How Will You Measure Your Life – Musings on Clayton Christensen’s book

Driving out of San Diego on a fine spring afternoon, enchanted by the amazing weather and the freeways crisscrossing in what seemed like an intricate pattern, I asked my friend at the steering wheel, “What would it be like to drive on a road where you couldn’t see/know anything beyond a short distance ahead of you?”  His response was prompt but deep, as if I had asked something obvious – “that’s called life“.  Clay Christensen’s book emphasizes this and offers some ‘frameworks’ to think about how to live and measure your life actions, both professional and personal.

Clay focuses on three  aspects – finding success and fulfillment in one’s career, having happy and deep relationships with one’s family, particularly with spouse and kids, and finally, leading a life of integrity and staying out of jail. The last one is interesting- it has a fair bit to do with the fact that many alumni from his Alma mater (HBS) end up there, and that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was his classmate.

He claims he teaches you how to think, and not what to think, citing the example of how he taught Andy Grove to think about the research in “Innovator’s Dilemma” in the context of Intel. I have mixed feelings about whether I walked away after reading this book knowing how to think, but it certainly posed some difficult but life-altering questions to ask oneself before embarking on professional and personal ventures.

Usefulness of ‘theory’ in dealing with life

Clay encourages people to develop theories about what works and what doesn’t, in different aspects of their life. Having a theory that can explain what will happen, even before you experience it is valuable, since the only other options are to drift ad-hoc or make decisions based on data. Data is usually available only about the past. Relying on that data is  ‘like driving a car looking only at the rear-view mirror’. You don’t want to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. Having a good theory, one that dispenses advice in the form of “if-then” statements, is like having a compass to navigate.

The order of sections

Interestingly, Clay orders his sections into career, family (spouse followed by kids) and then integrity in that order. The choice of career over family is a debatable one, but Clay justifies it saying you’ll likely spend more hours at work than in any other aspect of life, so making sure you find fulfillment at work and are not making any compromises is vital.

The Balance of Calculation and Serendipity

“You have to balance the pursuit of aspirations and goals with taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities.  Managing this part of the strategy process is often the difference between success and failure for companies, and its true for our careers too.”

There are two distinct and conflicting approaches that one comes across in life – “have a plan for the next X years, know where you are going” and “take it as it comes”. Clay’s advice is that both of these approaches are valuable, and the key to happiness lies in knowing when to use which one. It is worth asking oneself – What are the circumstances where it’s best to be deliberate, to have a plan? Where does it make more sense to be emergent, to be open to the unexpected?

He provides the example of automaker Honda, who entered the US market in the hopes of selling large bikes that didn’t fare well against US competitors. While they were struggling to establish their presence in the target market, a certain lower-end almost toy-ish bike model became popular, by chance, in and around Los Angeles. Honda shifted its strategy to focusing on these smaller bikes and eventually wrote off the original business unit. This allowed it to not only survive in the US market, but also thrive in a niche segment that it had created for itself.

This balance of pre-planned measures and embracing opportunity is difficult to achieve. Success is difficult if the firm doesn’t focus on getting everyone to keep working together in a certain direction (if an incumbent strategy is working). At the same time, the same focus can cause the firm to dismiss as a distraction what might be the next big thing.

Also, shifting gears is only possible when the firm has money left-over to pivot and try another approach. In most cases of failure, the firm spent all its resources on the original strategy which failed. The same applies to decisions taken at an individual level, personal or professional, where you want to conserve some resources to be able to try alternatives and iterate, if things go wrong. Only a lucky few get things right at the first attempt, and that’s not bad. Success doesn’t depend on getting it right at the first go, it hinges on whether you continue to experiment until you find an approach that works.

The disconnect between what we think and tell ourselves, and what we actually end up doing

Firms often articulate a certain ‘strategy’, that describes their plans and intentions. But the true ‘strategy’ really comes out in the form of how the firm allocates its resources and people, at the level of minor individual decisions made on a day-to-day basis. There is often a disconnect between what is said or intended and what actually ends up being implemented. The same is true for us as individuals. Do our choices of what we do with our time, energy and resources actually reflect what our priorities are?

“The trap many people fall into is to allocate their time to whoever screams loudest, and their talent to whoever offers them the fastest reward. That’s a dangerous way to build a strategy.” 

