Life’s Work 2012: HBR Interviews 10 Intriguing People

The last page of every issue of Harvard Business Review is an interview with one incredibly successful person: an athlete, an , an . But, after three years of doing these, we’ve started to discover that even the most successful careers are still careers in transition: the athlete is becoming an author; the , an activist; the admiral, a diplomat.

Below, key lessons from this year’s batch of interviewees. You can also see excerpts from 2010 and 2011.

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Kareem Abdul Jabar made the transition from star basketball player to New York Times best-selling author with his first history book, Black Profiles in Courage. He talked to about overcoming his natural introversion. “I had no one to explain the value of public relations to me [early in my ]… Being at the top of my game and working as hard as I could for the who employed me — that was my primary focus, and everything else was secondary. When it came to talking to , I was kind of reserved. But shyness is something you have to overcome.”

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James Patterson‘s first novel won a prestigious award — after being turned down by 31 publishers. He’s gone on to write best-seller after best-seller, employing a crew of collaborators, but always relying on his intuition. “I’ve been lower-middle-class, I’ve been middle-class, I’ve been well-to-do. I’ve lived in the South, I’ve lived in the Northeast. I’ve lived with all kinds of people… I just have a feeling for what’s going to stick to the wall, what’s going to move people. I remember one Southern colleague, very funny, who said, ‘If Patterson says a grasshopper can pull a plow, hitch up that little motherfucker.'”

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Ai Weiwei is an artist and human rights activist whose political activities have repeatedly brought him into conflict with the Chinese government. He talked to us about, among other things, how he focuses on small things that have a big impact. “You don’t have to do much. I feel powerless all the time, but I regain my energy by making a very small difference that won’t cost me much… If I learned anything from my father, it was sincerity. He never knew if he would survive, but when he cleaned toilets [in labor camps], he did it to perfection. That gave him the same joy he got from writing a beautiful line of poetry.”

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War correspondent Christiane Amanpour discussed truth-telling. In the war in Bosnia, “I was seeing a war against civilians, and so I had to adjust the way I looked at it, the way I covered it, the way I talked about it. I was questioned early on about my objectivity. And I was very upset about it because objectivity is our golden rule, and I take it very seriously. But I was forced to examine what objectivity really means, and I realized that in a situation such as the one in Bosnia, where you had an ethnic cleansing — genocide — you have a duty to call it like it is and tell the truth. Objectivity, in that regard, means giving all sides a fair hearing but never drawing a false moral equivalence.”

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We asked Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, how he bridges cultural divides, whether it’s between Democrats and Republicans or between Americans and foreign powers. His answer? “Persistence. And you need to be very sincere. I’ve always worked hard to build relationships with key people and to try to see things from their perspective, even if I don’t agree with it.”

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Bela Karolyi coached the US women’s gymnastics team to gold at the 2012 Olympic Games, adding to a long and storied coaching career. But first, he had to fight his way back to the gym after defecting from Romania, learning English, and working as a cleaner. He told us how he adapts his style to the people he coaches: “Over the years there were very few instances when I had kids with the same character, the same drive, the same personality. Even the ones who get to the top of the pyramid — they’re so different. So you have to take them individually, find out what part of their mind is clicking, what part of their character is responding to you, and what’s the one thing you have to avoid.”

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Only a few months before she died at age 61, astronaut Sally Ride spoke with HBR about transitioning from scientist to role model to education activist. We asked her for the best way to spur innovation in any field. “What you find is that there are a zillion ideas out there from an awful lot of innovative people, but they’re working at the local level and may not have the wherewithal to bring their ideas to a bigger audience — say, an entire school district or an entire state. So I think it’s less about trying to generate a whole new set of ideas and more about bringing all the good ideas together, prioritizing them, and giving them the impetus they need to have an impact on a scale larger than they do now.”

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Barbra Streisand has been a singer, actress, director, producer, and philanthropist. She also famously suffers from severe stage fright. We asked her how, as a director, she brings a cast together quickly to collaborate with people they don’t know very well. “Sets become like a family with their own dynamic. As a director, you want to create an atmosphere of trust. My favorite part is the challenge of how to tell a story and get the best performances out of the actors. So I try to get to know them. I find out who they are, what their childhoods were like, what makes them tick.”

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We talked with decorated novelist (and avid hiker) Ian McEwan about harnessing creativity. “I think it’s important in creativity to understand the value of hesitation, to not be in a rush, to pull back and pause — not because you’re blocked, not because you don’t know what to do, but just to let things enrich themselves.”

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We talked with Nobel laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus about scaling up. “I look just at one plot, not the whole plantation. I do the plot and it works, so I do the next plot the same way. You start with 100 people and then move to the next 100 people… you’re adding up to a bigger scale at a gradual speed. Then you have to monitor and start linking the structure and so on. But you’re not designing at the outset for a million people, starting with a megastructure. You’re moving step by step.”


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