They sure didn’t have classes like this when I was in college. Sociology 119 is the most popular class at Penn State, and Professor Sam Richards is the reason why. When Sam asked me to co-create a ruse on his class, I learned what a master does to create conditions where learning flourishes.
The topic was income inequality—specifically, who’s to blame. Sam wanted the class to see beyond the prevailing media reporting. Our goal was to craft a powerful lesson through unexpected transparency, and I was the ploy.
Sam began the scam weeks before I arrived, with lectures focusing on the impacts of inequality. He dwelled on questions like how the class felt about the top 1% having almost 40% of the country’s wealth. He purposely riled them up each time.
Just before I entered the classroom, he read my selectively edited “elitist” bio:
“Rick Miller grew up outside Boston, Massachusetts. In high school he played three sports, was President of the National Honor Society, and graduated third in his class. At Bentley University, he played soccer, was selected for the Hall of Fame, and again graduated third in his class.
Rick began his career as a sales trainee in tech firm Sperry Corporation where he climbed the corporate ladder. He was sent to a company-sponsored MBA program at Columbia University. After graduation, he was promoted several more times, rising to Vice President and General Manager.
Later, he held positions as President of Global Services at AT&T, President and Chief Operating Officer at internet startup Opus360, Chief Sales Officer at Lucent Technologies, and as President at Lucent’s Government subsidiary.
Rick served as a board member at the Joslin Diabetes Center, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School and is currently CEO at his own consulting company, Being Chief, LLC.
Class, meet a member of the one percent.”
As I walked into the room, the class applauded politely and I remember thinking, “I’m glad they don’t have anything to throw at me.” The animosity was palpable.
Sam started the session by asking me questions that reinforced the attitudes already held by many in the room.
“How many people have you laid off in your career? Did your Ivy League degree give you any advantages? Do you ever feel guilty because of all the advantages you’ve had in your career and life?” Ouch!
After 20 minutes, Sam told the class I had to leave because “my helicopter was waiting.” After I left the class, Sam conducted a real-time survey. Each class member responded to three questions on their smartphones.
Rick Miller is like everybody else in the “one percent.”
- I’m not sure
When you think about the impact of inequality and power on ordinary people’s lives, Rick Miller “gets it.”
- I’m not sure
Rick Miller cares about people other than himself.
- I’m not sure
The class overwhelming concluded that I was like everyone else in the 1%, I don’t “get it,” and I only care about myself.
Then Sam flipped the switch and let the class in on the game. He shared that I hadn’t really left, there was no helicopter, and I was coming back in. But first he wanted to reintroduce me with information you won’t find on my LinkedIn bio.
“Rick grew up in a lower middle-class family, the eldest son of three boys, raised in effect by a single parent since his mother was in and out of mental hospitals for much of his youth.
Rick’s family moved numerous times as his father was laid off several times. Always the new kid, Rick was regularly beaten up by neighborhood bullies. All the while, he took responsibility for keeping things running at home and worked very hard in school.
Rick chose Bentley to be close to home so he could support his Dad when needed. He covered room and board costs by working as a Resident Assistant but he left Bentley with a large five-figure debt. During his junior year Rick contracted type-one diabetes. Doctors believe the trigger was stress that occurred during finals, after Rick’s mother attempted suicide, his grandfather died suddenly, and a close friend who was gay killed himself shortly after Rick made it clear that friendship was all Rick could offer.
After graduating, Rick took a commission-based sales job even though it scared him that his paychecks wouldn’t be guaranteed. Growing up with no money, he was afraid of any job that did not offer predictable pay. Rick lived at home after graduation. He saved money for an entire year from a meager $25-per-day meal allowance that he received during training at Sperry, eating hotdogs for lunch and dinner in order to purchase his wife’s engagement ring. They married a month after she graduated, although she didn’t attend her graduation because her parents could not afford to attend both the graduation and the wedding.
At Sperry, Rick was unconventional from the start. When he got to his first management job, he not only hired the first female sales rep in the office, but since there were no female role models for her to learn from, he also convinced senior management to pay $10,000 for a customized training program to help her succeed.
Rick’s unconventional approach caught the attention of a top executive at AT&T and soon he was the first outsider in 100 years to be hired as a line Vice President at that company.
Rick’s unconventional approach worked again at AT&T, and he was later promoted to President. Unfortunately, Rick got a new boss whose values did not align with his own values of truth and honesty. Rick made a tough decision and decided to leave the company.
Rick was recruited to work for the internet startup Opus360. However, the NASDAQ crashed just one month after he started. Rick got an apartment in NYC and saw even less of his wife and children, ages 9 and 7 at the time. He left Opus360 after a merger.
During Rick’s first break from work in 20 years, he volunteered at a rehab center working with therapists helping kids with cerebral palsy, coached kids with diabetes at summer camps, and founded a nonprofit to help other nonprofits be more effective.
Rick was later recruited by Lucent Technologies where he stayed for five years. He finally left corporate life when his children entered high school so he could finally spend more time with his family.
Class, here’s Rick Miller once again.”
This time the class applauded much more enthusiastically when I re-entered the room. Having shed my suit and tie, I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. And the mood had shifted.
Sam’s questions shifted too. “What tips would you have for anyone trying to balance the demands of work, health, and family? What do you wish you knew when you were a college student that you know now?” After 30 minutes of great interaction, Sam announced it was indeed time for me to leave. There was an audible sigh from the class. They didn’t want me to go!
Sam then repeated the survey questions, but the results differed. The class overwhelmingly shared I was not like everyone else in the 1%, I do “get it,” and I care about a lot more than myself. Thirty minutes changed the view of over 800 intelligent college students.
If you’d like to increase your impact on others, be more transparent. If you’d like to get a gauge more broadly on how powerful you are take a short survey to find out.