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Clayton Christensen

How Will You Measure Your Life?

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In Clayton Christensen’s new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, the Harvard Business School professor offers profound advice about priorities; specifically about the importance of investing in family, about living a life of integrity and having metrics that make it easier to make the right decisions.

Christensen opens the book with a disturbing story. At the 30th reunion of his Harvard Business School class, about half of his returning classmates related stories of divorce, alienated kids and personal unhappiness. They had great careers but little fulfillment. Worst of all, one of their classmates, Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron, who had been the hero of the prior reunion, was convicted of fraud and sentenced to jail. He writes of Skilling, “I did not recognize the finance shark depicted in the media. When his career unraveled with his conviction on multiple federal felony charges related to Enron’s financial collapse, it not only shocked me that he had gone wrong, but how spectacularly he had done so.” The author also realizes that his classmates from Oxford University, where he went for his Rhodes Scholarship, were suffering from similar breaches of ethics, including one who played a prominent role in an insider trading ring.

He has several observations that should force all of us to look in the mirror:

  1. Proper Resource Allocation — The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. He suggests that it is easier to quantify a promotion, raise or bonus because they can then be used to finance a “better lifestyle” for family, from vacations to cars to expensive houses. This leads to lifestyle demands that “lock in place a personal resource allocation process.”
  2. Family Time — Investing time and energy in family relationships “does not offer the same immediate sense of achievement that a fast-track career does.” He notes that you can neglect your relationship with your spouse or children without short-term consequences. But you cannot turn the clock back. He gives vivid evidence of the importance of a parent speaking with a child in the first two-and-a-half years of life, beyond commands like “drink your milk,” to the more complex grown-up conversation. The result is a much better prepared child, able to soar in nursery school.
  3. Outsourcing is Bad News — He talks about his youth, when his family raised its own fruit and vegetables, before the advent of wrinkle-free clothes standing for hours ironing or shoveling the driveway after a big snowstorm. He wants there to be more time spent by parents with kids to develop their values.
  4. The School of Experience — Christensen is emphatic about allowing children to fail. “Encourage them to stretch, to aim for lofty goals. If they don’t succeed, make sure you’re there to help them learn the right lesson; that when you aim to achieve great things, it is inevitable that sometimes you’re not going to make it.”
  5. The Way Our Family Behaves — He so acutely observes, “A culture happens, whether you want it to or not. The only question is, ‘How hard are you going to try to influence it?’” He suggests that you praise the good behavior, and be consistent in modeling appropriate interaction with friends and family.

I am so proud of my daughters. Margot graduates from business school a week from Thursday, Tory graduates from college next Saturday and Amanda from high school next Friday. Roz and I have tried our best to make them hard-working, unspoiled, open-minded and decent young adults who will do something with their lives. As Christensen writes, “As parents, we share a common worry; one day our children are going to be faced with a tough decision and we are not going to be there to make sure they do the right thing. All we can do is hope that somehow we have raised them well enough that they come to the right conclusion by themselves.”

I have every confidence that when the time comes, each of them will make the right call. Now it’s on to graduation week; here’s hoping that I don’t mess up the photo taking part.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

Image by Desert News.
  • Emma Sheer

    I enjoyed reading this post because as a senior PR student at DePaul, my fellow classmates and I have huge ambitions for our careers, but we have trouble grasping how we will balance our work and personal lives. Millennials frequently list their parents as their heroes when given the chance. I’m no exception to this statistic. My father is one of my greatest heroes for several reasons, one being that he has done a phenomenal job of succeeding in his professional life while making sure to be completely involved in his children’s lives. The idea that spending time with family and cultivating relationships “does not offer the same immediate sense of achievement that a fast-track career does” is an important takeaway and one that I will keep in mind as I begin my career.

  • Alyssa Barford

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I am eager to pick up the book. I believe the subject of values and morals in the work place directly connects to the ethics in our own lives. We cannot make valued goals or set professional standards if it is hard for us to look in the mirror. Christensen’s thoughts on the importance of family time and parents/children relationships are so often lost in people’s busy work lives. I agree that to be a successful and ethically thriving professional you need to have a matching fulfilled life.

  • Todd Wolfenbarger

    Loved this book and post. I’m also a father of three daughters (and one son) and I’m thrilled for the progress of your girls. What an accomplishment — graduations from graduate school, college and high school in the same month. Wow! My oldest daughter started college the same day my youngest started kindergarten (we didn’t pay much attention at the family planning course at the community center). Let’s just hope we have the energy to get them to the same finish line :)

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