Q&A with Clay, James and Karen
Why did you write “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
Clay: I never really set out to write “How Will You Measure Your Life?”; it was driven in large part because my students urged me to. The subject is something I have explored with all of my students on the last day of class each school year for as long as I have been teaching at Harvard Business School. I’ve always considered it my most important class. Every year, I learn something valuable from my students and I hope our conversation inspires them to reflect on their personal and professional road ahead.
At the end of the spring semester in 2010, I was asked to speak to the entire graduating class about these ideas. Just a few months before, I’d been diagnosed with a cancer similar to the type that killed my dad. Though my own prognosis was good, I felt an extra sense of urgency to ask the bright, ambitious students before me to think long and hard about the lives they were about to embark on. I felt something powerful in the room that day in Burden Auditorium on campus. I think the talk somehow resonated in a way that it hadn’t ever before.
Karen: I heard about Clay’s speech to the graduating class when I was the editor of Harvard Business Review (HBR). Students told me they were profoundly moved by his thoughts. I called Clay to ask if he’d allow HBR to turn those thoughts into an essay for the magazine. I turned up in his office and peppered him with questions. As I sat in his office that day, I knew something profound had happened to me, too. I couldn’t get Clay’s ideas out of my mind. They made me think, not just about an article in HBR, but about my own life.
Together, Clay and I turned that conversation into the short essay that appeared in HBR in July/August 2010. Shortly after we posted the article on HBR.org it went viral. There were comments and discussions from people of all ages and stages of life — all over the world. The article was more successful than any of us at HBR had expected. It was later awarded the prestigious McKinsey prize as the best HBR article that year.
Clay also began to receive feedback as soon as it was published. It was clear the message had struck a nerve. A number of people asked great questions, and many others were asking for more detail. In the limited space in the article, we’d only focused on a few simple ideas and Clay’s thinking was so much more thoughtful and in-depth than that. It was clear that Clay’s message spoke to many people – and simply had to be developed into something more.
James: About the same time that this was happening, I’d just started working with Clay after graduating from HBS, and Karen and I both came to him independently and said: “We’re really passionate about this topic. We’d love to explore it in more detail. What do you think about turning this into a book?”
Clay: The questions shared in the book are some of the most important you can ask and those that I had spent a lot of time thinking about over the years. But the topic did become more urgent after I had been diagnosed with cancer. It has always been the most important class for me, but this year there was something different about it. I remember feeling how important it was for my students to really, truly engage with what we were discussing, especially given the state of the economy and as they were about to embark on graduation. Though it’s grounded in serious scholarship, this is a more personal work than I have published before.
And, there’s no doubt that the “why now” was also partly driven in part by my co-authors.
Karen: When I first approached Clay about the HBR article, I thought it was a great time to reflect on these questions because the students about to graduate from HBS had applied to the school when the economy was still booming and rosy—and were graduating into a much changed world. I was curious if that had changed their perceptions of what was important in life. As I reflected on the questions, I realized that they were actually incredibly thought-provoking for people of other stages of life, too (maybe even more so than for newly graduating students). My peers had been in the workforce for two decades. We’d made our career choices, built families, and essentially settled into our lives. But Clay’s questions made me stop and ask myself if I was truly living the life I hoped to live. Was I putting the things that mattered to me most first in my life? I suspected a lot of people would relate to these questions, too, regardless of the moment in time. The unbelievable reaction we received for Clay’s original article at HBR suggested there was much more to be said on the topic.
James: I’d just graduated from school that year, and like a lot of my peers — and, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone graduating from university study and about to go out into the world — I was trying to grapple with these questions: How can I find something I truly enjoy doing? Something that I think is meaningful? Where do I even start to look?
In trying to answer these questions, I found myself increasingly relying on the thinking from Clay’s class.
When I realized there might be the opportunity to spend some time really thinking about these problems, and then crafting them into a form that wouldn’t just benefit me, but be broadly available — I jumped at it. In fact, Clay is naturally very humble and the idea that he would write a book on this topic is probably not something he would have immediately gone for. But I knew the impact he’d had on me, and I’d seen the impact he’d had on my classmates. So I really encouraged him to do it. I truly believe that fleshing out and sharing these ideas would be something that could help a lot of folks as they grapple with big questions in life.
