How Will You Measure Your Life

How Will You Measure Your Life

Finding Fulfillment Using Lessons From Some of the World's Greatest Businesses

Clayton Christensen

Summary in 100 words or less

There is no shortcut to happiness and meaning in life. While success leaves cues, past data doesn't guarantee future outcomes. Until you allocate your resources to what's important, it doesn't matter. The best time to take care of your health and relationships is now, not when you most need them. Have guiding principles and commit to them. Things happen in small incremental. "Just this once" is a dangerous first leap that gets us to where we don't want to be. Lastly, create a life purpose—learn to look past the immediate reward—and focus on fulfilling it.


My Highlights

The quest to find happiness and meaning in life is not new. Humans have been pondering the reason for our existence for thousands of years.

What is new, however, is how some modern thinkers address the problem. A bevy of so-called experts simply offer the answers. It’s not a surprise that these answers are very appealing to some. They take hard problems—ones that people can go through an entire life without ever resolving—and offer a quick fix.

People often think that the best way to predict the future is by collecting as much data as possible before making a decision. But this is like driving a car looking only at the rearview mirror—because data is only available about the past.

The real breakthrough in human flight didn’t come from crafting better wings or using more feathers. It was brought about by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli and his book Hydrodynamica, a study of fluid mechanics. In 1738, he outlined what was to become known as Bernoulli’s principle, a theory that, when applied to flight, explained the concept of lift. We had gone from correlation (wings and feathers) to causality (lift).

You might be tempted to try to make decisions in your life based on what you know has happened in the past or what has happened to other people. You should learn all that you can from the past; from scholars who have studied it, and from people who have gone through problems of the sort that you are likely to face. But this doesn’t solve the fundamental challenge of what information and what advice you should accept, and which you should ignore as you embark into the future. Instead, using robust theory to predict what will happen has a much greater chance of success.

The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. —Steve Jobs

The problem is that what we think matters most in our jobs often does not align with what will really make us happy. Even worse, we don’t notice that gap until it’s too late.

Good intentions are not enough—you’re not implementing the strategy that you intend if you don’t spend your time, your money, and your talent in a way that is consistent with your intentions. In your life, there are going to be constant demands for your time and attention. How are you going to decide which of those demands gets resources? The trap many people fall into is to allocate their time to whoever screams loudest, and their talent to whatever offers them the fastest reward. That’s a dangerous way to build a strategy.

One of the best ways to probe whether you can trust the advice that a theory is offering you is to look for anomalies—something that the theory cannot explain.

Incentives are not the same as motivation. True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it. This type of motivation continues, in good times and in bad.

Compensation is a hygiene factor, not a motivator. You need to get it right. But all you can aspire to is that employees will not be mad at each other and the company because of compensation.

If you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction.

Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Feelings that you are making a meaningful contribution to work arise from intrinsic conditions of the work itself. Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you, and inside of your work.

The pursuit of money can, at best, mitigate the frustrations in your career—yet the siren song of riches has confused and confounded some of the best in our society. In order to really find happiness, you need to continue looking for opportunities that you believe are meaningful, in which you will be able to learn new things, to succeed, and be given more and more responsibility to shoulder.

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. Realizing this frees us to focus on the things that really matter.

Ask yourself a different set of questions than most of us are used to asking. Is this work 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.

Options for your strategy spring from two very different sources. The first source is anticipated opportunities—the opportunities that you can see and choose to pursue. When you put in place a plan focused on these anticipated opportunities, you are pursuing a deliberate strategy. The second source of options is unanticipated—usually a cocktail of problems and opportunities that emerges while you are trying to implement the deliberate plan or strategy that you have decided upon.

Managing it is very hard—the deliberate strategy and the new emerging opportunities fight for resources. On the one hand, if you have a strategy that really is working, you need to deliberately focus to keep everyone working together in the right direction. At the same time, however, that focus can easily cause you to dismiss as a distraction what could actually turn out to be the next big thing.

Strategy almost always emerges from a combination of deliberate and unanticipated opportunities. What’s important is to get out there and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests, and priorities begin to pay off. When you find out what really works for you, then it’s time to flip from an emergent strategy to a deliberate one.

