Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen recently asked the HBS class of 2010, and the readers of the Harvard Business Review, “How will you measure your life?” (Tagline from the print edition: “Don’t reserve your best business thinking for your career.”)
We all have different ways of measuring our lives and the lives of those around us, for better and for worse. For some, this quest for meaning centers on the pursuit of happiness, while for others it might mean perfecting their bodies in search of fame and fortune. I prefer a virtual sixty-foot sailboat.
To this variety of approaches, Christensen adds his own life experiences and professional expertise. In his HBS classes, Christensen focuses on teaching models of effective business management theory and how the theory is built. After the students learn the model, they have an analytical framework rather than a set of bottom-line answers. In other words, they learn how to think, not what to think. Christensen uses this same approach when he counsels major corporations and their CEOs on how to analyze the challenges their businesses face.
On the last session of his HBS class, Christensen asks his students to turn their newly developed analytical skills back on themselves and answer three crucial questions, using his own life as a case study for evaluating the questions as they begin their careers.
(1) How can you be sure you will be happy in your career?
This question is particularly relevant to the MBA class of 2010, which entered business school in the fall of 2008 with a strong economy and endless possibilities only to find themselves facing a poor economy, more limited prospects upon graduation and, for some, massive tuition debt.
Softening this blow, Christensen recalled Frederick Herzberg’s argument that money is not the prime motivator, as opposed to the “opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.” Although he gives no specific answer to the question, he calls them to reflect on what their prime motivator may be, suggesting that they should pursue careers with the characteristics that Herzberg identified rather than merely the greatest income potential.
(2) How can you be sure that your relationships with your spouse and family become an enduring source of happiness?
To answer this question, Christensen recommends creating a strategy for your life. You must initially define your strategy and then decide how to implement it. Proper resource allocation undergirds implementation of a successful strategy. For example, businesses frequently make the mistake of funding investments that yield tangible results and immediate returns. Similarly, as an example of personal resource misallocation, Christensen cites his experience attending his HBS Class of 1979 reunions and noticing that more and more of his classmates return to reunions “unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children.” He points out that not a single one of his classmates set out with the “deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them,” and yet a larger-than-expected number implemented just that failing strategy.
He urges his students to reflect now on their purpose in life because, for most young professionals, life becomes only more demanding as their careers progress and their personal lives include children and mortgages. As an example, Christensen describes how he discovered his purpose in life while on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Despite a potentially all-consuming academic load, Christensen devoted an hour each day to reading, thinking, and praying about “why God put me on this earth.” Although he could have allocated that hour to studying his chosen field, he reasoned that he would apply his knowledge of his life’s purpose every day and that it would be a rudder in the rough seas of his life. “Without a purpose,” he cautioned, “life can become hollow.” If your purpose is financial success, where does that leave you when the bottom falls out?
Christensen highlights time, energy, and talent as the personal resources we have to ensure that our relationships will provide enduring happiness. Each of us has several personal enterprises, which may include our spouse, kids, community, career, and church. High achievers allocating resources, whether it be an extra half hour or an extra bit of energy, tend to direct those resources to endeavors that return the most immediately recognizable achievements. Contrast that paradigm with the business of raising children. “Kids misbehave every day,” Christensen points out, and it is “not until twenty years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good son or daughter.’” The result of this dichotomy? “People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers — even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”
In further addressing the second question, Christensen outlines a model called the Tools of Cooperation. The model explains how to create cooperation among constituents of an organization to propel the organization forward. Initially, “power tools,” such as coercion, threats, and punishment are used until a culture of cooperation is built. Parents likewise start raising children by using power tools while simultaneously creating a family culture. If the family culture is respectful, then the parents can rely on the culture they have created when their kids hit the teen years and power tools no longer suffice. Families have cultures, and we can be deliberate in the creation of these cultures for the benefit of each family member.
(3) How can you be sure you will stay out of jail?
This final question is neither frivolous nor academic. Shocking as it may be to ask a group of highly driven HBS over-achievers how they plan to stay out of jail, Christensen notes that two out of his thirty-two fellow Rhodes Scholar classmates spent time in jail and that Enron’s Jeff Skilling was an HBS classmate.
Christensen then shows how the model of “avoiding the ‘marginal costs’ mistake can apply to answering the third question.” In particular, rather than calculate the full cost of wrong behavior and where it eventually takes us, “we use the alluringly low ‘marginal cost’ of the action ‘just this once.’” The “marginal cost economics of ‘just this once’” provides “justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations.” Christensen recalled a moment in his life when he realized that it is “easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.” Like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, Christensen had to choose whether to adhere to a lifelong vow not to play basketball on Sunday or to disappoint his teammates in their championship collegiate basketball game. Christensen declined to play and found that his decision strengthened his resolve to adhere to that principle throughout the rest of his life. The point, of course, is about staying true to your principles and honoring your word, not simply the propriety of Sunday basketball.
Christensen also admonishes his students to remember the importance of humility. Humble people possess high self-esteem. After his students graduate from HBS, Christensen surmises that most of the people they will daily interact with may not be smarter than them, unlike their experience over the course of their educational careers. He cautions, “if your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your leaning opportunities will be very limited.” People who believe they are always the smartest guys in the room are bound to regret it.
Ultimately, Christensen counsels that you “think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.” In the end, he provides an analytical framework for accomplishing this objective, rather than a list of action items.
Have you ever considered what your metric is, and does it guide your daily living, even in the small decisions?
First published in First Things in August 2010