See all NewsEngineering News

How a Dog’s Love for Tennis Balls Applies to Success

Former Google VP Karen May made that connection at an October 18 StudioLab event

Karen May’s dog hasn’t gone to college or accomplished much professionally, but Annabelle might be onto something just as important.

During her October 18 talk presented by the Northwestern Personal Development StudioLab, May shared a story about her lovable pooch. A boxer mix, Annabelle is adorable, smart, funny, goofy, charming, would do almost anything for affection – and really loves tennis balls. For Annabelle, a tennis ball is the “real deal,” according to May, and she will not accept substitutes. Sometimes, May will throw a similarly sized tinfoil ball for Annabelle to fetch, and the dog will dutifully chase after the shiny object and smell it before realizing she’s been fooled.

Annabelle then walks away to start looking for the tennis ball. 

“That’s what I want all of us to do,” May said. “To notice when we get distracted, perhaps by a shiny object, and find our tennis ball.”

With an image of Annabelle on display, Karen May speaks at the event. Joseph Holtgreive is seen in the background.

May is an organizational psychologist with expertise in leadership development, change management, and executive coaching. For 10 years, she served as Google’s vice president of people development, leading a team of 250 to help Google grow from 22,000 employees to 130,000 in curious and intentional ways.

She spoke during “A Day with Dr. Karen May: The Human Side of Tech,” the third installment of the StudioLab’s lecture series, following events with Arshay Cooper and Susan Garcia Trieschmann.

With a master’s and PhD in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, May was expected to go into academia. Instead, she realized that path was her tinfoil ball and a distraction from the consulting she wanted to do.

“Having made that decision, it allowed me to follow a career path that was more closely aligned with what I had learned about myself,” May said.

To May, that means finding out what you’re good at and what you love. Once that is solved, May said, it’s easier to decide which situations to put yourself in and how to be at your best in those moments.

That came into play during May’s graduate studies, when she prepared for her oral exams in front of three esteemed professors. The audience for these exams didn’t align with May’s strengths, who was already consulting and comfortable facilitating meetings with business executives.

So instead of viewing the faculty as professors, May visualized them as clients. She even handed them agendas for the “meeting.”

“They looked at me kind of bemused. They sort of went with it, thank goodness. We went through the material in roughly the order I had outlined in my agenda, and I just kept visualizing them as my clients and that this was just a meeting I was facilitating,” May said. “They did ask me some hard questions, but I got through it.”

When May arrived home later that day, she had a voice mail from her graduate adviser. The message said the adviser was thrilled with how the oral exams went. 

“It was a really important lesson to me, because I took something where I was going to feel out of my zone, and I made it my zone,” May said. “I have kept that mindset when I’ve needed to. How can I use what I think I do well, and where am I most comfortable, in a situation that might be a little bit scary?”

That thinking allowed May to chase her tennis ball. 

“Learning who you are, learning how to make things a little bit easier for yourself, and trusting that you can count on yourself even when you can’t predict the future,” May said, “that’s your tennis ball.”

About the Personal Development StudioLab 

Joseph Holtgreive, Bruce Ankenman

Codirected by Joseph Holtgreive, assistant dean for undergraduate engineering, and Bruce Ankenman, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, the Personal Development StudioLab is a space where students develop and practice their life approach, as they hone their craft and connect with themselves and others, to create a better future. 

The StudioLab supports the McCormick School of Engineering and Northwestern University by providing students with courses, opportunities, resources, and events that increase awareness, understanding, and healthy responses to their physical, emotional, and cognitive experiences.  

Through this environment, the StudioLab helps transform students into mindful, curious, whole-brain thinkers who integrate all elements of their being to best clarify, frame, and address the important and complex problems of life in a meaningful and fulfilling way.