How Will You Measure Your Life?

World-renowned innovation expert, and Harvard Business School professor, Clayton M. Christensen uses the last of day of his class, “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise,” to engage his students to discuss how the management theories they learn in class can be applied in their personal lives to be sure that:

  • They will be successful and happy in their careers
  • Their relationships with their spouse, children and extended family and friends will become an enduring source of happiness
  • They will live a life of integrity and stay out of jail


While these questions may sound simple, especially for Harvard students, Clayton has shared examples from his Rhodes Scholar classmates to explain how high achievers can all too often fall into traps that lead to unhappiness.

In 2010, Christensen gave a powerful speech to the Harvard Business School’s graduating class. Drawing upon his business research and the end of year discussions he had with his students, he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. Citing the fact that, too often, we measure success in life against the progress we make in our careers.

The speech was memorable not only because it was deeply revealing but also because it came at a time of intense personal reflection: Christensen had just overcome the same type of cancer that had taken his father’s life. As Christensen struggled with the disease, the question “How do you measure your life?” became more urgent and poignant, and he began to share his insights more widely with family, friends, and students.

In this groundbreaking book, Christensen revisits the questions he asks his students: How can I be sure that I’ll find satisfaction in my career? How can I be sure that my personal relationships become enduring sources of happiness? How can I avoid compromising my integrity—and stay out of jail?

Using lessons from some of the world’s greatest businesses, he provides incredible insights into these challenging questions and examines the daily decisions that define our lives and encourages all of us to think about what is truly important.

The theories he, and his co-authors, share in this book can sharpen the acuity with which you can examine and improve your life.

What follows are some of my favorite takeaways from the book.


Clay Christensen
Photo Credit: Betsy Weber

On Good Theories:

A good theory doesn’t change its mind: it doesn’t apply only to some companies or people, and not to others. It is a general statement of what causes what, and why.

Good theory can help us categorize, explain, and, most important, predict.

On Predicting the Future:

Data is only available about the past.

You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.

Learn all you can from the past, but know that those data points will rarely solve for the fundamental challenge of what information and advice you should accept. Instead, using robust theory to predict what will happen has a much greater chance of success.

Finding Happiness in Your Career

On Career Strategy:

Good intentions are not enough. The trap many people fall into is to allocate their time to whoever screams loudest, and their talent to whatever offers them the fastest rewards. That’s a dangerous way to build a strategy.

What Makes Us Tick

On a Better Theory of Motivation:

True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it.

On Compensation:

The most you can hope for (as CEO) is to be able to post a list of every employee’s name and salary on the bulletin board, and hear every employee say, ‘I sure wish I were paid more, but darn it, this list is fair.’

On the balance of motivators and hygiene factors:

Hygiene factors are things like status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices.

Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth.

Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you, and inside of your work.

It’s hard to overestimate the power of these motivators — the feelings of accomplishment and of learning, of being a key player on a team that is achieving something meaningful.

Beyond a certain point, hygiene factors such as money, status, compensation, and job security are much more a by-product of being happy with a job rather than the cause of it.

On What Really Matters in Your Career:

Is this meaningful to me? Is this job going to give me a chance to develop? Am I going to learn new things? Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? Am I going to be given responsibility? These are the things that will truly motivate you. Once you get this right, the more measurable aspects of your job will fade in importance.

The Balance of Calculation and Serendipity

On the Balance of Calculation and Serendipity (Deliberate vs. Emergent Strategies):

We are constantly navigating a path by deciding between our deliberate strategies and the unanticipated alternatives that emerge.

Strategy almost always emerges from a combination of deliberate and unanticipated opportunities.

On Which Strategy to Pursue:

Discovery-driven planning can help you test whether your deliberate strategy or a new emergent one will be a worthwhile approach. “What has to prove true for this to work?” or “What are the most important assumptions that have to prove right for these projections to work — and how will we track them?”

On Success and Getting Strategy Right:

What we can learn from how companies develop strategy is that although it is hard to get it right at first, success doesn’t rely on this. Instead, it hinges on continuing to experiment until you do find an approach that works.

