be leveraged in a positive way. That point of view is bolstered throughout “Howard’s Gift” by conversations Sinoway has with other friends and well-known individuals, including broadcaster Soledad O’Brien and Nancy Brinker, a former US ambassador and the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Stevenson, Sinoway, and the book’s coauthor, Merrill Meadow, took time between speaking events to talk with the Globe.

Q. How did the two of you meet?


Sinoway: We met when I was a midcareer student here at the Kennedy School. We did an independent study; I fell in love with this guy. I thought that lots of people are Harvard are smart, but I thought he was wise.

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Q. Was there any part of your relationship that was hard to capture for the book?

Stevenson: Relationships aren’t parts, they’re wholes. If you think about it, one of the challenges you face is how public you want to be.

Sinoway: It’s a very personal book.

Stevenson: I think he and Merrill did a great job of capturing a relationship between us, but you also have to think about how much you want to be out there. I am not a person who has particularly hired P.R. agents to put myself out there.


Q. Howard, what advice do you find yourself giving most often?

Stevenson: Live life forward. People have a tendency to try to either justify or change the past, but you can’t. You can only change the future. Living life forward is sometimes a hard thing to do because you feel aggrieved by something in the past. . . . It’s hard to be optimistic, but you have to be, because only optimism will help you go forward.

Q. Eric, you write that you had the idea for this book before the recession hit. How much did you adjust the concept to be relevant?

Sinoway: As it turns out, it’s two sides of the same coin. When I started this project, the economy was booming, and yet I observed that there were innumerable people who were not satisfied with their careers. . . . The world changed in 2008, and those same emotions were still present. Now there became a huge number of silent victims of the great recession. These are people who have jobs, yet are not satisfied for a variety of reasons.

Stevenson: They feel trapped.


Sinoway: There’s been a great deal of dialogue about the unemployment rate — as there should — but we feel there’s this untold story.

Q. Did you worry that it might seem unmindful when many people today are struggling just to have any job?

Stevenson: We would argue that the problem is the same. Whether you have a job you hate or you have no job, you have to use external forces to change your direction. . . . Don’t worry about your weaknesses, figure out what your strengths are, and then figure out who needs those strengths.

Q. You discuss how people often let “inflection points” pass by. How do you train yourself to notice opportunities?

Stevenson: People overestimate the risk of change. The first thing you have to ask is “Why not?”, not “Why?” If you can get in that habit, then you tend to see the inflection points, because you say, “Why not pursue that path?” You don’t have to build a positive case for change; the default option becomes “Let’s look for change.” The second thing is teaching yourself to recognize embedded opportunities. “If I take this, it opens up these possibilities.”

Q. How do you distinguish success from satisfaction?

Stevenson: If you think of success, it’s too easy to say it’s achievement: money, power, fame, et cetera. True success has other components. It has happiness. There are many people who are highly achievement-oriented who aren’t happy. There’s also significance. What have you done for other people that other people care about? . . . And then there’s legacy. Are you going to build a legacy that other people can build on? Satisfaction comes, for most people, from achieving all four kinds of success.

Interview was edited and condensed. Andrew Doerfler can be reached at andrew.doerfler@