Howard Gardner

The GoodWork Projects: An Overview

VTR Date: May 1, 2007

Howard Gardner discusses his GoodWork project.


GUEST: Howard Gardner
VTR: 05/01/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And because the concept of multiple intelligences with which he has been so closely identified has provided us such profound insights into teaching and learning generally, and because over the years he has in so many ways contributed to American education, I’m pleased that once again my Open Mind guest is Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, who, given the range of his researches, writings and awards, has quite appropriately been hailed as one of America’s most interesting psychologists.

Professor Gardner has agreed to record two Open Mind programs with me today…with this first one harking back half a decade to a conversation we had on “Doing Good and Doing Well”. We were referring then to a Basic Books volume he and his co-authors had titled Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet.

Not so long ago they produced what they call an “Overview” of their GoodWork Project. And since earlier at this table I had expressed more than a little skepticism to Howard Gardner about the point at which “Excellence and Ethics” CAN meet in modern America, in our 21st Century “Gilded Age”, I want to ask my guest just what this “overview” of the GoodWork project does reveal. What does it show us?

GARDNER: Well, first of all it’s always a pleasure to be on the program with you and especially to have a chance to return to the GoodWork Project which, since the middle 1990s has been my principal research enterprise, along with colleagues Mike Csikszentmihalyi and Bill Damon and many other researchers as well. We’ve been trying to understand what “good work” is, what makes it difficult to achieve, and in the last few years since the book was published … how to work, particularly with young people, to not only familiarize them with the concept of good work, but to try to encourage them to become good workers.

So, what is good work? It’s work that has three characteristics. First of all it’s excellent in quality, it’s technically unimpeachable. Second of all, it’s personally engaging, people want to do it, they get meaning out of it. And third of all, it’s carried out in an ethical way. And that doesn’t mean that people always succeed in being ethical, nobody can bat 100% on ethics, but that individuals who are workers are always thinking about the implications of what they’re doing for other people and for the broader society.

And while that doesn’t guarantee that you will be a good worker, it certainly makes it more likely than if you never thought about the implications or you simply assumed that everything that you did was ethical.

So, over the last dozen years we interviewed over 1,200 people in 9 different professions … law, medicine, higher education, philanthropy and so on and asked them about “how do you work?”. And what are the obstacles to achieving good work? And what are the kinds of things which are enablers and we’ve come up with lots of answers to those questions and now the term I use is we’re trying to give the project away, meaning trying to help young people think about work before it’s too late.

HEFFNER: What do you mean … before it’s too late?

GARDNER: One of the problems is if you start out at the work place doing what we call compromised work, cutting corners, faking things, hoping that somehow you will escape detection when you do, when you do something that’s not kosher. It’s very, very hard, later on to correct things.

There’s a very, very poignant story that’s in the news now in the year 2007 about a Dean of Admission at MIT who was actually very well thought of … I didn’t know her personally, but had a very high opinion of her. 28 years before when she went to work at MIT as a person in her 20s she had misrepresented her qualifications. She said she had degrees from universities and she didn’t. And for 28 years this remained undetected. However, in the 29th year she got found out, she had to resign in disgrace. And that, I think, is a wake-up call for anybody who thinks that if you fake your credentials that you can get away with it indefinitely.

HEFFNER: No sense of redemption here?

GARDNER: I would love to personally … to give her redemption because I think that she ended up being a good worker in many, many important ways. On the other hand she turned out to be not an embodiment of her own advice. She told students always to report very accurately what they did, not to “buff up” their credentials. She also told them, you know, getting into a certain school isn’t what it’s all about. And yet, it’s quite clear that in her own life she didn’t follow that advice.

Now one question … we’re going to actually have a class on this next week because I’m teaching this … is, if she had done this and then sometime later had kind of gone public about it and asked for forgiveness. Would she have been given more latitude? In fact she, in her statement of resignation, she said she never had the courage to announce what she had done wrong. And I think that certainly in the broader society we have a notion of forgiveness. Within institutions there are different levels of forgiveness.

A good example is if you pick up an OpEd by a politician you assume that it was written by some kind of an employee, a lackey, a ghost writer. If you pick up an OpEd and it’s written by a university professor and that’s been ghost written, that’s a much more serious matter because it’s assumed that the university professor does not hire somebody else to write his or her words.

HEFFNER: You know, Howard, I’m a little concerned … I don’t fully understand … now you talked about if you start at the beginning … if we can get, before it’s too late … to young people to think about doing good and doing good works … that’s your objective.

