Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

05 Nov 2007, 10:22 a.m.

Ask The Hardest Polite Question You Can

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Last week was a tough week for some kings of finance. The heads of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch jumped, or were pushed, out of their jobs. In the months prior there were rumblings at lower levels, including the "resignation" (who knows?) of a financial services executive who had come to speak to our class at Columbia back in the spring.

He gave a good presentation about becoming more than just a tech person, becoming a strategist and a leader. He may have mentioned ambition, how much you have to want that brass ring to do the work that it takes to get it.

I thought hard to find a question for the Q&A. I raised my hand and he called on me.

"How do you measure your own success?"

That's where it took a turn. He didn't talk about money he's made, or jobs he's created, or people he's mentored. He said that he wasn't sure about calling himself a success. He found great fulfillment in the challenges of his work. Once, years back, when his family was settled in a house and in their lives on the East Coast, he'd gotten a job in Detroit, and he'd uprooted his family (including his college-age child) to move them to Michigan. His wife left him.

So, he said, he didn't know whether he'd succeeded or not, how to measure that.

I said: the measure is, would you do it all over again?

Someone said "whoa." The executive thought, and the room was silent, and he said he didn't know.

I've heard classmates reference that exchange, months later. They are grateful to him for his honesty. I wonder what they'll remember me for.


05 Nov 2007, 15:50 p.m.

That's awesome. Even though I wasn't there, I will forever remember you as the person with the courage to ask the hard questions and the brain-power to have good follow-up questions. That's really cool, Sumana.

05 Nov 2007, 21:24 p.m.

Apparently, I am remembered for going around the room after a panel on comparative religions and asking all the panelists why they believed in God. It might be worth noting that the Unitarian Universalist was the most rock-solid sounding in her beliefs, at least according to the person who remembered me doing this, as I barely do remember any of it!