Commentary

Measuring your life

Harvard Business School (HBS) professor and best-selling author Clayton M. Christensen built his reputation on his disruptive innovation theory. The theory is central to the courses he teaches at HBS, which deal with setting up and sustaining companies. His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma “received the Global Business Book Award as the best business book of the year in 1997.” The Economist named it one of the six most important business books ever written.

But Dr. Christensen is perhaps best known for his 2012 The New York Times best-seller, How Will You Measure Your Life? The book evolved from a series of observations and classroom discussions. The observations seem to have focused primarily on Dr. Christensen’s own HBS MBA classmates’ careers, families, and reputations over the years following graduation. From those observations—and taking off from the theories Dr. Christensen taught in his classes—he began a series of conversations on the last day of each of his classes with his students.

To frame those discussions, Dr. Christensen asked his students to think about three questions beginning with the phrase, “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?

Dr. Christensen writes in How Will You Measure Your Life? that he has been continually “stunned at how the theories” studied in his course illuminate issues in his students’ personal lives, as they did in the companies they studied. Those last-day-of-class discussions resonated around the HBS campus, and in the spring of 2010, Dr. Christensen was asked to speak to the entire graduating class.

“Standing at the podium with little hair as the result of chemotherapy,” Dr. Christensen writes, “I explained that I had been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a cancer similar to that which had killed my father. I spoke about things in our lives that are most important—not just when you are confronting a life-threatening illness, as I was, but every day, for every one of us.” Once again, Dr. Christensen’s remarks resonated among the HBS community, and with the help of two coauthors, were captured for readers everywhere in How Will You Measure Your Life?

Unlike many authors who offer up advice on what to do to achieve the aspirations inherent in the questions Dr. Christensen asks his students, the HBS professor argues that it is unproductive to tell others what to think. Instead, the key is to show them how to think. In other words, to apply the theories of life—and business—to understand the probable outcomes of their decisions and actions.

Regardless of age or level of accomplishment, Dr. Christensen believes his theories—which you’ll have to purchase the book to see in full—are relevant. His two co-authors, former student and now consultant James Allworth and former Harvard Business Review editor Karen Dillon, “are from three different generations and have completely different beliefs in forming our lives. James is a recent business school graduate, who assures me he is an atheist.

“I’m a father and grandfather with a deeply held faith, far into my third professional career. Karen, the mother of two daughters, is two decades into a career as an editor. She says her beliefs and career fall someplace between us.” How Will You Measure Your Life? can be both profoundly aspirational and genuinely real-world for anyone. Its ultimate value—for those who take the time to learn how to think—is exactly that.

A Harvard Business Review article in July 2010 by Dr. Christensen with the same title as the book served as a precursor—a teaser, really—about the forthcoming book. I read the article, and it has stayed with me since then, but mostly in the back of my mind. Then earlier this year, my daughter purchased a Kindle edition of the book for me as a 60th birthday present. I didn’t get to it right away, given the demands of helping run a business.

Now that my hair is thinning due to chemotherapy, I’m taking it a little bit more seriously. Isn’t it a little late?

Dr. Christensen suffered a heart attack, cancer, and a stroke in a three-year period—and so far has beat them all. Quite an accomplishment for a mild-mannered—if widely acclaimed—business school professor (He’s also been a scoutmaster for 25 years.). We’re the same age. Time will tell if I’m as resilient. Challenges like these are gifts, really. Thankfully, this holiday season, I understand far better what matters most in my life, and how to measure it.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author and commentator. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)