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24 November 2020

Key Lessons from Clayton Christensen’s: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Jairek Robbins

The ongoing pandemic and the attendant stay-at-home orders have forced us to spend a lot more time with (or within?) ourselves, and many of us may not have liked what our introspections during the self-isolation revealed. If you have realized that your life needs a new direction, then the book How Will You Measure Your Life? may be just what you need. The book is filled with lots of career and life lessons, and this post shares some of the key takeaways you will find when you read this must-read book.

A fulfilling job is more than what your title or salary is

Many people hop from one job to another searching for better pay and benefits. They think that when they are paid well, they will be happy with their jobs. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as Clayton Christensen reveals in his book.

The author says, and rightly so, that we derive happiness and satisfaction at work when we do things which are challenging, when we have opportunities to grow, when we are recognized and appreciated for our contributions, and when we contribute to society in some way.

No amount of pay or job titles will make you happy if the elements above are missing. If you were downsized or otherwise are in need of a new job, now is the time for you to go after what will really make you happy. A paycheck is just a small factor in that equation, especially if you are thinking long-term.

Allocate your resources wisely

Another key lesson this book teaches is that it doesn’t matter what you say your priorities are. How you allocate your resources, such as time and money, is the true measure of your priorities.

Christensen suggests that we make time for the things that are important to us, such as career, friends and family. You can’t say that you are family-focused when you’d rather spend a free hour at home doing something work-related instead of talking to or helping your kids with their homework, for example.

If family is important to you, allocate time to its needs instead of waiting to devote what resources are left over after you have attended to your career.

Nurture a culture

Whether for your company or for your family, having a functional culture is important. The author of the book says that a culture is like the autopilot system in a plane. Once that system is designed and deployed, it functions seamlessly on its own.

For example, if you would like everyone at your company to treat everyone else with respect and consideration, emphasize this at every opportunity. If a prospect behaves rudely to your receptionist on the day of the job interview, take that as a red flag that such a person may not be a good cultural fit at your company, unless you are willing to invest heavily in transforming who they are.

Similarly, we have to design a specific culture or system of values that we would like our families to be known for. Reward and encourage behavior which promotes that culture and eventually, the culture will take root. Once your kids and other family members learn that culture, it will be with them for the rest of their lives. Do not leave anything to chance!

Beware of the “marginal cost” trap

Clayton Christensen also emphasizes that if you would like to live a life of integrity, you should never compromise your values. Not even once. Period.

He gives a personal example of back in the day when he was an athlete in school. His team reached the peak, and he declined to pay in the championship game for the sole reason that the game was scheduled on a Sunday. He had vowed never to play on Sunday since that was his day of worship.

The marginal cost thinking in this case was that he could make an exception “just this once” since it was such an important game for his team. Giving in to the “just this once” temptation can lead you down a rabbit hole from which your values end up being discarded.

It is therefore better for you to stick to your values 100% than imagine that you will uphold them 98% of the time. This could keep you out of jail, because what you may see as a minor infraction can grow into a monster that eventually ruins you.

Failure is progress

This lesson may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially at this turbulent time when you may have lost your job or company.

However, the book shows that it is nearly impossible to ride from one success to another (whether in your career, business or personal life) without any setbacks. You should therefore start looking at failure as a form of progress because it allows you to reflect on what hasn’t worked so that you course-correct next time.

Failing means you have discovered something or a method which doesn’t work, and you still have work to find a strategy or approach that will deliver the desired results.

This is a sobering reminder that not all is lost when we fail. We need to muster the energy to dust ourselves off, and start again. As motivational speakers often put it, fall forward!

Use empathy and intuition in your relationships

It is worth repeating here that your biggest source of happiness in life will be your family as well as your friends. This may not seem to be true during some stages of your life, but it is true.

For example, earning all the money in the world will be of little comfort if you don’t have loved ones to enjoy your wealth with. Christensen cites examples of business school reunions where high-flying executives share tales of feeling empty and having broken families or relationships. Not exactly what they expected to happen once the money started flowing in, was it?

Relationships (with family and friends) require time and committed effort to nurture, especially since these people will not scream at you to demand for your attention. However, when those relationships suffer, a time will come when you need them and they will not be available.

Christensen therefore recommends that we turn to our intuition and empathy as we look for ways to nurture our relationships. For example, ask yourself what your loved one would most want you to do for them at a particular moment, and then do it without being asked.

Those little acts of consideration will grow your “bank balance” in the heart of that person, and the inevitable frictions of human relations will not wipe out the deposits you have been making over time.

The same goes for nurturing your kids. Be available while they learn valuable life lessons, and support them to grow into self-confident individuals who are capable of facing life’s challenges.

While Clayton Christensen was an academic at Harvard Business School, his book should not be looked at as a scholarly work which is divorced from reality. In fact, Prof. Christensen wrote this specific book at a time when he had just survived the type of cancer that had claimed the life of his father. How will you measure your life? therefore comes from a very personal space, and the lessons therein are drawn from his own life. Sadly, Clayton Christensen succumbed to that cancer in January this year and we are privileged to have some of his thoughts about life and work immortalized in his books. Will his message trigger any lasting and positive change in you as we resume life in the “new normal”?

To Your Success,

Jairek Robbins



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