Back when Harvard Business School’s class of 2010 started grad school, those best-and-brightest had no reason to expect that their high-flying dreams might crash along with a tanking economy. Which may be why they asked HBS buisness administration professor Clay Christensen to deliver a commencement address that focused on his strategies for measuring a life. Not in terms of business success, but regarding their personal lives. His point? Find meaning in your life. All else follows.
Thanks to a friend of a friend’s (and probably his friend’s) Facebook feed, you can read the full-text of his talk here. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:
My class at HBS is structured to help my students understand what good management theory is and how it is built. To that backbone I attach different models or theories that help students think about the various dimensions of a general manager’s job in stimulating innovation and growth. In each session we look at one company through the lenses of those theories—using them to explain how the company got into its situation and to examine what managerial actions will yield the needed results.
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? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.
He goes on to enumerate his strats for success, applying five business principles to life itself. They are:
Create a strategy for your life:
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:
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:
If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.
Avoid the marginal costs mistakes:
The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up Remember the importance of humility;
Choose the right yardstick:
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.
Finally, when you click on the full text of his remarks, which were published in the Harvard Business Review Magazine, you’ll find some comments, probably from alums, who are presumably smart folks who have stayed out of jail. I especially liked this one comment on purpose from someone I never heard of but probably should have:
I’m sure that people who can find a purpose for their lives early in their careers might be happy but I’m not convinced that it is all that easy to do. It sounds like trying to decide whether you like a certain kind of food before you have tasted it. I think one’s purpose is something that has to be discovered over time, through experience. I find that regular reflection over many years increases my self awareness and my sense of purpose but I don’t believe it is something I could have decided in my university days. Also, I think it is possible for one’s purpose to evolve and change over time. I think that the best we can do is to expose ourselves to multiple experiences and reflect regularly on what they mean for our purpose.
Which, in a way, reiterates much of what we’ve talked about in this space. Finding purpose: it’s trial, it’s error, it’s being willing to take a risk. And — checking back on that humility business — being willing to make a mistake. And learn from it.