[Note: I read this book in September 2013 and it remains one of my all-time favorites.]
Clayton Christensen is known to many through his bestselling business classic: ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma‘. As a long-time Harvard Business School Professor, he is well-respected in business circles globally for bringing valuable perspectives to business growth and evolution theories and practices – particularly disruption and innovation.
After the many bestselling business books and articles that Christensen has written throughout his career, this particular book, ‘How Will You Measure Your Life‘, was somewhat of a departure from his usual oeuvre. The genesis is a series of conversations that Christensen had with his final year Harvard business students about how they would start and go on with their personal and professional lives. After his 2010 cancer diagnosis, his own sense of the relevance of those conversations was heightened. The state of the economy at the time also meant that many students were questioning their possible professional choices post-graduation with more uncertainty and doubt. Their biggest question was how to find a career that would be both meaningful and satisfying. Christensen and his co-authors found this to also be a worrying question for professionals and business leaders across all different career stages. And, while there are many self-help books out there with plenty of anecdotal advice, Christensen was not able to find any resources with universal theories that could be applied to most situations or questions. This is what prompted him to start the classroom conversations, and eventually led to the book.
A few words about the co-authors: James Allworth was a student of Christensen’s at the time the latter’s cancer was diagnosed and participated in the aforementioned class discussions. Karen Dillon was the Harvard Business Review Editor at the same time and had been working with Christensen to turn the class conversations into a Harvard Business Review article. Both have gone on to other things since the book came out, but, no doubt, taken its many lessons with them for life.
Let me now say what this book is not. It is not a deep philosophy text, despite the title. Nor is it a self- help book or a how-to guide. And, for those who are familiar with Christensen’s religious faith (he is a Mormon), this book is secular enough to appeal to non-religious readers.
The best summary description is that the book is a distillation of the top 10-15 business theories that Christensen is known for influencing and/or creating and their application to the personal domains of life and career management. An interesting approach. Rather a coming of full circle from the early management and business theories by the likes of Peter Drucker, Edgar Schein, et al, which they had created by applying and adapting the more universal life philosophies. Christensen wrote that he felt this framing approach of applying business theories to life worked for him and his students for a couple of reasons:
1) The disruption and innovation theories had been applied to various types of businesses and over time – making them tried, tested, proven, valid, somewhat universal.
2) The types of business problems we deal with daily are similar to the types of problems we deal with in our personal lives (and vice versa, as the earlier business thinkers showed us). Whether it is about prioritizing needs, setting goals, dealing with finite/scarce resources, managing opportunities and threats, we do these things both in life and in business.
The book is structured around the key business theories, starting with why we should care about theories at all and explaining the basics of the two core ones – disruption and innovation. Then, there are chapters on various other theories like incentives, motivation, deliberate and emergent strategies, discovery-driven planning, strategy development, capital management, entrepreneurship evolution, managing stall points, jobs-based segmentation, insourcing/outsourcing, disruptive growth, new ventures, creativity, culture, marginal cost thinking, etc.
With each chapter, the authors give an overview of the particular theory, along with key business examples, and then describe how the theory works in the personal context with a couple of examples from Christensen’s own personal experiences. Aside from the latter, there are really no other personal anecdotes. The aim is to ensure that readers grasp the theory fully first, understand how it applies to personal life, then do their own thinking and application for their individual situations. You can search the Harvard Business Review archives for articles on any of these theories, if so inclined, or read this quick Business Insider overview of all of them.
The theory that resonated most with me was towards the end – on marginal cost thinking. Christensen recounts an anecdote when, as an Oxford student, he decided he could not play basketball on Sundays as that was his time for church and other religious activities. As he was the starting center, this was a big problem for his coach and team, particularly as they had a championship game coming up. Christensen decided not to resort to the “just this once” rationale that most of us would have done, given similar circumstances. His belief is that, if we allow ourselves to cross that line even once, we open ourselves up to doing so again and again in other situations as well. He summarizes it as follows:
It’s easier to hold your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold them 98% of the time. The boundary – your personal moral line – is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again. Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.
