Wharton professor discusses artificial barriers between spiritual and professional lives

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In 2019, Wharton School of Business professor Zeke Hernandez was interviewed by one of the most reputable business school websites, Poets and Quants, after being named one of their 40 under 40 professors in business schools worldwide. He was asked what causes him to stand out as a professor and said that in addition to wanting his students to do well academically and professionally, he also cared deeply about them becoming “good, moral leaders.”

“I also want them to be happy with their personal and professional choices,” he said. “I think too often we incorrectly separate ‘business’ from other aspects of life that make us human and social beings. So I talk about issues pertaining to life, relationships, and character in class each day. I hope students appreciate that and that perhaps one day when they have to make a complex life decision something I said will come back to them.”

On this week’s All In podcast, Zeke discussed why he believes eliminating any separation between different aspects of our lives is so important.

Listen to the full conversation with Zeke in the player below or by clicking here. You can also read a full transcript of the interview here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones Pearson: Zeke, how would you say that an understanding of the gospel perspective on light and knowledge which you touched on previously from those scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants, how has our understanding of light and knowledge and the way that our knowledge goes with us into the next life shaped your approach in your work, especially as you teach students?

Zeke Hernandez: One of the things I learned having been in a profession where I was just in it for the money, perhaps because I did not want to be poor, but not much more than that is that I just had a realization that God wants us to work not just to provide and be self-sufficient. But there was a really wise man on my mission, he actually wasn’t a member of the Church. But we had a decent relationship. And his motto was “Work is service.” That was his motto. I think he was spot on and our work, what we do every day, is one of the arenas in which we serve other people. So that’s perhaps one of the lessons I got out of that.

To answer the question you just asked me, the way I would address it is that the Gospel informs our everyday professions. If we approach our professions or what we do as one of the arenas in which we serve. And so, for me, teaching future business leaders is really cool, it’s a great opportunity to serve them, by bringing to my classes the best, the most cutting-edge knowledge so that they’re using true principles in what they do. And it also informs my research, because I feel a desire to research topics that are useful, that are practical for the world, and to do it in a way that is true, and that I’m trying to bring to bear the best that science can offer.

And I think that the other dimension to that answer is that I really believe strongly that it’s not just that our jobs are a big part of how we serve the world. But I think God is willing to guide us as much in our professional endeavors as He is in our gospel or church or family lives. Because we serve in both of those arenas, in all of those arenas. And so I think He gives us light and truth and the professional aspects of our lives as well as in our, quote, gospel lives.

You know, I think one great example of that is our Prophet President Nelson, right? I mean he was an incredibly competent world-famous heart doctor, not just as a practitioner and as a surgeon, but also as a researcher. And one of the stories he’s shared often is about how he received divine inspiration when he was developing an artificial heart, right? And he talks about how this scripture that all kingdoms have a law given unto them really inspired him to learn the laws that govern the human heart. He felt that there was divine help, that he could draw on in that really important part of his life, his profession. And so that’s kind of what I’m talking about. And that’s the model that I’ve tried to follow in everything I do.

Now, I’ll finish with a disclaimer, I’m not trying to claim that everything I do, everything I teach is flawless or divinely inspired. Right? I think human knowledge progresses in fits and starts. Sometimes we get things right, sometimes we get them wrong, then we discover a theory or evidence that supersedes outdated knowledge. And so it’s not that we get it perfectly, but I think the direction matters, right? That growth in truth and knowledge matters. And why not? Why not try to seek divine help in our endeavors? Certainly in mine, I try to.

Morgan Jones Pearson: I love that idea of considering where you’re trending, are you trending in which direction? …I love the idea that we kind of create these artificial separations, or dividers in our own lives, and think, ‘Okay, well, this is my professional life. [And] this is my spiritual life.’ But really, all of those things blend together.

Zeke Hernandez: Let me address that in two parts. And I’ll give you one that’s very specific to my field of business. But then one that I think is more general.

So you know, obviously, I study and teach business. And business I think is often seen as something like dirty or kind of a heartless profession, right? One of my most hated phrases is “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” I’m sure you’ve heard this before. And it’s as if the fact that we’re doing business justifies like cheating or taking advantage of someone else, because ‘Hey, this is impersonal.’ It’s just about money or something like that. And I do know people who truly see business that way, as a dog-eatdog zero-sum, I’m out there to destroy you. But I don’t. And I actually believe that the best business leaders don’t either because it’s just one of many human endeavors. And so it’s not only unethical to have a separate code of behavior for business than for what we do in our families or our communities, I just think it’s like fundamentally illogical because they’re all part of the same social world that we live in. So that’s kind of the business-specific take on that.

The more general point, and I’ve thought a lot about this, because I remember for some years trying to be sort of a good committed member of the church and disciple of Christ, thinking, why is it that I can’t just spend all my time trying to serve God, put myself apart and read the scriptures? And why do I have to do these other things, like, have a job or all these other distractions or volunteer in the community, go buy groceries, you know, the busy aspects of life. Why can’t I just lock myself in the temple and worship God all day long? And the answer, one day just hit me in a very clear way, which is like, all these other things aren’t distractions, they’re like exactly the point, right? Those are like the sandboxes where we serve Him, where we serve God. And so it’s artificial to separate gospel and church from job or community or whatever we do every day, my commute every day. That’s exactly where I show God, that I want to serve Him and the way I treat others as I go about those things. And so, if that’s the case, not only are these things connected, but we should also expect God to inspire and guide us and all of those things. So that’s kind of the full circle part of it for me.

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