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How Will You Measure Your Life?

This is the opening line of Clay Christensen’s latest HBR article entitled How Will You Measure Your Life? This article was written by a man who has been recently diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to take a look back on the legacy he will leave behind.

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“Don’t reserve your best business thinking for your career.”

This is the opening line of Clay Christensen’s latest HBR article entitled How Will You Measure Your Life? This article was written by a man who has been recently diagnosed with cancer, forcing him to take a look back on the legacy he will leave behind. In this article, he shares with us his simple exercise that he asks every one of his students at Harvard Business School to complete upon completing his course.

“On the last day of class, I ask my 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?”

How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?,

To help guide his students on the first question, Christensen references Frederick Herzberg and his timeless article entitled, “One more time: How do you motivate employees?” The crux of Herzberg’s article is that money is not the primary motivator for people. Instead, it’s the opportunity to learn, grow, contribute towards a cause, and be recognized for achievements.

Christensen believes that Management is “the most noble of professions if practiced well. 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.” He makes it a point to say that “striking deals” can never yield the deep rewards that come from aiding other people on their journey for purpose and happiness.

How many lives can you touch as a manager? This is often a question that gets overlooked. Imagine what happens if an individual comes to work every day and gets beat down and berated by their boss. What is the impact of this treatment on their family and relationships outside of work? How many lives do you actually impact on a daily basis as a manager? Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

How can I ensure that my relationship with my family proves to be an enduring source of happiness?

To help his students grasp this question, Christensen has them take a look at how strategy is defined and implemented. Ultimately, a company’s strategy “is determined by the types of initiatives that management invest in.” If a company mismanages it’s resource allocation, the results will undoubtedly be something entirely different from what management intended. Often many investment decisions are subject to short-term bias—that is, they often invest in initiatives that offer the most recognizable and immediate returns. As we’ve all seen from the latest financial crisis, substituting short-term gains for long-term strategy execution will undoubtedly prove disastrous.

This same principle is highly relevant to your personal life. Those who don’t maintain the purpose of their lives “front and center as they [decide] how to spend their time, talents, and energy,” will ultimately be led astray. No one plans to get divorced, alienate their children, or see their career destroyed by scandal. But every day we hear a new story of someone’s demise.

Christensen says clearly in his article, “I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four P’s, and the five forces.”

Every individual has the exact same problem that a corporation does: How do I allocate my finite resources to get the maximum benefit? The decisions you make in allocating your time, energy, and talents will ultimately shape your “life’s strategy.” However, misinvesting in your personal life can have very real consequences. Just look at the string of executives who have found themselves behind bars. Investing in a life of hollow unhappiness will only lead you down the wrong path.

Christensen makes it a point to reiterate the need to avoid short-termism. He says, “when people who have a high need for achievement…have an extra half hour of time…they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments.” This is why you hear numerous stories of the executive who is fantastic at work, but his family life doesn’t exist. Investing time and energy in your relationships outside of work is akin to investing in a project that won’t pay off for 20 years. The benefits are not immediately tangible, but it is this investment that will ultimately shape your future.

How can I be sure that I’ll stay out of jail?

Though this question may seem light-hearted, Christensen assures that it’s not. He explains that two of the 32 people that were in his Rhodes Scholar class at Oxford have spent time in jail. The unfortunate reality is there is a likelihood that someone from your class or network will make some choices in their life that will lead them down the wrong path. The key is to avoid the pitfalls that send otherwise intelligent people astray.

Christensen stresses that it’s easy for people to make the “marginal cost” mistake. Everyone is “taught in finance and economics that in evaluating alternative investments, we should ignore sunk and fixed costs, and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues that each alternative entails.”When applied to one’s personal life, the “marginal cost” of deviating from one’s core values and personal beliefs “just this one time” is relatively small. As Christensen points out, justification for dishonesty and infidelity are all routed in “just this once” economics. The problem is, everyone’s life is a never-ending stream of extenuating circumstances.

The lesson to learn here is “…it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.” Giving into the “just this once” temptation based on marginal cost analysis will undoubtedly lead to trouble. Remember, “you’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.”

Christensen concludes his article by giving out a few more pieces of advice. He says, “it’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world.” Often, people who are in a position of high status or are highly educated feel they can only learn from the people above them. Christensen says that true learning comes from the humble eagerness to learn from everybody around you. If you take this approach, your learning opportunities will be limitless.

Finally, Christensen concludes his article by saying that he measures his life not by the dollars he’s earned, but by the individual lives of the people he’s touched. He says, “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 [to this end].”

Christensen, C. (2010). How Will You Measure Your Life?. Harvard Business Review. 88 (7/8), p46-51.