How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen

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When I was 5, I wanted to be a brain surgeon when I grew up.  Not an astronaut, race car driver, fire fighter, or any of the typical childhood answers.  That was that–a brain surgeon and I couldn’t be convinced otherwise.  That is, until I just KNEW I wanted to be a CEO when I was in 5th grade.  It was such a burning desire that I did my big yearlong project on what it is like to be a CEO, and I was even able to interview a local CEO.  Over the years, I have always planned out overly prescriptive courses for my life, and have had a sense of failure when way lead on to way, when detours had to be taken, and when priorities changed.

I met with Professor Christensen, and was able to ask him a few questions.  He is the most kind-hearted and authentic person I have ever met.  Wise, yet humble.
I met with Professor Christensen, and was able to ask him a few questions. He is the most kind-hearted and authentic person I have ever met. Wise, yet humble. (He’s also 6′ 8″).

Clayton Christensen had similar ideals for what his career would be, but other opportunities unfolded in such a way that he never became editor of the Wall Street Journal like he originally intended.  Reflecting on his transitions from consultant to entrepreneur to academic, he writes:

Now at age fifty-nine and after a twenty-year career in academia, I still wonder occasionally whether it is finally time to try to become editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Academia became my deliberate strategy . . . But I have not twisted shut the flow of emergent problems of opportunities.  Just as I never imagined thirty years ago I’d end up here, who knows what might be just around the corner? (p. 52)

The lesson is to remain open to unanticipated possibilities, and though having a well-thought out strategy is vital, remaining stalwart to an original plan can prove to be a hindrance to future unexpected success.

What’s the big idea?!

How Will You Measure Your Life? takes a rational approach to purposeful work and personal life utilizing business theory and applying it to individuals in their journey towards a rewarding and meaningful life.

The Three Sections

The organization of this book deals with happiness with careers, happiness with relationship, and staying out of jail . . . which I suppose has a bit to do with happiness.  In an effort to distill the message of each section, I’ll share the most representative quote along with some thoughts.

I. Finding Happiness In Your Career

If the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person. p. 75

How will you measure your life?  What and who do you want to be?  What’s going to get you there?  Is it jumping at the bait of the highest salary, best benefits or glamour appeal?  While it is beyond cliché to say money isn’t everything, it’s an adage for a reason, but it’s only half of the story .  You won’t hear any idealistic “follow your dreams” sentiments from me–I didn’t study Chemical Engineering because I continually dreamt of thermodynamics, the Schrödinger equation, and McCabe-Thiele diagrams.  Even so, the factors in life that lead to career satisfaction are simple and universal.

The “motivation factors” referred to in this book are (1) challenging work, (2) recognition, (3) responsibility, and (4) personal growth.  You may not have complete autonomy with the level of all of these at your current job, but as you drive your decisions with these four factors in mind, happiness–and typically money–will be sure to follow.

Seek out new opportunities, projects, and responsibilities.  Instead of thinking, “What do I have to do to get a promotion around here?!”, think “What are all the experiences and problems that I have to learn about and master so that what comes out at the other end is somebody who is ready and capable of becoming [Insert whatever you want to be here]?” (p. 149)

II. Finding Happiness in Your Relationships

We find ourselves forgetting to return e-mails and phone calls from our friends and our families; neglecting birthdays and other celebrations that used to be important to us . . . Given that sacrifice deepens our commitment, it’s important to ensure that what we sacrifice for is worthy of that commitment. (p. 91)

Are our family and closest friends not worthy of that commitment? Sometimes it is a sacrifice to make time to connect with friends, and it is easy to assume that family will be there for whenever you have time (in some elusive, improbable, future moment).  However, there are no quick gains to be had with happy relationships.  Often, it takes small investments with the long-term in mind. “This means . . . that the time when it is most important to invest in building strong families and close friendships is when it appears, at the surface, as if it’s not necessary.” (p. 84)

III. Staying Out of Jail

The marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher.  Yet unconsciously, we will naturally employ the marginal-cost doctrine in our personal lives. (p. 186)

Choose who you want to be.  Be consistent.  Have some integrity.  ‘Nuff said!


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