Here we had a person in terms of our admissions counselor who had done wonderfully good work, by all accounts, for all the years of her life beyond that one point at which she indicated that she had certain degrees that she didn’t have. Where are we there? What is the holier than thou position or posture that we have taken.

Certainly it’s been in all the papers … everyone seems to have been satisfied, if that’s the right word, with her forced resignation.

GARDNER: I think this is not a case that is easy to be Olympian about, but in work that I did on leadership which I actually I spoke on this program about … I said the leader is an individual who has a narrative and a leader is effective to the extent that people find the narrative credible and want to be part of that narrative.

However, if the leader himself or herself doesn’t embody the narrative … if their own life undermines it, that makes them non-credible. I think the question that we really need to focus on is not “should she have been able to stay at MIT?”, and I think that they … the university had no choice but to dismiss her … but rather what institutions, universities or otherwise might be able to make use of her expertise and, you know, I certainly believe in redemption, whether it’s for Charles Coulson or for Marylee Jones or maybe even for Richard Nixon.

But, there’s a difference between redemption … subspecie eternitas … and redemption within, within your job. As we’re talking, there are two people who’s careers are on the line Paul Wolcowicz who was the head of the World Bank, Alberto Gonzales, who is the Attorney General of the United States.

Presumably if they lose their jobs sooner or later, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be put out to pasture for the rest of their life. But I think some kind of atonement is due. Often, you know, doing some work that’s really in the public service and then we can sort of see where things turn out.

But it’s a misunderstanding of the project to say that, you know, we’re out to make judgments about people. We never know whether a person is a good worker himself or herself, that, that’s a judgment which we’re not prepared to make.

What we do want to focus on is how you and I and our children and grandchildren can be good workers and carry out good work.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m fascinated in terms of the good work project and overview … now this is January 2006 … you write here, “Given that our genetic instructions have a heavy loading for taking it easy, etc.” And I wondered, are you here basing your GoodWork Project on …

GARDNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … a sense of what the nature of human nature is?

GARDNER: I think that’s a fair gloss. But human nature has, of course, the possibility of being altered in positive ways. I think what that sentence is saying is that probably if we didn’t have cultures which supported work, and institutions which support good work and which sanction compromise for bad work, then probably many of us, if not most of us would slough off an see what we could get away with.

In this sense I’m a Freudian, civilization is a long, tough haul against the, you might say, the, the “id”, the unconscious strivings … the so called “Four Fs” … which are very, very part of human nature. But human nature is different from dog nature. I mean, you know, I think that, you know, dogs don’t have sets of goals which they can form because they live in some kind of a community. They’re pretty wired to do what they do.

Human beings, you know, are as much creatures of culture as we are creatures of our genes and it matters enormously where you’re born, where you grow up, what the values are and so on.

That’s why one of the biggest things about work is where you … where do you decide to go to work. Let’s say you have a choice between The New York Times and Fox News. You know, they both claim to be journalistic outputs. But the messages there are, very, very different. And if you had that choice, where you decide to go and what they think of you is going to be very, very important.

Similarly … and this is getting, getting close to home … you’ve graduated from a, a good college and you have lots of stripes on your sleeve. I mean do you go work for the hedge fund which pays you the most money? Do you go to work for Teach for America? Do you decide that you want to be a physician who makes millions of dollars, or a physician who goes to Africa and tries to, you know, help with the diseases that are decimating many, many people.

And we always say in our teaching about Good Work, the decision about what work to carry on is your work. But what we want you to focus on is what kind of a worker will you be? Will you be excellent in quality? Will you be personally engaged? And will you work ardently to be ethical? And that’s really my goal … for the rest of my career is to help people at least ask those questions and be accountable to themselves and to others about how those questions are answered.

HEFFNER: What are you finding out in your studies now of what they are doing?

GARDNER: The study that led us to want to work in schools, which is what we’re doing now, secondary schools and colleges was discouraging. We spoke to over a hundred young people who would be, by any definition, the best and the brightest. These were people who were at the cutting edge of three fields … journalism, genetics and theater.

And what we found was all of them knew was good work was. And by and large they admired good workers. They admired people who were excellent, engaged and ethical. But many of them told us and this is being reported again and again in the press, that they felt they couldn’t afford to be good workers now. And the reason was because they didn’t trust their peers to be straightforward, to be trustworthy, to go by the books.

They felt that their peers, their colleagues were cutting corners trying to see what they could get away with and so on. And so these young workers told us someday, when we get to be successful (often defined financially) … and have power and status … then we’ll be good workers. And then we’ll try to train our young people to be good workers. But we can’t afford to do it now because we want to be successful and if our peers are cutting corners, then we’re going to do it as well.