The academics who created this process, Ian MacMillan and Rita McGrath, called it “discovery-driven planning,” but it might be easier to think about it as “What has to prove true for this to work?”

Ask yourself what assumptions have to prove true for you to be happy in the choice you are contemplating. Are you basing your position on extrinsic or intrinsic motivators? Why do you think this is going to be something you enjoy doing? What evidence do you have? Every time you consider a career move, keep thinking about the most important assumptions that have to prove true, and how you can swiftly and inexpensively test if they are valid. Make sure you are being realistic about the path ahead of you.

You can talk all you want about having a strategy for your life, understanding motivation, and balancing aspirations with unanticipated opportunities. But ultimately, this means nothing if you do not align those with where you actually expend your time, money, and energy.

Real strategy—in companies and in our lives—is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about where we spend our resources. As you’re living your life from day to day, how do you make sure you’re 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.

To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do. —Andy Grove

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.

Your career priorities—the motivators that will make you happy at work—are simply one part of a broader set of priorities in your life, priorities that include your family, your friends, your faith, your health, and so on.

You have to make sure that you allocate your resources in a way that is consistent with your priorities. You have to make sure that your own measures of success are aligned with your most important concern. And you have to make sure that you’re thinking about all these in the right time frame—overcome the natural tendency to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.

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.

When the winning strategy is not yet clear in the initial stages of a new business, good money from investors needs to be patient for growth but impatient for profit. It demands that a new company figures out a viable strategy as fast as and with as little investment as possible—so that the entrepreneurs don’t spend a lot of money in pursuit of the wrong strategy.

Once a viable strategy has been found, investors need to change what they seek—they should become impatient for growth and patient for profit. Once a profitable and viable way forward has been discovered—success now depends on scaling out this model.

One of the most common versions of this mistake that high-potential young professionals make is believing that investments in life can be sequenced. The logic is, for example, “I can invest in my career during the early years when our children are small and parenting isn’t as critical. When our children are a bit older and begin to be interested in things that adults are interested in, then I can lift my foot off my career accelerator. That’s when I’ll focus on my family.” Guess what. By that time the game is already over. An investment in a child needs to have been made long before then, to provide him with the tools he needs to survive life’s challenges—even earlier than you might realize.

If you defer investing your time and energy until you see that you need to, chances are it will already be too late. But as you are getting your career off the ground, you will be tempted to do exactly that: assume you can defer investing in your personal relationships. You cannot. The only way to have those relationships bear fruit in your life is to invest long before you need them.

“The job to be done.” The insight behind this way of thinking is that what causes us to buy a product or service is that we actually hire products to do jobs for us.

Nobody buys a product because he is an eighteen- to thirty-five-year-old white male getting a college degree. That may be correlated with a decision to buy this product instead of that one, but it doesn’t cause us to buy anything. Instead, periodically we find that some job has arisen in our lives that we need to do, and we then find some way to get it done. If a company has developed a product or service to do the job well, we buy, or “hire” it, to do the job. If there isn’t an existing product that does the job well, however, then we typically make something we already have, get it done as best we can, or develop a work-around. The mechanism that causes us to buy a product is “I have a job I need to get done, and this is going to help me do it.”

Every successful product or service, either explicitly or implicitly, was structured around a job to be done. Addressing a job is the causal mechanism behind a purchase. If someone develops a product that is interesting, but which doesn’t intuitively map in customers’ minds on a job that they are trying to do, that product will struggle to succeed—unless the product is adapted and repositioned on an important job.

One of the most important jobs you’ll ever be hired to do is to be a spouse. Getting this right, I believe, is critical to sustaining a happy marriage.

Understanding the job requires the critical ingredients of intuition and empathy. You have to be able to put yourself not just in her shoes, but her chair—and indeed, her life. More importantly, the jobs that your spouse is trying to do are often very different from the jobs that you think she should want to do.

A husband may be convinced that he is the selfless one, and also convinced that his wife is being self-centered because she doesn’t even notice everything he is giving her—and vice versa. This is exactly the interaction between the customers and the marketers of so many companies, too.

