How will you measure your life?

by Mikko Arevuo

Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has co-authored a short book that aims to teach us how to think about our lives and purpose. Professor Christensen is well-known for his groundbreaking research in disruptive innovation, and in the book he shares powerful research and theories about success and failure.

How will you measure your life? offers a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. Christensen uses examples from his own experiences to explain how high achievers can all too often fall into traps that lead to unhappiness.

The themes of the book have evolved from his work as a lecturer.  At the last session of his course he poses three questions to his MBA students and asks them to apply some of the theoretical models to develop answers to the following:

How can I be sure that:

I will be successful and happy in my career?

My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?

I live a life of integrity – and stay out of jail?

The book is a not prescriptive self-help book, but it teaches us how to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives by using some of the commonly taught business theories. They  include Herzberg’s hygiene and motivation factors, agency theory, emergent strategy and the resource-based theory of the firm, outsourcing, disruptive innovation, Schein’s organisation culture theory, and the theory of “full versus marginal thinking.”

Clayton Christensen is a deeply religious man, but the book should not be mistaken as an attempt to promote any particular world-view. Indeed, Christensen and his co-authors Karen Dillon, editor of Harvard Business Review until 2011, and James Allworth, a graduate of Harvard Business School come from three different generations and have completely different beliefs that inform and guide their lives. However, what they have in common is a deep conviction that modern business life often causes well-intentioned people to lose sight of the most profoundly important aspects of lives that make us truly happy, our personal relationships and a sense of value that can’t be measured in monetary terms.

As a university lecturer I found the thinking process and the message of the book compelling. Business school academics teach students theories in relation to the management of organisations, but we make no effort to tie these theories to personal fulfilment and the sense of personal responsibility. As a result, we may create managers who excel in their professional careers, but feel unfulfilled in their personal lives. At worst, they may lose sight that ultimately the role of a manager is to “help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognised for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team” (Christensen, et al., p. 198-199).

Chief Rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Great Britain wrote in this week’s Spectator magazine about the costs to a society where there is no responsibility beyond personal choice so long as we do no harm to others.  He writes:

The level of trust has plummeted throughout the West as one group after another – bankers, CEOs, media personalities, parliamentarians, the press – has been hit by scandal…Rates of depressive illness and stress-related syndromes have rocketed especially among the young. A recent survey showed that the average 18- to 35-yet-old has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many they could rely in crisis, the average answer was two.  A quarter said one. An eight said none.

How will you measure your life? makes an invaluable contribution at the time when the Western value system is in peril, corporate and political misconduct is rife, and when so many people are clearly unhappy with their lives.  The book is an excellent attempt to redress the balance between work and personal life, redefine how we measure success, and ultimately, what moral and ethical values should govern managerial practice.

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