Many of us give in to the “just this once” syndrome daily in many micro-decisions without too much thought of the longer-term impact. So, Christensen wanted this to be the biggest takeaway for readers: have a sense of purpose and commit to it – not 98% of the time but 100% of the time. And, while this is not a new idea, his articulation of his own thought process and approach to doing just that is compelling. If you buy and read this book for this section alone, it will be money worth spent.
Let me list 2-3 other takeaways too:
— “What job am I being hired to do?” – This is not as obvious as it sounds. Christensen gives an example of a fast food place trying to figure out how to get customers to buy more smoothies. Analyzing purchasing habits actually sent them down the wrong path. When they started asking customers what they really needed from their smoothies, the answers led them to really understand the “jobs” their smoothies need to be fulfilling for their customers. Applying this to your personal relationships is the lesson here – what job are you being hired to do at a particular time by that friend or family member in need, for example, is not something we consider easily and in the moment.
— The experience of learning from experiences — the meta-experience, if you will — is not something everyone has mastered. So, while they may have gone through a lot of different things in life, they may not have learned from them necessarily. This was a key aspect I looked for in job interviews during my corporate career and, it applies well to the personal domain.
— Resources, processes, and priorities — Christensen writes a lot about this. In particular, the point of how parents need to provide all three to their children is a tricky one. He explains how a lot of parents focus on providing abundant resources, but fall short on teaching (through example, not just words) on the processes and priorities that children need to get on in life. These latter two are typically outsourced to teachers and friends. The question Christensen asks is this: If your children gain their priorities and values from other people, whose children are they? As I said, this is a tricky one as today’s economy means that there are many parents working long hours just to make ends meet. But, it is a point well-made if you read the entire section.
After reading this book, I was reminded of another one that I had read years ago, very early in my own career, when I did not have professors or mentors like Christensen to guide me: ‘The Highest Goal‘ by Michael Ray. Ray is a Stanford Professor and, for 25 years or so, taught a course called “Personal Creativity in Business” to Stanford Business grad students, one of whom was Jim Collins, author of that other bestseller, ‘Good to Great‘. Collins wrote a wonderful introduction to Ray’s book – a glowing former student’s tribute.
Back to Ray’s book. Like Christensen, he also exhorted his students to find and commit to their true, higher purpose. Slightly different angle, though. He described how to discover that core, higher personal goal using stories, reflections, and exercises. No, this isn’t quite the “woo-woo” stuff you might be thinking now. The most important part of the book was how he advised on the adoption of key heuristics as life credos, or “live-withs” as he called them, to be able to achieve that highest goal. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that helps reduce the cognitive load of making decisions. Rules of thumb, one might call them. Daniel Kahneman also wrote about these extensively in his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘ (another excellent book that I need to post a review on).
In a way, almost all of Christensen’s 10-15 business theories, because they’re now widely-known (though not necessarily well-understood or, I daresay, well-applied), are his recommended heuristics to be applied to our personal and professional lives so that we can find our purpose and commit to it 100%.
So, in the end, whichever school of thought you subscribe to — life credos or business theories — both are based on, I believe, the need to identify our own particular set of heuristics to commit to and then honor that commitment 100%. Easier said than done, of course. Christensen’s slim volume might be a good way to get your thinking process started. But, you will need to invest a lot more time in that thinking process, beyond merely reading, for the book to be useful and impactful. If the business theory approach is not your bag, I recommend Ray’s book instead.
Let me leave you with one last thing. When I was recently discussing this book with a friend, he turned around and said – “Well, that’s all great, of course. But, not everyone has or wants a “higher” purpose in life. Some of us just want to get on and do the best we can, you know?” I smiled because I don’t know what sort of lofty purpose he thought I was on about. Later, I emailed him this link of a 5-minute video by Adam Leipzig, a media and entertainment executive, about how “purpose” is not such a highfalutin thing after all and we’ve all got it – just that we haven’t articulated it well to ourselves. Leipzig boils it down to 5 simple questions to ask yourself. String the answers together and you’ve just identified your purpose. Watch the video and then try it. Let me know what you think. Oh, and the questions are:
- Who are you?
- What do you do? (what are you supremely qualified to teach others?)
- Who do you do it for?
- What do they need?
- How do they change as a result of what you do for them?