How Will You Measure Your Life
A tribute to Clayton Christiansen, a remarkable man and teacher who taught me about choosing the right yardstick to measure my life.
[Day 12 of #30dayschallenge to post an article everyday for 30 days]
Today’s article is a tribute to Clayton Christensen, who passed away in January 2020.
I only found out about his death yesterday when I was looking up his article on How to Measure Your Life, which I stumbled upon in 2012.
As it’s also my birthday today, it feels appropriate to pay tribute to an inspirational teacher by reflecting on how to measure my own life — because that’s what he would have wanted.
Who was Clayton Christensen
Clayton Christensen is well known to most people in business circles for his theory of disruptive innovation, first introduced in his best-selling book The Innovators’ Dilemma.
He was named the world’s most influential management thinker on multiple occasions, and in 2019 was inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame.
His work influenced a whole generation of Silicon Valley legends: The only business book Steve Job had on his bookshelf was The Innovator’s Dilemma; Intel’s Andy Grove, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netflix’s Reed Hastings spoke about the profound influence of Clayton Christensen’s work.
Even though I’ve never met Clayton Christensen in person, I’d been able to access his teachings through technology, and learn from him — just like his students at Harvard.
Like many people, I’ve read, and studied, his seminal book on disruptive innovation.
But what inspired me more is the story of the “real” man that’s behind the Harvard professor title.
How I met Clay
When I was completing my Masters of Business Administration (MBA) in 2012, I was doing some online research for an assignment and was looking for his YouTube video on The Job to be Done.
Instead, I found another video of him giving a talk on “How Will You Measure Your Life”.
Even though I should really be doing my assignment, I was transfixed by the fascinating notion that he’d raised.
I went on and bored everyone around me about what an amazing man he is — including my MBA classmates when I did a presentation his book for an assignment (by convincing my professor that of course it is a business book).
There’s too much to unpack here about his life story, but let me give you a snippet:
He had a heart attack, a stroke (which required him to undergo speech therapy before he could speak again), and finally cancer.
He was a deeply religious man and served as a missionary in Korea before his academic career (and spoke fluent Korean).
Behind the accolades and the undeniable contribution that he’s made to his professional field (which he didn’t really care much about by the way), he measured his own life by the impact he’s had on others.
By the yardstick that he’s set for himself, there’s no question that he’s impacted many lives — including mine.
How Clay’s work has impacted me
I’m not going to go in too much detail about Clay’s teachings — there are plenty of online resources for people who are interested and I’ve included some links throughout this article.
When I first encountered his work in 2012, there were a few things which really stood out for me.
Avoid the “Marginal Costs” Mistake
We’re taught in finance and economics to ignore sunk and fixed costs, and base our investment decisions on marginal costs and revenues.
Clay explained how we can unconsciously employ the marginal cost thinking in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong — i.e. when we make decisions to make an exception “just this once”.
It may not seem like a big deal at the time, but what we’ve actually done is set ourselves up to have to make these decisions every time there are extenuating circumstances — and we could easily find ourselves making another exception, and another.
It is in fact, simpler and easier to stick to your principles 100% of the time, than 98% of the time.
Building Up People
At the time when I encountered Clay’s teachings, I was happily married (and still am) to the man that I met when I was 17 years old, and we had two children — a boy and a girl.
In addition to my MBA studies, I was also working full time as a general general in a financial services company and seem to have a promising career ahead of me.
By most external measures, life seemed to be going well for me.
Internally however, I was plagued by immense guilt about not doing more to help improve the lives of people that were less fortunate than me. I felt selfish that I was okay when so many people weren’t.
Clay had a story about imagining an employee driving home after work feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned, compared with the same employee driving home with greater self-esteem, recognised for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in some important initiatives. And to imagine the impact that that would have in the employee’s personal lives — to his/her partner, children and community.
Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.
Clay’s insight helped me make the connection that how I act at work matters, not just to the people that I manage, but to every person that I interact with — which helped appease my guilt somewhat.
Following My Path
My husband and I were always clear about the things that were important to us. But in prioritising those things in our life, we seemed to be making choices that were contrary to what many people around us were doing.
At that time, we had decided to simplify our financial affairs so that we could have more time freedom. My husband sold his hospitality business, we paid down our debts and he became a full-time stay-at-home dad.
It wasn’t easy to make different choices, and to keep choosing differently.
But Clay’s remarkable story and the choices that he made, helped me feel less alone, and scared, about pursuing my own path.
How I Would Measure My Life
When I look back at my life from my current vantage point, I am deeply grateful for everything that has happened to me and everyone that I’ve met.
I used to feel a sense of unease on my birthdays — that I’ve wasted another year.
I don’t feel that unease anymore.
I’ve had the privilege of giving birth to, and along with my husband, helped shape the lives of our two children — who are both entering adulthood now.
Besides that, my husband and I had always been able to find ways to support each other in achieving what’s important to us.
For my husband, it was getting healthy again, learning Wing Chun (martial arts), and visiting Bruce Lee’s grave in Seattle.
For me, it was educating and broadening my children’s world view through travelling, volunteering in a third-world country, and being free (to do what my heart desired).
I’m indebted to many mentors, teachers, managers, and many other people — who had taught me different things and played a part in who I’ve become today,
From Clay Christensen, my biggest learning is to choose the right yardstick.
This is what Clay has to say about it:
“This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned. Thankfully, it now looks as if I’ll be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life.
I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.
I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.
This is my 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.”
Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.
It is a great yardstick to live, and one which I will strive to live up to every day.
Not many people know that I’ve spent the last two years in semi-retreat.
Like many things in my life, it just feels like the right thing to do — our family was transitioning into a new phase, and I wanted to prepare us for it.
Little did I know that I was being prepared for something much bigger than just us.
As I watched COVID19 pandemic started first in China, spread to Asia, and then throughout the world, I was naturally concerned for the many friends that I have globally.
At the same time, I also feel strangely well-prepared — almost like I’ve been preparing my whole life for this future, that was unknowable to me.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always felt that I won the birth lottery, and therefore I have a duty to develop the gifts that I’ve been given to help other people that are less fortunate than me.
I feel that the time has now come for me to serve, in whatever I can and the world needs, as we navigate our current situation and the upcoming shifts that are yet to come.
You can also join our online conversations at circulo.space.