Naomi Bagdonas ’09 takes humor seriously

Portrait of a smiling Naomi Bagdonas ’09 on campus.
January 5, 2022

Naomi Bagdonas ’09 felt she could be her full self at CMC.

“My CMC years were some of the most joyful, enriching, and mind-bending—in the best way—of my life,” she recently recalled.

“I love the ethos at CMC that you don’t need to be just one thing. You can be on the basketball team and in the theater group, an econ major and a psych major. I could take acting at Pomona, philosophy at Scripps, astronomy at Harvey Mudd, and be back in time to pond Ben Fawkes ’09.”

Naomi Bagdonas ’09 strolls through the CMC campus with a smile.
 

Now a leading expert on the intersection of humor and business, Bagdonas is the national bestselling author of “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life,” a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an executive advisor helping leaders build more innovative, collaborative, and joyful workplaces. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and in a recent TED talk. During the fall 2021 semester, she also returned to CMC as an Athenaeum speaker, helming an evening that spanned the virtues of humor and mined the depths of emotion, generating catharsis and connection.

To arrive at this ultimate CMC moment, however, Bagdonas—who studied economics and psychology as a Robert Day Scholar—initially embarked on a career as a strategy consultant, and earned her MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

But while Bagdonas climbed the corporate ladder by day, she spent her nights training in improv and sketch comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, just for fun. For years, she kept the humor work siloed. After all, it didn’t exactly scream “transferable skills” to the Fortune 50 clients she advised.

But what began as a passion for Bagdonas—who was a member of CMC theater troupe, Under the Lights—grew into a mission. She realized how powerful levity can be in “supporting mental well-being, accelerating trust, unlocking creativity, garnering influence, and defusing tension, especially when the stakes are high.” Humor, as the title of her book proudly exclaims, is serious business.

Empowered by her brilliant mentors and fellow 5C alums, Kim Christfort (Pomona) and Jen Juneau ’97, Bagdonas and her team began deploying humor to their advantage at work. That’s when Bagdonas met Jennifer Aaker, a behavioral scientist at Stanford, and the two partnered to blend the science of humor with practical applications in business.

In spring of 2017, they launched a full-quarter class at Stanford called “Humor: Serious Business”—which gets the same academic credit as Financial Accounting. In addition to co-teaching in the MBA and executive education programs at Stanford, Bagdonas and Aaker co-authored, “Humor, Seriously,” sharing stories from their conversations with leaders of all stripes—from two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

In the subsequent media tour, the pair promoted the book on “Good Morning, America,” NPR’s “Planet Money,” and in a private keynote address where they appeared on the bill between rapper/actor LL Cool J and former President George W. Bush—and somehow worked the phrase “Mama said knock you out” into their speech.

Turns out, embracing a way to be her complete self in the workplace has proven an effective strategy for Bagdonas. She credits CMC with introducing her to the idea that “you can piece together a portfolio of experiences and eventually a career comprised of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs."

And, right now, the world needs a hearty laugh or two—a way to find a balance, as Bagdonas puts it, between “gravity and levity.” Like a true CMCer, Bagdonas can support her argument that effectively piping humor into the workplace atmosphere “can make our organizations stronger and nimbler,” she said. It’s all in the science, she said.

“When we laugh, our brains release this cocktail of hormones and endorphins, which give us a feeling similar to a runner’s high. We lower our cortisol levels, making us feel calmer—like 10 minutes of meditation—and more primed for connection. We also feel more trusting and energized.”

Which again, takes us back to CMC. Bagdonas says she can crack herself up just recalling “little moments” from her college days, such as impromptu dance parties in the senior apartments, elaborate game nights behind Wohlford, and the ultimate intramural basketball league victory. Plus, there was the time that one of her friends thought adopting a hamster during senior week was a good idea. (Spoiler: It wasn’t.)

On the evening of her appearance at the Ath, Bagdonas made the rounds beforehand, asking students, “What’s one thing that brings you joy about CMC?” she recalled.

“And inevitably, the answer everyone came to was: ‘The people, the people, the people.’”

Once again, Bagdonas had made a meaningful connection.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of CMC Magazine.

Anne Bergman

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