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How Will You Measure Your Life?

Clayton Magleby Christensen (1952-2020) was a renowned Harvard Business School professor, theorist and business consultant known for developing the theory of “disruptive innovation”. Considered the most influential business idea of the early 21st century, his work changed how people in business discussed innovation and approached management. He twice ranked number one (2011 and 2013) by Thinkers50, the premier resource of global ranking of management thinkers, inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2019, and cited as the most influential management thinker of his time by The Economist in 2020.

Yet, for all of his stellar academic and business achievement, he was remembered for his humility, warmth, eagerness to give his time to others, and patience. He lived his advice: “Don’t reserve your best business thinking for your career”, the subtitle to his 2010 HBR article: “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

Christensen poses three questions to consider. How can I be sure: (1) I’ll be happy in my career? (2) My spouse and family relationships are an enduring source of happiness? (3) I’ll stay out of jail? (This last question was personal for Christensen as Jeff Skilling of Enron was his classmate.)

Referencing his own life experiences as a form of case study, Christensen provides seven strategies that apply the best business thinking and insights to guide personal life decisions:

  • Know the Powerful Motivators: Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory finds the opportunity to grow, greater responsibility, interesting work, contributing to others, and recognition for achievements are more powerful motivators than money. “Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.” (48)
  • Create a Strategy for Your Life: Keep the purpose of your life front-and-center when deciding how to spend your time, talents, and energy. Reflect deeply on the purpose of your life—it gives direction.
  • Allocate Your Resources: How you allocate you time, talents and energy forms your life’s strategy. People driven to excel often overinvest in their careers and underinvest in their relationships (family, friends, and colleagues). When allocating your resources, remember what matters most
  • Create a Culture: The simplest tools are power tools–coercion, punishment, threats, etc. Creating respectful family and personal cultures are the result of consciously applying tools that render cooperation and respect, “doing things that are hard and learning what works.” (50)
  • Avoid the “Marginal Costs” Mistake: The ‘marginal cost’ doctrine creates a bias to leverage what what worked in the past rather than focus on capabilities for the future. Know what you stand for and where you draw your line. Yielding to a “just this once” decision based on a marginal cost analysis often results in trouble and regret. The goal is to stay out of jail!
  • Remember the Importance of Humility: Humility is the regard and esteem you hold toward others and yourself; it’s not self-deprecating attitudes or behaviors. Maintain a “humble eagerness to learn something from everybody.” (51)
  • Choose the Right Yardstick: What is the metric by which you gauge your life’s success? Whether it’s a company or an individual, what you measure is who you are. For Christensen, “I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.” (51)

Christensen taught his clients and students how to think not what to think, to focus on helping others become better people not individual prominence, and viewed business as the vehicle to maximize both. “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.” (48).

This article originated with a request from his students to address their graduating class. With the downshift in the economy, students found themselves reassessing their thinking on success and inquiring: How can we apply the business theories we learned in your class to our personal lives? Although it was known that Christensen’s thinking was informed by his deep religious faith, he was asked to share this address with HBR readers believing any audience would benefit from his strategies.

A decade later, the insights from his 2010 address are perhaps more meaningful in light of the disruption of the pandemic. May we challenge each other to answer: “How will you measure your life?”

Dr. Christensen died January 23, 2020.

Christensen, C. (2010). “How will you measure your life: Don’t reserve your best business thinking for your career.” Harvard Business Review, July-August, 46-51.

About the Author — Michele Simms

AvatarDr. Michele Simms is Professor of Management and Director, Initiative for University Excellence. Her research areas include ethics, business-public health partnerships, sustainability, and scholarship of teaching and learning. She can speak on ethics in higher education, corporate social responsibility and spirituality in the workplace.

Areas of Expertise
Ethics in Higher Education, Corporate Social Responsibility, Spirituality in the Workplace, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Business Ethics

Doctor of Philosophy - Speech Communication - Wayne State University (1991)
"Approaching Assessment from a Learning Perspective: Elevating Assessment beyond Technique"
Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability
"The Noble Profession of Business: Cultivating Responsible Practice"
Teaching Ethics
"Emerging Trends and Ethics in Corporate Social Responsibility"
Common Ground Publishing (2013)

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