The path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to. If what causes us to fall deeply in love is mutually understanding and then doing each other’s job to be done, then I have observed that what cements that commitment is the extent to which I sacrifice myself to help her succeed and for her to be happy.

Asking yourself “What job does my spouse most need me to do?” gives you the ability to think about it in the right unit of analysis. When you approach your relationships from this perspective, the answers will become much more clear than they would by simply speculating about what might be the right thing to do.

When you boil it down, the factors that determine what a company can and cannot do—its capabilities—fall into one of three buckets: resources, processes, and priorities.

Resources are usually people or things—they can be hired and fired, bought and sold, depreciated, or built. Many resources are visible and often are measurable, so managers can readily assess their value. Most people might think that resources are what make a business successful.

Organizations create value as employees transform resources into products and services of greater worth. The ways in which those employees interact, coordinate, communicate, and make decisions are known as processes. These enable the resources to solve more and more complicated problems.

The third—and perhaps most significant—capability is an organization’s priorities. This set of factors defines how a company makes decisions; it can give a clear guidance about what a company is likely to invest in, and what it will not. Employees at every level will make prioritization decisions—what they will focus on today, and what they’ll put at the bottom of their list.

The Resources, Processes, and Priorities model of capabilities can help us gauge what our children will need to be able to do, given the types of challenges and problems that we know they will confront in their future.

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

Many parents are making the same mistake, flooding their children with resources—knowledge, skills, and experiences. And just as with Dell, each of the decisions to do so seems to make sense. We want our kids to get ahead, and believe that the opportunities and experiences we have provided for them will help them do exactly that. But the nature of these activities—experiences in which they’re not deeply engaged and that don’t really challenge them to do hard things—denies our children the opportunity to develop the processes they’ll need to succeed in the future.

Self-esteem—the sense that “I’m not afraid to confront this problem and I think I can solve it”—doesn’t come from abundant resources. Rather, self-esteem comes from achieving something important when it’s hard to do.

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.

Encourage them to stretch—to aim for lofty goals. If they don’t succeed, make sure you’re there to help them learn the right lesson: that when you aim to achieve great things, it is inevitable that sometimes you’re not going to make it. Urge them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. 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.

People who hit their first significant career roadblock after years of nonstop achievement often fall apart.

Creating experiences for your children doesn’t guarantee that they’ll learn what they need to learn. If that doesn’t happen, you have to figure out why that experience didn’t achieve it. You might have to iterate through different ideas until you get it right. The important thing for a parent is, as always, to never give up; never stop trying to help your children get the right experiences to prepare them for life.

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.

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

If you want your family to have a culture with a clear set of priorities for everyone to follow, then those priorities need to be proactively designed into the culture—which can be built through the steps noted above. It needs to be shaped the way that you want it to be in your family, and you have to think about this early on. If you want your family to have a culture of kindness, then the first time one of your kids approaches a problem where kindness is an option—help him choose it, and then help him succeed through kindness. Or if he doesn’t choose it, call him on it and explain why he should have chosen differently.

Culture happens, whether you want it to or not. The only question is how hard you are going to try to influence it.

The first step down that path is taken with a small decision. You justify all the small decisions that lead up to the big one and then you get to the big one and it doesn’t seem so enormous anymore. You don’t realize the road you are on until you look up and see you’ve arrived at a destination you would have once considered unthinkable.

If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful, because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again. Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.

That business purpose and business mission are so rarely given adequate thought is perhaps the most important cause of business frustration and failure. —Peter F. Drucker

A useful statement of purpose for a company needs three parts. The first is what I will 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 are 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 are 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. These metrics enable everyone associated with the enterprise to calibrate their work, keeping them moving together in a coherent way.

Worthy purposes rarely emerge inadvertently; the world is too full of mirage, paradox, and uncertainty to leave this to fate. Purpose must be deliberately conceived and chosen, and then pursued.

Clarity about purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, the five forces, and other key business theories we teach at Harvard.

More book notes

A Short Guide to a Long Life
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
David and Goliath

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