Playing the Businessman: NYU Professor David Purdy



David Purdy exemplifies the winding path we celebrate at Work on Purpose. His career has included onerous years as the manager of a loan company, underpaid gigs as an actor and musician and now finally the deep fulfillment of teaching. We sat down with David to learn more about his Heart at Work.

David, I am delighted to interview you! You’ve been everything from an actor to a musician to a businessman, and now you are a faculty member at NYU Stern School of Business. How did that happen?

No one is more surprised to be in academia than I am! I didn’t like school when I was a kid and when a friend said I should be a teacher, I thought that was an absurd idea.

But now I love it. Academia has changed. It isn’t just about ideas; it’s about learning by putting those ideas to work. That’s the best way to learn. But I’ve changed too. I used to think that work was work and that making the world a better place happened somewhere else. The idea that you can do well by doing good is new to me. I guess I’m a slow learner because it took me thirty years to learn that lesson. Teaching shows me that my work can be purposeful, effective, and joyous.

As you know, at Work on Purpose we have a formula: Heart + Head = Hustle….

I have a similar framework. For me it is heart, head and guts, which, more or less, comes straight from Aristotle’s ideas on logos, pathos, and ethos.

Great! Then let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us the story of how your heart, head, and guts came together to help you find your purpose.

When I was about 13 or so, my father told me: “Do what you love.” He ran a bank, which in the sixties made him seem like ‘the Man’—just short of being evil. So I had no idea what ‘doing what you love’ meant in the real world. The only thing I really loved to do was to sing in a choir, so for the next decade I studied classical music.

But when I got out of college, I realized that music wasn’t going to pay the bills. So I went into business. For five years I worked my way into being the manager of a small loan company, and that was the worst job I ever had. Making loans and then collecting them—that’s a very adult activity and it wasn’t fun. But that job taught me the fundamentals of business: selling, collecting… and getting paid. If I could do those things, I figured I would never starve.

That may sound silly but it was the early 80s and times were almost as bad as 2008. I hated that job most of the time but I was thrilled to have a job. I felt I needed to put my heart on the shelf to do this work, and that’s what I did. You have to put on a tough exterior to have people pay you. I had to be tough in order to get other people to pay their bills so I could pay mine.

But along the way I learned to feel compassion for those people.

Long story less long, I worked very hard for very little pay, and it wasn’t fun. So I decided that if I was going to work that hard, I wanted to make more money, so I went and got an MBA in finance. (In the meantime, I left my heart back up on that shelf.)

It was a lot easier to make more money with an MBA. My title was Senior Corporate Planning Analyst in the planning department of a huge financial service company. I designed and ran very large and complex financial simulation models. I liked it but over time it turned my brain into mush. It was almost totally quantitative.

And so five years in, I finally took my heart off the shelf and said, “Hey I like working with people,” so I went into financial communications—investor relations. That’s when I started to do amateur theater.

What kind of amateur theater?

Musical theater. I had musical training, but hadn’t acted. There was something magical that happened on the stage—a sense of being connected with all those souls in the audience. Oddly, I also started to notice the same kind of connection with other business people.

Through those two media I learned something that felt deeply important. It made me think of what my father had said: “Do what you love.” I had found this thing that helped me connect to people—something transcendent. The people, the focused moments you have on stage. I decided to quit business and become an actor. I had made some money, but now wanted something that would engage my artistic side. Also, I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and before I got too old to play the young dad parts, I had better hop on it. So I quit my job, started studying acting, and went on lots of auditions.

How long were you a full-time actor?

Three years. I was mostly on stage, but also did TV, film, training seminars, and a little bit of commercial voice-over work. I also worked in an art framing shop to pay the bills. Learning to be an actor was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

How so?

Acting is not about pretending. It’s about being authentically you. You have to figure out who you are so you can use those parts of you that work for the character.

Then you allow those parts to come out in service of something greater than you are—the intent of the playwright, or the composer, but ultimately in service of the audience.

It was a painful process, stripping away my business persona and trying to figure out what parts of me were real. But I’m grateful that I did it.

How did you wind up back in business?

Given my ‘type’, I kept getting cast as a businessman. The irony was that I got paid very little money to play the person I had actually been. Over time it became clear I was in the wrong place.

I once played a businessman in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Part of that character was me, and part was my father. It cast a light on my experiences as a businessman that was painful. No one wants to be stuck in their own head—playing themselves.

Being an actor taught me that I needed to use my heart and my head to be truly successful at whatever I did. And that led me to teaching, and now teaching at NYU.

For the last two years I have been an adjunct professor for the management communication program at the Stern School of Business. The fall of this year will be my first semester as a full-time clinical assistant professor. I teach a range of courses wrapped around communications skills such as writing and speaking. At the heart of what I teach, though, is how to connect, communicate, and collaborate with other people. I love it!

And yet, you really struggled as a businessman. How do you, as a business professor, you ensure that those you teach don’t struggle in the same way you did?

Stern makes it a lot easier. The school requires students to consider the rightful role of business in the larger world, and what you should or should not do as a businessperson. We talk about the latest news—how the theories play out in the real world. What it comes down to, more often than not, is that just making as much money as you possibly can doesn’t work. If you don’t treat people well along the way, it’s going to bite you in the butt.

Also I have them look for an unmet need in society and explain how a corporation or social venture might serve that need. They develop a proposal that they can support, and communicate it effectively.

What advice do you have for those at the earlier stages of their work lives?

Over 15 years in business I saw a lot of pain and suffering. Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I saw a lot of people who hate their work, whose hearts weren’t engaged.

Don’t put your heart on the shelf. It’s an important part of your body, so let it beat. If your work makes you feel bad, that means something. Just because you can’t measure it doesn’t mean that feeling isn’t telling you something important.

Thank you David. I have just one last question. Recognizing that Work on Purpose defines your “work” as much more than that for which you are paid, how would you sum up your work today?

On the wrong side of 50 I have one organizing principle: I want to help people bring their full humanity to what they do.

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