I’m reminded of what St. Augustin is supposed to have said, “Oh Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” And we hear these young people say, we will be good workers, but not yet.

The day that we’re speaking, it turns out that the largest number of students at Duke University have been found out to be cheating in business school. A whole set of them, you know, took an exam and shared the answers with one another. And we see this over and over again in our studies that students don’t see what’s wrong with cheating. So much so that we actually hold sessions called “Why Be Honest?”.

And I would have hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, but taking a cold view of this … and this was actually reported in the press today … it’s adaptive to cheat.

Why? And this is human nature we’re talking about … it’s adaptive to cheat in American society today because probably you won’t get caught and if you do get caught, probably nothing will happen.

So the understanding of why one should nonetheless not cheat is not simple and straightforward. There could well be cultures or sub-cultures within America. My guess is that in a place like Haverford, there isn’t much cheating going on. I’m not an expert on this, but it’s a small school where people know one another and as I recall when I was admitted there many, many years ago … before you even go you have to sign a kind of an honor code. And there are other places when you sign an honor pledge every time you take an exam. Does that make everybody honest … no. But it says, “this is something that’s a very, very important value”.

HEFFNER: Then why … the question I would raise would be why is Howard Gardner smiling? What you’ve just described is rather awful, isn’t it?

GARDNER: It is awful and I began to clip articles from the newspaper about bad work and compromised work but it’s futile because there is so much of it.

But, so what are our options? People often say, you know, wasn’t it always bad? And I say, I don’t know and I don’t care. I can’t go back to, you know, 1500 or 1900 and see how many people were cheating, were cutting corners. I love to quote Alan Greenspan who said, ‘People were … have always been greedy, but there never have been so many ways to be greedy.” And I think perhaps that’s true about, about compromised work as well.

So you can either say it’s always been bad. Or you can say, “maybe it’s worse now, but you know, we just can’t deal with it”. Or you take a … what my, my personal friend and hero, Derek Bok, the president of Harvard says, you know you say this is your, your Don Quixote stage where you try to make things better even though you’re not at all sure you’ll, you’ll be successful.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be saying in this, this Overview something else. That if it is possible for society, or in professions to have codes, to have frameworks in which you, or your counterparts, Howard, are constantly mentoring in a way, young people, than we have a better chance that honesty, decency, ethics will prevail.

GARDNER: Oh, absolutely. And perhaps we’ve been too dystopic until this point. I think there are basically four elements which co-determine whether somebody is likely to become a good worker or not.

First of all and this was not something I expected … early family values, particularly of a religious nature … and we hear this over and over again, even from people who have no religion now, but they thought it was important to be raised in a religious household. And we take this very seriously.

The other three we have labels for … vertical support, horizontal support and periodic booster shots.

HEFFNER: Explain.

GARDNER: Vertical support means having mentors who care about you, who spend time with you, who slapped your wrist, but not too hard when you make a wrong turn and who try to help you understand why that wasn’t the right things to do.

One of the perplexing parts of our studies is many people remember not just mentors but what we call tormentors or anti-mentors, people who said, “the one person whom I don’t want to be like is X”. And that, you know, that’s not something to recommend, but it is interesting that people often remember the bad role models, as well as the good. But the ones we venerate … you and Edward R. Murrow, I and John Gardner are people where we’d like to say “what would they have done in this situation?”

So that’s vertical support and one of things which everybody agrees on is in almost every profession, with the possible exception of the Academy … mentoring is on the wane. Law firms, journalism, even medicine, it’s too quick, people move around too much, people don’t have time to do that hands on mentoring day after day after day. I think it’s still alive in the Academy, but that may be waning there as well.

HEFFNER: So strike one.

GARDNER: Okay. Horizontal support. Who are your peers? Who is at the work place or in school with you … whom do you seek out as friends? Whom do you avoid because you don’t like what they’re doing, or because you do like what they’re doing. That’s horizontal support and it’s terribly important, particularly at the work place, because in addition to your boss or mentor, there’s all these other people who, in a sense, are competing with you. But the way they compete, if they do it over and above board as opposed to whether they cheat, you know, so to speak “take steroids” at the work place is very, very important.

The third thing are periodic booster shots. Even if you’re on a good work track, even if you’ve got good values from home, you’re lucky, you’ve had positive mentors and the people at work seem to be on the up and up, you can still go astray. And booster shots are things that happen in your work place, or in the broader community which are either negative wake up calls … “Whoa, pay attention. This is not good. This is to be avoided.” Or positive wake up calls.

