Stuart and his wife Rosita live in Minneapolis, where they are both winding down their careers as professors at the U, Stuart in the Carlson School of Business, and Rosita in the College of Liberal Arts, as they move on to the next phases of life and work.
Stuart was born in Englewood, New Jersey, going from there to Lehigh University, and from there to The Ohio State University for his PhD. In those early years, there were studies and/or jobs in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois (I may have missed a couple more) along with considerable commuting between them, all before both finally ending up here some 30 years ago. They still hit the road a bit, with Stuart being a visiting scholar at places like Harvard and MIT, and plans for upcoming conferences in Copenhagen and Edinburgh.
He was photographed above as we toured the old Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which now serves as a location for CoCo, an incubator that provides work spaces for entrepreneurs. Stuart continues to be interested in the ideas he wrote about in When The Art of Perfect Timing, a book that describes how to get the timing right in any situation, when to act – when it is too early, and when it is already too late.
My father had a hardware store on “Main Street” where I grew up, and eventually sold that and joined my brother-in-law in creating a lace factory that they ran for a number of years, but eventually that was sold. I had a choice about whether I wanted to be in the lace business, or do something else. I decided to do something else, but it was interesting, because the machinery was sophisticated and the lace was intricate. My brother in law had a very fine esthetic sense. He was a mechanical genius, able to do things that other people couldn’t do.
It was called Virginia Mills, named after my niece. I did work in the lace factory during high school. My job was to tie knots in thread. For hours I would tie knots in thread.
What was family life like growing up?
I have a sister who is 13 years older, so I hardly knew her when I was growing up, but we lived in suburban America, with a front lawn and a back woods that was wonderful. It was a great adventure. It had a brook. Blackberry bushes. It was a very big woods.
The second house that we moved to had a pond in the back of it that would freeze over, and people would ice skate on it. I still remember one of the people was training for the Olympics, I think his name was Ray Corliss. The smooth speed with which he would circle that pond was dazzling. But I don’t think he made it to the Olympics
I went straight to college after high school, to Lehigh. I thought I was going to be an engineer. I started in physics, but I got lost in the Alps and decided that physics was not going to help me get down from the glacier. So I switched to philosophy.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in graduate school, so I started out in linguistics at Ohio State. From that I switched to clinical psychology and from that I switched to social psychology and I got my PhD in that.
So going back a bit. Physics did not help you get out of the Alps. Did you think philosophy would?
No, I was hiking by myself and I got stuck on a part of the trail, and it seemed that going further up was not going to do any good, and turning around seemed very precarious. So I was there for a few moments, and by the time I got down from that trail I found my self no longer interested in physics.
Had you traveled often?
I went backpacking around Europe as kids do. I went to Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany, on my own. By train, hitchhiking a lot.
Did you meet anybody interesting?
Paris is Paris. There will always be Paris.
In East Berlin I met these police in a subway station who decided to interrogate me as if I were an American spy. It was like a scene out of a movie. Because I had a map in my pocket of the Berlin wall, which I had inadvertently taken from a table in the youth hostel where I was staying. And on this map there were X’s at the weak points along the wall. And so when the East Berlin police discovered this piece of paper in my pocket, they were very unhappy. Particularly since they thought I had resisted, because even though my German was pretty good I didn’t know the word for pocket. So when they said ‘take everything out of your pockets’, I said ‘I don’t understand’.
OK, so you’re travelling from West Berlin to East Berlin with a map in your pocket showing all the weak spots in the wall. And you were detained. Did any of this surprise you?
It was just a map. I didn’t know that these X’s were weak spots. But subsequently I learned that the youth hostel where I was staying was popular with people who were planning escapes.
So it all makes sense in hindsight.
Yeah, in hindsight. So they let me go, but I decided I would not take the subway back.
Let me guess. You just looked for an X, and went through the wall?
I decided I would walk across the Brandenberg Gate, which had two tanks facing each other, one on the US side and the other on the East German side. With lots of barbed wire. And when I reached the American side, the Americans thought that I was just pretending to be an American, in order to escape. And so there was another interrogation, for me to actually prove that I was an American.
Wow. So they got you coming and going, so to speak.
So it was an interesting summer. I also stayed briefly in a monastery, where everyone had taken a vow of silence. I didn’t understand that that when I first stumbled into the place.
So you were trying to talk to them and nobody answered?