Your Strategy is Not What You Say It Is

On Heading in the Right Direction:

Watch where your resources flow. If they’re not supporting the strategy you’ve decided upon, then you’re not implementing that strategy at all.

On allocating your resources:

We have resources — which include personal time, energy, talent and wealth — and we are using them to try and grow several “businesses” in our personal lives.

The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. This is often their careers, as this domain of their life provides the most concrete evidence that they are moving forward.

A strategy — whether in companies or in life — is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about how you spend your time, energy, and money.

A strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it’s effectively implemented.

Career Happiness Summary:

Want to find fulfillment in your career?

  • Understand what motivates you. Find a job that satisfies the basic hygiene factors and gets the motivation factors right for you.
  • Learn to balance deliberate and emergent strategies. Keep pivoting until something works.
  • Allocate your resources in a manner that’s consistent with all of these concepts.


Finding Happiness in Your Relationships

On More to Life Than Your Career:

Work can bring you a sense of fulfillment — but it pales in comparison to the enduring happiness you can find in the intimate relationships that you cultivate with your family and close friends.

The Ticking Clock

On the Theory of Good and Bad Capital:

93% of all companies that ultimately become successful had to abandon their original strategy — because the original plan proved not to be viable. In other words, successful companies don’t succeed because they have the right strategy at the beginning; but rather, because they have money left over after the original strategy fails, so that they can pivot and try another approach. Most of those that fail, in contrast, spend all their money on their original strategy — which is usually wrong.

Capital that seeks growth before profits is bad capital.

On Investing in Future Happiness:

We invest ourselves in our jobs. But in order to accomplish all this, we start to think of our jobs as requiring all our attention — and that’s exactly what we give them. We call into work from remote vacation spots. In fact, we may never take all the vacation days we’re allowed; there’s simply too much to be done. Work becomes how we identify ourselves.

We expect the people who are closet to us to accept that our schedule is simply too demanding to make much time for them. After all, they want to see us succeed, too, right?

You’re going to look up one day and it’s going to be too late. You might become ‘successful,’ but all the people you care about will have moved on — no longer there for support.  That’s a lonely place.

On the Risk of Sequencing Life Investments:

One of the most common versions of this mistake that high potential young professionals make is believing that investments in life can be sequenced.

Ticking Clock Summary:

Relationships with family and close friends are one of the greatest sources of happiness in life. Like any important investment, these relationships need consistent attention and care. There are two forces that will be consistently working against this happening. First, you’ll be routinely tempted to invest your resources elsewhere — in things that will provide you with a more immediate payoff. And second, your family and friends rarely shout the loudest to demand your attention.

The theory of good money, bad money explains that the clock of building a fulfilling relationship is ticking from the start. If you don’t nurture and develop those relationships, they won’t be there to support you if you find yourself traversing some of the more challenging stretches of life.

What Job Did You Hire That Milkshake For?

Companies focus too much on what they want to sell their customers, rather than what those customers really need. What’s missing? empathy. The same is true in our relationships: we go into them thinking about what we want rather than what is important to the other person.

On The Job to Be Done:

What causes us to buy a product or service is that we actually hire products to do jobs for us.

The example in the book is a milkshake. Clay’s colleague Bob Moesta asked, “What job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to ‘hire’ a milkshake?”

It turns out people didn’t want a cheaper, chocolatier or chunkier milkshake. They were hiring the milkshake because it kept them busy during their morning commute (i.e. it took a long time to finish a thick milkshake through a narrow straw). The milkshake was substantial enough to ward off the looming mid morning hunger attack. Oh, and it fit easily in their cup holder instead of spilling crumbs all over themselves and their car.

On the Job You’re Hired For (in Marriage):

I suspect that if we studied marriage from the job-to-be-done lens, we would find that the husbands and wives who are most loyal to each other are those who have figured out the jobs that their partners needs to be done — and then they do the job reliably and well.