Let me give you an example. You and I are both followers of The New York Times, both the Jason Blair episode and the Judith Miller episode were wake-up calls for people in journalism and these things were noticed in every serious print newspaper in America. And it was then up to them, do they do something about it or not?

A positive wake up call would be, you know, you’re a physician making lots of money, but increasingly frustrated and then you hear about a chance to go and work overseas for much less money, but where you can really effect a lot of people’s lives and you say, “You know, this is what I went into medicine for and I’m going to go this way, instead.”

HEFFNER: Do you think the whole setting of American life is conducive to any one of the needs that you identify here, throughout our lives?

GARDNER: It’s not very … it’s not very supportive. But the people who end up being good workers to some extent are fortunate … where they’re born … you know, geographically, and where they get into school and where they get offered jobs. But probably to some extent they make their career and they make their choices.

I mean, you have a summer job. Do you take an Internship at a place where every corner is cut, but you can make a huge amount of money. Or do you take an Internship at a place … a non-profit, which you may not make much money, you may even have to pay to work there, but you learn about part of the world that is much more needy than you are and that the satisfaction you get out of, out of helping them.

I’m not asking people to take vows of poverty. But I’m asking people to scan widely and to, and to think about long term accountability for the decisions they make.

I was a friend of James Freedman, Jim Freedman who was a great educator, the President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa. And at his memorial service there was a very poignant story told by a graduate of Dartmouth in the 1980s. She said that she had a very strong resume and she went to see Jim Friedman when she was graduating. She had her choice between working for a management consulting firm and making a lot of money or going to work for … actually to start a non-profit … and she asked Jim what to do and Jim said to her … and I can’t give you her name … Sally … “the world doesn’t really need another expert on the canning industry.”

And that’s nothing wrong with the canning industry; nothing wrong with working for management consultant … but it’s your life … you only have one. Most of us are not going to be privy to reincarnation. And I would like young people to really think about those choices and to realize they have, they have tremendous consequence.

HEFFNER: We must realize that we have two and a half to three minutes left. I know that’s a horror … but if you took one of the professions that you were dealing with … and of course, the one that I’m most interested in is journalism.

What have you found during these past five to ten years of work on this project?

GARDNER: The story from journalism is almost entirely discouraging. Serious investigative journalism which is the heartland for those of us that are Jeffersonian is in tremendous peril in this country. And that’s because it’s expensive to carry out. It may turn up nothing, or worse it may turn up something against the people who are the sponsor and the advertisers. Nonetheless, if that goes than journalism becomes entertainment. Therefore it’s absolutely crucial to have outlets … turns out to be family owned newspapers usually, which don’t have to meet quarterly earnings … where it’s the Sulzberger family, or the Graham family that says “We’re proud of what we’re doing and we want to keep doing investigative journalism.”

My own prediction is that most journalism may … serious journalism may turn out to be non-profit. Either funded by wealthy people or by foundations. And that people who want to do that may end up not working for newspapers, but for new kinds of outlets such as those that the Center of Public Integrity in Washington has pointed to, where they’re basically supported to tell things the way they are, without any, without any fear. I think as long as its … as journalism is a for profit enterprise in this country, this part of large stockholder owned companies, there isn’t much of a chance for it. And I think it’s probably true in much of the rest of the world itself.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s true in most of the rest of our national enterprises? You say it’s true in journalism.

GARDNER: Somebody who I interviewed for a GoodWork Project … a very famous journalist who wanted to remain anonymous said to me, “Journalism is an early warning signal. What’s happening in our domain is eventually going to happen in every other domain.” In areas like law, and even medicine, which is the last citadel of professionalism are really at risk now.

The difference is that doctors can fight back in a way that journalists have not been able to do yet. We mourn David Halberstam because he was somebody who represented the best of journalism.

HEFFNER: Then as we end, I ask you … why the smile on your face or is it just congenital?

GARDNER: (Laughter) Isn’t it … one has to imagine Sisyphus laughing …


GARDNER: I’d rather …

HEFFNER: I mean …

GARDNER: I’d rather perish doing this than just washing my hands of the matter or just tending my own garden. And you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing unless you felt the same way.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I, I … I’m fortunate enough to be so much closer to the end …

GARDNER: Nobody knows that, Richard.

HEFFNER: … than you are … All right. Nobody knows that. But at any rate, we’re at the end, but you’ve promised you’d stay where you are and we’ll do another program.

GARDNER: Terrific.

HEFFNER: Howard Gardner, thanks for joining me today on The Open Mind.

GARDNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.