Yes then I understood, I was there for a day and left.
Fast forward then, how did you meet Rosita? I assume she talked.
I was in college, and I came back to Englewood for a party and I met her there then. She was a foreign exchange student from Brazil. And then we stayed in touch, she went back to Brazil, then she worked as a guide at the UN, then she went to one college (Oberlin), and I went to another (Lehigh). We would commute and see each other.
We stayed in touch, and eventually got married, and had dual careers, with long commutes.
Let’s go backwards from today. What have you taught at Carlson? Run through your resume.
It’s not the courses you teach that define the resume, it’s your contributions to the scientific literature. And I think in my particular case, at the University of Pennsylvania, and earlier at the City University of New York, I did some work on endings.
On endings. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. My first job before Penn – post PhD – was at the City University of New York, and there I ran a conference center on the endings of war. And I published an edited book on the subject, bringing people together to think about – in those days – the Vietnam War, and earlier conflicts. To talk about what does it mean to end with honor. Strategies of exit. How do you terminate what seems to be interminable? So I ran a conference and those papers were edited in a book that I published. There is literature in political sciences on the endings of wars.
Then the University of Pennsylvania I followed up on that, with the subject of change. If you think about change as the end of the something, and the beginning of something else. Then change will be delayed if you can’t extricate yourself from the past.
So I started to study the topic of change. Including the study of children’s bedtime rituals. Where the kids learn when something is over, and the process of psychological closure to the day.
So there’s a parallel between the ending of war and children’s bedtime stories.
Yeah, I think so.
Then as a professor teaching management, thinking about the management of change. How organizations can extricate themselves from the past, so they can move as quickly as they need to move. The management of change and transitions.
That led to another body of work, with a colleague, we introduced the concept of organizational identity, which is how organizations conceive of themselves, and how that self conception influences what they do, particularly during times of entrenchment, and the strategic choices that they face. And that paper generated a lot of interest, and spawned a lot of conferences, and other books.
My coauthors continued their work on that subject, whereas I became intrigued by the topic of timing. That was motivated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In August of 1990, I said to a colleague, that the country is going to war, and I know when it is going to be – it will be mid-January. And that turned out to be the case. And at that point, I opened my computer and tried to articulate the basis of that intuition. And when I was done, I had over a hundred pages on the subject. People have always said that timing is everything, but there was no book on the subject. People thought it was all a matter of luck, or intuition.
That led to the work, and my most recent book on timing. And I’m really just in the middle of that work. The deeper work will involve several new books and new methodologies. It is often critical to decide whether something is too early or too late. How to decide whether to move quickly or slowly. Whether to pause. These are issues most business have no systematic way to think it through. No general principles. No understanding of how to approach this question, particularly when a lot is resting on the outcome. So that’s what I’ve specialized in for the last dozen years. I want to publish more in that area.
I like to bring these discussions back to the subject of Judaism. How do you see your work relating to Judaism?
I do have a suggestion, at Passover Seders, that relates to my interest in time and timing. We tell the story of our escape from tyranny, and there is always an empty chair for Elijah. What’s missing is an empty chair for the peacemaker. So that as you think about the resolution of the various crises that seem to be endemic to the Middle East, one should not merely consider history. One should consider the future. And the way to make that material, is to place a chair for the peacemaker. We need to incorporate new possibilities into our rituals, the imaginative ways in which cooperation might emerge out of conflict.
So when I think of timing, I would say its time to institutionalize and ritualize a hope for the future and particularly as we tell the story of enemies, as part of that story, create a place for the peacemaker.
Final question, do you have any secret skills or talents?
(Pausing) I’m sorry that I didn’t take up boxing earlier. When I was writing the timing book a few years ago, I wanted to understand timing in a physical sense – so if you made a mistake you would know about it immediately.
I’d imagine boxing will do that for you.
Yes, so I got a trainer. And trained for about six months to learn something about timing as a boxer, and I found it absolutely fascinating.
Do you still box?
No, I am trying to rehab my tennis elbow. But if that comes back, I think I’d like to get back into the ring. I don’t do it for the exercise, but for the craft and skill of what it takes to move in that space. With the rhythms, the changes in direction, the strategies, the kinetics of it. But if you do a three minute round, with a one minute rest, it is formidable exercise. If I can, I would like to get back at it, because I found it intrinsically interesting.