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On Wednesday night in Rackham Auditorium, nearly 200 students and faculty heard Ryan Ball, assistant professor of accounting at the Ross School of Business, talk Denmark, mixed martial arts and improv comedy in his ideal “last lecture” as the 26th Recipient of the Golden Apple Award. Many in the audience were former students, some of whom nominated him for the award.
The Golden Apple Award is the only teaching award on campus chosen by students honoring excellent professors whom they believe have left an impact.
In the event’s introduction, Golden Apple Co-Chair Erica Mindel, an LSA senior, said the award honors teachers who treat each lecture with the event's idea in mind.
“The Golden Apple Award honors those teachers who consistently treat each lecture as if it were their last chance to impart knowledge on their students, who engage each student to think critically and inspire discourse outside of the classroom, and who do so enthusiastically,” Mindel said.
She added that the Golden Apple Award was inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanous, who instructed his students to “get your lives in order one day before you die.”
Ball discovered he was the 2016 recipient last month after some of his students asked him to lunch and instead escorted him to a courtyard in the Business School filled with his colleagues and students. He received a record-breaking 150 nominations from the graduate students he has taught.
His lecture, titled “Accounting for Ambiguity: Lessons from Denmark, MMA & Improv,” involved anecdotes about preparing for the ambiguity in both accounting and in life.
Ball said he thinks of accounting as a science of measurement, which helps those who do not know what’s going on around them discern their surroundings.
“Measurement is repeatedly like stumbling around in a dark room until you have some idea of where the furniture is in there,” he said. “But the darkness is something that never goes away and it’s something that all of us have to grapple with.”
Ball said his job is to help students prepare for this darkness of ambiguity and uncertainty that accounting cannot measure. In turn, he said his lecture would tell three stories that show how he approaches ambiguity today.
His first story featured a Danish friend and former colleague at the University of Chicago, Hans Christensen, who would constantly complain about Denmark.
Ball said one day another former colleague, Eugene Fama, who won the Nobel Prize of Economics in 2013, asked Christensen how he could be so pessimistic about Denmark when it was rated the happiest country on earth by the World Health Organization. Christensen replied that because Danes have zero expectations, they are always pleasantly surprised.
Ball said, in the face of ambiguity, it is better to set expectations appropriately instead of having none.
“Oftentimes our happiness is tied to how surprised pleasantly or not pleasantly we are, and how surprised we are by things depends on two different things,” Ball said. “One is the actual outcome, the future outcome that oftentimes is way out of our control. But the other thing that it depends on is our expectations, how we set those expectations, and that is something that’s within your control.”
His second story centered around expecting change in the face of ambiguity. He cited the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 when Royce Gracie, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, unexpectedly won against all of his opponents, who all fought with different styles.
He said Gracie took advantage of his opponents’ inability to adapt, meaning they were too bound by the conventions of their particular styles. He used this metaphor as an example of how to cope with the different arenas in which audience members find themselves.
“You are going to find yourself in ambiguous arenas that you’ve never been in,” Ball said. “This is a metaphor for globalizing economy. What works well in the U.S. may not necessarily work as well as a strategy when you find yourself competing against a Chinese competitor … how are you going to adapt?”
He finished the story with an anecdote about when Matt Hughes unexpectedly beat the now-Hall of Famer Gracie in the UFC 60 match. He said Gracie had only used his jiu-jitsu skills while Hughes used mixed martial arts, a combination of various fighting styles. As the standards of fighting changed, Gracie forgot to adapt.
Ball said he hoped Gracie's story reminds the audience to constantly adapt to the changing world.
“When you get out of school and leave this university, make sure that you make the investment back in the most important asset of all: yourself,” he said. “Don’t stop learning even though your formal education may be done; strive to invest by continuously learning.”
In his final story, Ball discussed his first performance for an improv comedy class he took in 2006. In improv, the performers do not know what they will be performing, which Ball said is the ultimate ambiguous situation. Originally terrified of public speaking, Ball said he stumbled upon an improv comedy class and decided to sign up, unaware of the mandatory performances at the end of the class.
He said he worried about what he would be asked to do during his first performance, but once he started he realized there was nothing he could do about it but try to enjoy himself.
Now, he said he suggests students take an improv class because it is the best tool for getting used to ambiguity.
At the end of his lecture, Ball thanked all of his teachers who have impacted him to teach so passionately.
Patrick Craves, a second-year MBA student at the Business School, said he nominated Ball because he was the most energetic professor he has had at the University of Michigan, adding that Wednesday's lecture attested to his teaching styles.
“His presentation today was very Ryan Ball,” Craves said. “I mean, he related Denmark, UFC fighting and improv back to what he always teaches us, and that’s the ambiguity of accounting and how that makes it frustrating and beautiful at the same time.”
Another former student of Ball’s, Rafael Frankel, a first-year MBA student, said he was also impressed with how Ball related seemingly random topics back to accounting.
“(Ball) was giving some real examples of some things that are not related at all with accounting, but by the end he kind of showed some of the relations with accounting and the business world and how you should take those examples and take some practical things for your life,” Frankel said. “I was really impressed on the example he gave about MMA, which I am really passionate about, being Brazilian and knowing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu … but I never related it to accounting.”
In an interview after his lecture, Ball said he was thankful for his students who came to the event and put in the effort to nominate him.
“The fact that all of those students who normally don’t leave the Ross Business School would come over here to help honor me this way and to come out of the woodwork and vote like that, even reading the comments that they published in the fliers were absolutely amazing,” Ball said. "And I am just so appreciative of the feedback I get."