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Clay Christensen's Business Plan for a Happy Life

I wrote recently on Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen's struggle with cancer and his reflections on life that have come out of it.

One of the most popular articles in the current Harvard Business Review is Christensen's How Will You Measure Your Life. The article comes from a talk given in the spring to Harvard Business School's graduating class. The students asked Christensen, perhaps best known for his disruptive innovation theory, to share his own guidelines for living a meaningful life.

Here are some highlights:

Create a Strategy for Your Life

"I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It's the single most useful thing I've ever learned. 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 Ps, and the five forces."
Allocate Your Resources
"People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers -- even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness. If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you'll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you'll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most."
Create a Culture
"Ultimately, people don't even think about whether their way of doing things yields success. They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision -- which means that they've created a culture. Culture, in compelling but unspoken ways, dictates the proven, acceptable methods by which members of the group address recurrent problems. And culture defines the priority given to different types of problems. It can be a powerful management tool."
Avoid the 'Marginal Cost' Mistake
"Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, 'Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn't do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it's OK.' The marginal cost of doing something wrong 'just this once' always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don't ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails. Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of 'just this once.'"
Remember the Importance of Humility
"Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself -- and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves."
Choose the Right Yardstick
"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.

Is Christensen's plan a good antidote to the short-term, unanchored life he sees in some of his MBA students?

(Eleventh Commandment image by timgrable, CC 2.0)

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