Using foundational research and business theories first developed during his time at Harvard Business School, Clayton M. Christensen in his book “How Will You Measure Your Life” attempts to uncover the answers to life’s most challenging questions.
In this blog we take a brief look at the ideas Christensen discusses in his book surrounding success and failure along with the answers he provides to the questions:
- 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?
When I Grow Up...
I wanted to be a soccer star when I grew up. While everyone else wanted to be a doctor, astronot or firefighter I was convinced that my peers, at the young age of seven, had their head in the clouds and my career goal was the only practical option. I was so convinced this would be my reality that on many occasions I practiced my professional signature “Hannah Soccer Star” on every object I deemed important - my bedroom lamp, the back of a door, my school books - let’s just say my family didn’t appreciate my signature practice as much as I did.
I share this because I know you had a far-reaching dream once. You would be the next President, founder of a leading global non-profit, or discover the cure to the common cold. And, although some childhood career aspirations may not have been practical, why have 86% of individuals settled for careers they aren’t passionate about?
Finding Happiness in Your Career
You are going to work 90,000 hours in your career. Now, that number can either bring on an extreme sense of dread or excitement, all depending on if you are passionate about the work you do or not. In his book, Christensen discusses the theory of motivation as it relates to career. He explains that there are two factors that lead to career satisfaction: the hygiene factor and motivation factor.
The hygiene factor relates to things like status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies and supervisory practices. In a study conducted by Frederick Herzberg in the Harvard Business Review, it was found that agencies have to get the hygiene factor right, but hygiene factors (to include monetary compensation) do not determine job satisfaction or happiness in your career. Christensen summarizes the research done by Herzberg by stating, “the opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction.” He goes on to explain that while getting hygiene factors right in an organization will not lead you to love your job, it will just stop you from hating it.
Now moving on to the piece of the puzzle you need to have in order to love the work you do - motivation. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility and personal growth. Motivation factors have less to do with outside forces but focus primarily on what happens inside us and inside our work. In his book Christensen explores the theory of motivation in order to uncover key questions each of us can use to determine if a career or current job aligns with our internal motivators. By answering these questions honestly, you will be able to discover if your current situation will allow you to complete your best work and lead to a career you love.
Theory of Motivation Questions:
- 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?
Use the above questions as a litmus test to determine if the career you are in has the capacity to be a career you can be passionate about.
Christensen stresses in his book that motivation factors can be met in any profession and are not reserved to only philanthropic or socially driven work. Everyone has the ability to realize motivation factors in a myriad of professions to include business, government and industry related careers.
And, if your career doesn’t fit these motivation factors, Christensen discusses the importance of being open to a shift in your career. “Change can often be difficult, and it will probably seem easier to just stick with what you are already doing. That thinking can be dangerous. You’re only kicking the can down the road, and you risk waking up one day, years later, looking into the mirror, asking yourself: ‘What am I doing with my life?’” So remember, wherever you are in your career, be intent on focusing on the things that motivate you, and by doing that you can find happiness in the 90,000 hours spent working.
Finding Happiness in Your Relationships
Product failure for a company is the same as failure in relationships. This is the comparison posed in the section of Christensen’s book discussing how relationships can mirror theories studied in business. The key point discussed throughout the chapters detailing finding happiness in relationships is that we would be better served thinking of what others need out of the relationship with us rather than purely thinking about our own needs. Christensen states that “in our relationships: we go into them thinking about what we want rather than what is important to the other person,” which leads to a one-sided relationship that is always looking towards how others will serve you.
This theory on relationships is not only reserved to family or romantic endeavors. It matters in the workplace too. Teams are rarely successful when each person has a self-centered focus. And, team dynamics that are healthy come from a larger company culture that promotes this kind of group behavior. Throughout the book Christensen highlights that company cultures and relational dynamics have to be carefully managed. “A culture can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently,” states Christensen. And, whether you are a leader in a corporate office or a member of a family dynamic, it is imperative that culture is carefully nurtured to ensure a positive outcome.
Staying Out of Jail
Do you want to go to Blockbuster and grab a movie? Chances are you haven’t uttered that phrase since 2010 when Blockbuster went bankrupt because they refused to evaluate alternatives. In his book Christensen explains, “Blockbuster followed a principle that is taught in every fundamental course in finance and economcs: 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.” Blockbuster refused to look at the market from a future perspective and underestimated the impact that staying stagnant could have on the health of their performance. According to Christensen, “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.”
So, what does Blockbuster have to do with you? If you take the failure of Blockbuster from a personal viewpoint, you will be able to see how right versus wrong is tied directly to marginal cost. In the book Christensen shares the story of Nick Leeson, the twenty-six year old who brought down the British merchant bank Varings after racking up 1.3 billion in trading losses. In short, Nick Leeson made one trading mistake that led him down a path of dishonesty which incurred a domino effect of decisions that landed him in jail and 1,200 employees out of a job. With this example Christensen argues, “this is the peril of marginal thinking, of doing something just this once, of only applying your rules most of the time. You can’t. I’m sure Leeson could have imagined the consequences of owning up to his initial mistake, painful though they might have been. The costs of taking the high road are always clear like that. But the costs of taking the low road -- the one Leeson took -- don’t seem that bad at the start.”
The punch line of this story and the points Christensen brings forward are that if you want to live a life of integrity (and one that keeps you out of jail), never make decisions without looking into the future and estimating what the full cost will be. And, if the opportunity to make a moral concession appears in your career or personal life, choose to turn around before taking the first step.
Moving Forward: How Will You Measure Your Life?
The book How Will You Measure Your Life is not a book of easy answers to life’s challenging questions, but is instead a book that will supply you with the tools to answer the questions for yourself. According to Christensen in the conclusion of his book, “If you take the time to figure out your purpose in life, I promise that you will look back on it as the most important thing you will have ever learned.”
If you want to continue your journey on answering the question “How will you measure your life?” for yourself, then pick up a copy of Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life or watch his Ted talk today.