The example in the book is the man who comes home to find dishes everywhere and dinner not started. Thinking he’s being helpful he does the dishes and starts dinner for the kids. His wife reacts by feeling ignored and getting angry. She didn’t need the chores done. She’d be dealing with young kids all day. She needed 15 minutes of adult conversation. What job does your spouse/significant other need you to do?

On Sacrifice and Commitment:

The path to happiness in a relationship is not just about finding someone who you think is going to make you happy. Rather, the reverse is equally true: the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.

Given that sacrifice deepens our commitment, it’s important to ensure that what we sacrifice for is worthy of that commitment.

Sailing Your Kids on Theseus’s Ship

On Understanding Your Capabilities:

The factors that determine what a company can and cannot do — it’s capabilities — fall into one of three buckets: resources, processes, and priorities.

On Outsourcing Your Future:

Figure out what capabilities you will need to succeed in the future. These must stay in-house — otherwise, you are handing over the future of your business.

On Your Child’s Capabilities:

Resources are what he uses to do something, process are how he does it, and priorities are why he does it.

On Flooding Our Children With Tons of Resources and Experiences In Which They’re Not Deeply Engaged:

The end result of these good intentions for our children is that too few reach adulthood having been given the opportunity to shoulder onerous responsibility and solve complicated problems for themselves and for others.

 On What You Don’t Do For Your Kids:

Some of the greatest gifts I received from my parents stemmed not from what they did for me — but rather from what they didn’t do for me.

They (Clayton’s parents) helped me learn that I should solve my own problems whenever possible; they gave me the confidence that I could solve my own problems; and they helped me experience pride in that achievement.

On When Children Learn:

Children will learn when they are ready to learn, no when we’re ready to teach them.

On Outsourcing Your Role as a Parent:

If you find yourself heading down a path of outsourcing more and more of your role as a parent, you will lose more and more of the precious opportunities to help your kids develop their values.

The School of Experience

Helping your children learn how to do difficult things is one of the most important roles of a parent.  It will be critical to equipping them for all the challenges that life will throw at them down the line.

On Hiring for the “Right Stuff”:

Unlike the “right stuff” model, (Morgan) McCall’s thinking is not based on the idea that great leaders are born ready to go. Rather, their abilities are developed and shaped by experiences in life. A challenging job, a failure in leading a project, an assignment in a new area of the company — all those things become “courses” in the school of experience. The skills that leaders have — or lack– depend heavily on which “courses,” so to speak, they have and have not taken along the way.

It’s not about the adjectives on a piece of paper, but the experience required to do the job. Don’t bias yourself toward resources over the processes. It’s not the best on paper, but the right fit.

On Planning Your Courses at the School of Experience:

Nolan Archibald, youngest-ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Black & Decker) discussed with (Clayton’s) students how he’d managed his career.

What he described was not all of the steps on his resume, but rather why he took them. Though he didn’t use this language, he built his career by registering for specific courses in the schools of experience. Archibald had a clear goal in mind when he graduated from college — he wanted to become CEO of a successful company. But instead of setting out on what most people thought would be the “right” prestigious stepping-stone jobs to get there he asked himself: “What are all the experiences and problems that I have to learn to master so that what comes out at the other end is somebody who is ready and capable of becoming a successful CEO?”

On Sending Your Kids to the Right School:

Tell them that if they’re not occasionally failing, then they’re not aiming high enough. Everyone knows how to celebrate success, but you should also celebrate failure if it’s as a result of a child striving for an out-of-reach goal.

On Engineering the Right Courses and Experiences:

Our default instincts are so often just to support our children in a difficult moment. But if our children don’t face difficult challenges, and sometimes fail along the way, they will not build the resilience they will need throughout their lives.

School of Experience Summary:

We know that people who fail in their jobs often do so not because they are inherently incapable of succeeding, but because their experiences have not prepared them for the challenges of that job.

Work backward: find the right experiences to help them build the skills they’ll need to succeed. (This can be true whether you’re managing a team member or parenting a child.)

The Invisible Hand Inside Your Family

One of the most powerful tools to enable us to close the gap between the family we want and the family we get is culture.