Do our actions really match what we intend to do? A good example would be the number of people who end up in fancy-sounding consulting, IB, VC/PE positions post b-school with prestigious titles, but with no clear path to their stated goals. A number of these folks entered b-school with specific dreams, such as ending up at a CxO position in a certain industry. Clay addresses this point as he describes the example of Nolan Archibald, chairman of a Fortune 500 industrial tools manufacturing company.

“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 would be the “right”, prestigious, stone-stepping jobs to get there, he asked himself, “What are all the experiences and problems that I have to learn about and master so that what comes out at the other end is somebody who is ready and capable of becoming a successful CEO?” He made some unconventional moves early on in his career, moves that his peers might not have understood on the surface.”

In Archibald’s own words – “I wouldn’t ever base the decision (of what job to take) on how much it paid or the prestige. Instead it was always – is it going to give me the experience I need to wrestle with?”


Knowing what really motivates us

“When we find ourselves stuck in unhappy careers, and even unhappy lives, it is often the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what really motivates us.” 

Clay talks about his classmates who ended up being unhappy despite (or because of?) prestigious roles in Fortune 500 firms. They had trouble finding meaning in their jobs and/or had work lifestyles that prevented them from having healthy, well-nurtured personal relationships.

Happiness in work and life comes from two kinds of ingredients – hygiene factors and motivation factors. Aspects like compensation and work environment fall under the hygiene category while the motivation factors include intangibles such as recognition, responsibility and personal growth. Too many people because they over-emphasize the hygiene factors (“Let me get a high-paying job for now, once I am financially settled, I will do what I care about”) and downplay the motivation factors. Before they know, they are stuck in a rut and it is difficult to switch gears. Clay talks about this in a professional context, but it was hard not to think of Indian arranged marriages, where some people pay more attention than required to the hygiene factors (superficial ‘personality’ traits, financial status etc)  and the motivation factors (what would motivate the guy/girl involved to stay in a long-term relationship and do well in it) are almost ignored.

Clay plays up the role of managers in arranging for these motivation factors to work out. I wonder what the managers I know think of his statement – “If you want to make a difference in peoples’ lives, be a manager. You are in a position where you have 8-10 hours each day from each person who works for you. You have the opportunity to frame each person’s work so that, at the end of every day, your employees will go home feeling like they are living a life filled with motivators.”

“When you find out what really works for you, when you are in a place where both hygiene and motivation factors are satisfied, then its time for you to flip from an emergent strategy (take it as it comes) to a deliberate one (I have a concrete plan for the next X months)”. This is easier said than done.

“What’s important is to get out there, and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests and priorities begin to pay off.” Nothing new or unheard of, but  golden advice nonetheless.

Clayton’s journey is well worth remembering here, he has had a mixed of planned and spontaneous decisions himself. He accidentally ended up a grad-student at b-school after years of consulting and a start-up, and his best work (“Innovators Dilemma” and “Crossing the chasm”), what will probably be his strongest legacy, came between ages 37 and 43. The numbers are worth remembering for people like me or my friend who recommended this book after a discussion on quarter-life crisis!

“What has to prove true for this to work?” and other important questions we fail to ask ourselves

As firms embark on something new, hockey stick charts and promises of growth are common. In all cases of failure, one of the major reasons is that the assumptions behind the promising models weren’t rigorously challenged or tested. While this is common knowledge in firms who actively try to counter it, as individuals we make the same mistakes in embarking on something in our lives. Some questions worth asking oneself before considering a new stint, personal or professional –

  • What are the assumptions that need to prove true for me to succeed in this assignment?
  • Which of these are within my control?
  • What assumptions have to prove true for me to be happy in this choice that I am contemplating?
  • Am I basing my position on intrinsic or extrinsic motivators? What evidence do I have?
  • Is there a way I can swiftly and inexpensively test if these assumptions are valid? How about making sure I am being realistic about the path ahead of me?

Life Investments cannot be sequenced

Some of us think of life as a progression – thinking about taking care of aspect X for a while and then turning our attention to aspect Y. That rarely works well in practice.

“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 in their careers, as this domain of their life provides the most concrete evidence that they are moving forward.”

This can tilt and skew your priorities. Investing time and energy in building a long-term happy relationship with your spouse or kids are things that don’t offer the same immediate sense of achievement that a fast-track career does. It takes decades of investment before you can put your hand on your hips and say “I have had a great married life” or “We raised our kids well”.

