Clayton Christensen passed away last month. Best known for his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the Harvard Business School (HBS) professor brought “disruption” into the corporate lexicon and numbered Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos among his acolytes.
Christensen believed in “building up people” and that 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.”
He measured his own life by the impact he’s had on others and put his deep religious faith at the center of his conduct. “When I pass on and have my interview with God, he is not going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, Clay Christensen, you were a famous professor at HBS.’ He’s going to say, ‘Can we just talk about the individual people you helped become better people? Can we talk about what you did to help your children become wonderful people?’”
Christensen found it startling how little thought the 900 students that HBS drew each year from the world’s best gave little thought to the purpose of their lives. He told them that that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question, because life only gets more demanding as we grow older. We take on a mortgage; we’re working 70 hours a week; we have a spouse and children.
In his 2012 book How Will You Measure Your Life? the management guru opened his life as a case study of sorts to advise students how to focus on creating strategies for living a good life.
Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy. I have a bunch of “businesses” that compete for these resources: I’m trying to have a rewarding relationship with my wife, raise great kids, contribute to my community, succeed in my career, contribute to my church, and so on. And I have exactly the same problem that a corporation does. I have a limited amount of time and energy and talent. How much do I devote to each of these pursuits?
If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.
When people who have a high need for achievement have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse, and on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem as if things are deteriorating. 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.
Am I actually allocating my own precious resources—my time and energy— to the things that matter most to me? Do I have a strategy for my life? Do I have a purpose? These are questions I am asking myself now.