In deciding how we want to live our lives going forward, a good advice to heed is to start with the end in mind. A relevant question when it comes to starting with the end in mind is “How will you measure your life?”

This brings to mind Harvard Business School’s Professor Clay Christensen’s address to his students on how to apply management principles and thinking to their personal lives. What he shared with his students (later published in his article in the July-August 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review entitled “How will you measure your life?“) are very much applicable today when many are re-thinking what matters and re-evaluating how they want to live in a world disrupted by technology, pandemic and ecological challenges.

Prof Christensen had helped his students understand what good management theory is and how it is built. He taught different models or theories to help his students think about the various dimensions of a general manager’s job in stimulating innovation and growth. 

On the last day of class, he asked his students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: 

  • First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? 
  • Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? 
  • Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? (aka how to live a life of integrity) 

A few of the key points that Professor Christensen shared are summarised briefly here:

1. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people

Professor Christensen said Herzberg’s theory provided great insight on the question “How to be sure that we find happiness in our careers?” Herzberg had asserted that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money. Instead it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. To Prof Christensen therefore, management is the most noble of professions if practiced well as 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. Doing deals for him doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

2. Create a Strategy for Your Life

The question “How can I ensure that my relationship with my family proves to be an enduring source of happiness?” concerns how strategy is defined and implemented. 

Prof Christensen recounted that some of his classmates he met at reunions over the years were unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. It seemed that they didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center in their decisions on how to spend their time, talents, and energy. 

Having a clear purpose in his life had been most essential. Whilst a Rhodes scholar, he decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put him on this earth. Although a very challenging commitment to keep, and he was conflicted about whether he could really afford to take that time away from his studies being in a very demanding academic program. But he stuck with it—and figured out the purpose of his life.

To him, “It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned” as that knowledge of the purpose of his life is applied every day in his life. Clarity about one’s purpose trumps all the management knowledge learnt in his course. The choice and successful pursuit of a profession is but one tool for achieving one’s purpose. And without a purpose, life can become hollow.

3. Allocate Your Resources

Decisions about how one allocates one’s personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape one’s life’s strategy. Many things in one’s life compete for resources. We have exactly the same problem that a corporation does, a limited amount of time and energy and talent and the need to decide how much to devote to each of these pursuits.

When people have a high need for achievement, they’ll unconsciously allocate resources to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward like when you ship a product, finish a design, close a sale, teach a class, get paid, or 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. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can say that you raised a good son or a good daughter. People who are driven to excel have an unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and over invest in their careers—even though research shows that intimate and loving relationships with one’s families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

4. Remember the Importance of Humility

When teaching a class on humility at Harvard College, he asked his students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about who they were. And humility was defined not by self-deprecating behaviour or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behaviour flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone, either.

It’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world, he tells his students. By the time his students made it to Harvard Business School, almost all their learning would have come from people who are smarter and more experienced than they are: their parents, teachers, bosses. After graduation, the vast majority of people they’ll interact with on a day-to-day basis may not be smarter than them. And if their attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach them, their learning opportunities will be very limited. But if they have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, their learning opportunities will be unlimited. 

5. Choose the Right Yardstick

When Prof Christensen addressed the graduating class and wrote his article, he had in the year before been diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that his life would end sooner than he had planned. This experience gave him an important insight into his life.

He had a pretty clear idea how his ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used his research. So he knew he had made significant impact with companies. But as he confronted cancer, he saw how unimportant that impact was as he concluded that the metric by which God will assess his life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives he has touched.

His advice to his students was that they should not worry about the level of individual prominence they have achieved. They should worry instead about the individuals they have helped become better people. 

His final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

Professor Christensen’s TED Talk on “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Hear him speak about choosing the Right Yardstick to measure one’s life. This and other points he shared with his students can help us consider how we want to live our lives going forward.

#HowWillYouMeasureYourLife #SourceOfHappinessInLife #ApplyingManagementPrinciplesForASuccessfulLife #HowToBeHappyInYourCareer #RelationshipsAsSourceOfHappinessInLife

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