On Culture:

Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.

Every time they tackle a problem, employees aren’t just solving the problem itself; in solving it, they’re learning what matters.

A culture is the unique combination of processes and priorities within an organization.

Culture in any organization is formed through repetition.

On the Way Your Family Behaves:

The parallels between a business and a family should be clear. Just like a manager who wants to count on employees using the right priorities to solve problems, parents want to set those priorities, too, so that family members will solve problems and confront dilemmas instinctively, whether or not the parents are there guiding for observing.

Every family should choose a culture that’s right for them. What is important is to actively choose what matters to you, and then engineer the culture to reinforce those elements.

It’s not just about controlling bad behavior; it’s about celebrating the good. What does your family value? Is it creativity? Hard work? Entrepreneurship? Generosity? Humility? What do the kids know they have to that will get their parents to say, “Well done”?

You have to build the culture you want in your family. If you do not consciously build it and reinforce it from the earliest stages of your family life, a culture will still form — but it will form in ways you may not like. It is in everyday actions that culture is being set. And once that happens, it’s almost impossible to change.


Staying Out of Jail

Up until this point, Clay has mostly discussed theories to help someone address the challenges they’ll face in seeking happiness in their career and life.

In this final section, he presents a theory called “full versus marginal thinking” that will help you answer one final question: how can I be sure I live a life of integrity?

Just This Once…

To illustrate an example of full versus marginal thinking, Clay offers Blockbuster versus Netflix.

Blockbuster followed a principle that is taught in every fundamental course in finance and economics: that in evaluating alternative investments, we should ignore sunk and fixed costs (costs that have already been incurred), and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues (the new costs and revenues) that each alternative entails.

The right way to look at this new market was not to think, “How can we protect our existing business?” Instead, Blockbuster should have been thinking: “If we didn’t have an existing business, how could we build a new one?

Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010.

Because failure is often at the end of a path of marginal thinking, we end up paying for the full cost of our decisions, not the marginal costs, whether we like it or not.

On the Theory of Marginal vs. Full Costs:

Every time an executive in an established company needs to make an investment decision, there are two alternatives on the menu. The first is the full cost of making something completely new. The second is to leverage what already exists, so that you only need to incur the marginal cost and revenue. Almost always, the marginal-cost argument overwhelms the full-cost. For the entrant, in contrast, there is no marginal cost item on the menu. If it makes sense, then you do the full-cost alternative. Because they are new to the scene, in fact, the full cost is the marginal cost.

On an Unending Stream of Extenuating Circumstances:

The marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher.

100% of the Time is Easier Than 98% of the Time:

Resisting the temptation to “in this one extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay” has proved to be one of the most important decisions of my life.

Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all of the time.

The only way to avoid the consequences of uncomfortable moral concessions in your life is to never start making them in the first place.



“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” – Goethe

On The Three Parts of Purpose:

A useful statement of purpose for a company needs three parts. The first is what I call a likeness.

A likeness of a company is what the key leaders and employees want the enterprise to have become at the end of the path that they’re on.

Second, for a purpose to be useful, employees and executives need to have a deep commitment — almost a conversion — to the likeness that they’re trying to create.

The third part of a company’s purpose is one or a few metrics by which managers and employees can measure their progress.

On Finding Your Life Purpose:

Understanding the three parts composing the purpose of your life — a likeness, a commitment, and a metric — is the most reliable way to define for yourself what your purpose is, and to live it in your everyday life.

Please remember that this is a process, not an event. It took me years to fully understand my own purpose.

“The only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” – Clayton Christensen

Perhaps most importantly, Christensen seeks opportunities to help people in ways tailored to their individual circumstances.


If you’re interested, here are my other book reviews. Apologies for the chronological list. That page has grown significantly and is in desperate need of re-organizing.

  • Aisha

    Thanks for sharing all the wonderful tips in this book. Lots of pearls of wisdom here and many I can relate to after much soul-searching when deciding to quit law and go into marketing!



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