‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’

‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’


How Will You Measure Your Life was gifted to me during lockdown and is described as a strategy and innovation book by Harvard Business Professor and Author Clay Christensen. He first found fame with his book The Innovators Dilemma, which examines how companies can stay cutting-edge and relevant during times of great disruption.

Christensen highlights that sound fundamental theory is key to understanding the bigger picture and adopting systems thinking, which can then be applied to different scenarios with interchangeable variables depending on the circumstance.

Alongside our post on the inextricable link between both personal and corporate values, Christensen and his co-authors hope that such strategies can be applied not just to innovative businesses, but also to the personal decisions around leading a more fulfilling life – based on acceptance, gratitude, purpose and process.

This chapter is dedicated to deciphering the crossover between great work and matters of the heart. When it comes to job satisfaction, we need to think about both ‘hygiene factors’ and ‘motivating factors’. Hygiene factors include external things such as – being able to afford the rent, childcare and not worrying about a pension. However these things in and of themselves do not automatically lead to professional fulfilment, merely a lack of job dissatisfaction.

True job satisfaction focuses on the internal factors – the ‘motivators’, which are different for everyone. What makes an employee return home to their families feeling full of pride, self-esteem and contribution? Christensen argues that good managers know that the financial carrot on a stick incentive is not the same as delving into, and leveraging, personal motivators, which also requires frequent introspection on behalf of the employee.

How Will You Measure Your Life highlights that we often outsource many of these readily available fulfilment factors. Using his children as an example, Christensen (whom I can’t help but find somewhat reminiscent of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, at times), talks about the fulfilment they acquired as a family, by painting and renovating their house together, after being unable to afford professionals. His children took more pride in showing their friends around their garden playhouse because they had built it, than if they had just been given it.

As someone who has spent many months and hours creating various different versions of a website before caving and finding a decent template to do the trick, I can’t say that this or anything for that matter, always holds true. However I do appreciate the sentiment that we should think twice about how and where we balance the many different factors and approaches vying for our most precious asset – our time and attention.

Without planning and theory, we’re at sea without a sextant, relying on the chance currents of life to shift and guide us, instead of learning how to steer ourselves. One of the questions most often asked by unimaginative employers is ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years time?’ Christensen argues that while it is more than fine not to know, we do have to balance both direct and emergent opportunities and paths in life.

Making direct decisions requires foresight and knowing the general theme of what we want at the time, whilst still remaining open to the emergent and unforeseen opportunities and obstacles that will cross our paths along the way. It’s akin to the existential flexibility based on purpose and fundamental principles presented by Simon Sinek in his Infinite Game.

What I did like about the book is that, as with the systems based approach, it does not give us the answers, but helps us to ask better questions – it’s not what we want to be, but who? What I found more challenging is that it seemed a little black and white, and no doubt Christensen’s religious faith and the rather strict rules that seem to accompany it are by his own admission, things that have indeed kept him on the straight and narrow; including carrying him through challenges such as the creation of How Will You Measure Your Life, after suffering from a stroke that affected his speech and self-expression.

One of the key corner stones of Christensen’s recovery, was reverting the focus from self to other. Something that many companies forget to do in setting out to create a product they think customers want, without truly recognising or investigating what it is they actually need. Christensen reminds us that we should not confuse purpose with prioritise, by asking: ‘what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to need this?’ This brings a fresh perspective to the problem, as there will often be more than one purpose, depending on the demographic.

Life offers us many shortcuts and scapegoats, and whilst it can be difficult not to be tempted by these, especially in today’s climate of instant gratification, Christensen reminds us that the ‘just this once’ approach of marginal thinking is an all too slippery slope. He uses former classmate and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling as an example, ‘when his entire career unraveled with his conviction on multiple federal felony charges relating to Enron’s financial collapse, it not only shocked me that he had gone wrong, but how spectacularly he had done so’.

Marginal thinking is just that – it sees everything from the margins, offering a narrow view point that is unable to consider all the options, as opposed to doing the dirty work and coming to understand the bigger, long-term picture. This is exactly what happened when Blockbuster got Blockbustered by the new kid on the block. It ignored and dismissed Netflix as a disruption that catered to a Niche market it considered beneath them, until eventually, that niche swallowed them whole.

To avoid this fate Christensen argues for the need to start at square one, ‘you need to decide what person you want to be, what you stand for – and how often you stand for it’. Which as complex human beings, we can have the humility to appreciate, is often easier said than done. Constant pause, reflection and evaluation against a guiding set of authentically inherent ‘why’s’, helps.

And who knows – maybe one day Christensen will get that dream job he frequently cites, as editor of The Wall Street Journal