The consequences of neglect aren’t immediate and quickly visible either. Few people know of the scientific study that discovered the number of words spoken to an infant and the manner in which they are spoken (“Language Dancing“, something that I suppose Indian mothers are naturally good at) make a huge difference in the child’s cognitive abilities all the way into their teens.

What job did you hire that milkshake for? – Understanding what is required of you in a relationship

This is an interesting case study on how Clay helped a breakfast chain increase its milkshake sales not by standard means such as knowing what customers to target or what offers/changes would lure them, but through a deep understanding of what ‘purpose’ the milkshake was being used for by these customers in the first place. The findings were far from obvious at first, but intuitive given that Clay had framed the problem in terms of “what job is it being hired for?”

Clay observes that a number of unhappy marriages are actually based on selflessness. He cites the example of a husband who comes home to a tired wife attending to young kids, and gets to work immediately with the dishes and household chores without her knowledge, only to realize that what she needed the most was some adult to talk to after a day spent around restless infants. The chores are the least of her problems and him doing them only adds to her guilt.

“If you study marriages from the job-to-be-done lens, we would find that the spouses who are most loyal to each other are those that have figured out the job that their partner needs to be done – and then they do the job reliably and well.”

“A relationship is not about finding someone who you think is going to make you happy. The path to happiness is finding someone who you want to make happy, someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to. It is natural to want the people you love to be happy. What can often be difficult is understanding what your role is in that.”

On Parenting

Think of development as composed of three components – resources, processes and priorities. Parents today are spending too much time and effort making sure their kids have the right resources (enrolling them in all sorts of classes, doing work for them etc) while hindering their kids from figuring out the right processes. The ‘processes’ are the ways in which the child realizes her priorities and what to do with the resources at her disposal.

“Start early by finding and giving them simple problems to solve on their own, problems that can help them build their processes and a healthy self-esteem. As I look back on my life, I recognized that some of the greatest gifts I received from my parents stemmed not from what they did for me, but from what they did not do for me.”

Encourage your kids to stretch – to aim for lofty goals.  Urge them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. Celebrate failure if it’s a result of a child striving for an out-of-reach goal.

Not placing enough importance on the schools of experience – both as individuals and firms

Clay cites the example of fighter-pilots who are selected based on intensive tests that are intended to weed out all but the most gifted, the most skilled. What is really happening here is that the test experience and preparation for the test shapes how the pilots deal with setbacks or stress in high-stakes situations. What’s being mistaken for “high skills” is a “great skills along with a high degree of exposure to certain experiences”.

A survey among hiring managers, showed that by their own admissions, they didn’t do a good-enough job of picking the right candidates. Hiring managers who were interviewed said that 33% of their choices were superb, 40% were adequate and 25% turned out to be mistakes. Considering how important hiring is to a firm, the numbers are surprising.

Nolan Archibald’s example earlier is a good case-study of how it pays off to make decisions based on a possible experience-portfolio rather than superficial indicators.

On family culture and integrity 

When it comes to family culture, the examples we set for our spouse and kids are important.

“Most of us want to try to be consistent. But in the pressures of day-to-day living, that can be tough”. Left unchecked enough, “once” or “twice” quickly becomes the culture.

You know that several aspects in life will often switch to autopilot mode. You need to properly program the autopilot in your life and family by setting the right examples.

On marginal cost v/s full cost

“The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Carol Lewis

We think in terms of marginal costs all the time, the incremental difference a small step will make. But we end up paying the full price, whether we like it or not.

Following your principles 100% of the time is easier than doing it 98% of the time.


How to identify and stick to a life-purpose

There are three parts to a purpose – likeness, commitment and metrics. Sketch out the “likeness”, which is like an outline or negative of what you see yourself and your life as. This will serve as the blueprint and guiding compass for your decisions and actions. Put in commitment to making that blueprint come to life. Instill the right metrics to track yourself, being careful not to get caught in the caveats discussed above.

“Take the time to figure out your life’s purpose, and if you do so, you’ll look back at it as the most important thing you ever did”

It is worth nothing that Clay advises his students to do this while they are still at school or early on in their post-school lives.


Credits: AT for recommending the awesome book,  Ashish for instilling the book summarizing practice and Sujeet for reminding me often to revive this blog.