Why is the book written by three authors if it is based on Christensen’s theories and experiences?
Clay: One of the most important things I’ve learned from writing books in the past is that that while collaborating with partners makes the process more challenging, diversity of perspective almost always makes the end product better. There were two people that I wanted to write this book with. James was a student in my class, and I had asked him to stay on and work with me because he’s one of the smartest students I’ve met in my years teaching at HBS. He’s at a very different stage of life to me, and he holds very different beliefs to my own, but I thought that was a virtue in producing a better book on this topic. Karen had helped me translate my thoughts so well into the essay in HBR, I wanted her to do the same with this book. She has subsequently told me how profoundly she was personally affected by the ideas in this book and the writing here reflects that.
And finally, we were all extremely passionate about the project. I hope that that comes across to readers. Though the thinking is based on the conversations I’ve had with my students over the years, the three of us discussed, debated, and refined it for the purposes of this book. We wrote the book in the first person (my voice) because that’s how I talk to my students–and my own children–about this thinking, but Karen and James were truly co-authors in deed.
Who is “How Will You Measure Your Life” for and why?
James: Throughout writing this book, I’ve thought of myself as representative of two demographics: people who are just starting out in their careers, and those who don’t have religious faith to guide them in the decisions they make in life. There are a lot of resources out there promising easy answers for these two groups, but I’ve found that not many do a good job of truly helping people to find the answers. That was one of the things that I really wanted to make sure we achieved with “How Will You Measure Your Life,” because thinking through these issues — finding meaning, choosing a career that you’ll enjoy — were questions that were very much on my mind and I hadn’t been able to find help to guide me in answering them.
I think that’s one of the advantages of having three very different authors: from the outset, we each wanted it to be applicable to our own circumstances, and the three of us are all in very different life circumstances. Because it’s grounded in theory — not anecdotes, not “person X was successful and did this, therefore you should do it too” — that makes what we have done relevant for almost everyone thinking about the bigger picture in their lives. The questions don’t change depending on where you are in life.
Karen: I believe this book is appropriate for people at all stages of their lives. Having spent the better part of two decades focusing intensely on my career, this book caused me to pause and examine the choices I’ve made in my own life – and how I want to spend the next two decades. This book forces you to think about the choices and assumptions you’ve made in your own life. There’s too much at stake not to do that.
Clay: I wrote this book at the urging of my students and it was written for them. But I also believe that the tools in this book are powerful for a wide range of people, particularly people of faith who seek to live a life of purpose, but aren’t entirely sure how to go about it. The theories that we share here are not just powerful in the business world – they’re powerful in our personal lives, too. I hope understanding what causes what to happen will enable anybody to better achieve his or her life’s purpose.
As a professor, a father, and a grandfather, I also think this book will be helpful to anyone in a position of guiding the lives of others — their own children, students, even employees in the workplace.
How does the book grow out of Christensen’s theories of disruption and innovation? Why are these theories applicable to one’s life?
Clay: The theories apply for two reasons. The first is, if you get the theory right, it will have external validity — it will apply in domains well outside what you were initially researching. My initial research in disruption was focused on the disk drive industry, but disruption has been used much more widely than this — from national economic policy to military planning by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But what really helps in generating insight is that the nature of the problems we encounter in business are actually very similar to the ones we encounter in our personal lives. A business, for example, has a number of priorities and goals, is always facing unanticipated opportunities and threats, and has a limited set of resources it can deploy in the face of these. This set of circumstances is the very essence of strategy.
You don’t need to think about this for more than a minute, however, before you realize that this same strategy-making process is at work in every one of us, too. For example: many of us have intentions for our careers. Against those intentions, opportunities and threats emerge that we haven’t anticipated. And how we allocate our resources — our time, talent, and energies — is how we determine the actual strategy of our lives. Occasionally, the actual strategy maps quite closely with what we intended. But often what we actually end up doing is very different from what we set out to do.
The art of managing this, however, is not to simply stomp out anything that was not a part of the original plan. Among those threats and opportunities that we didn’t anticipate, there are almost always better options than were contained in our original plans. The strategist in us needs to figure out what these better things are, and then manage our resources, in order to nourish them.
That’s just one example. The basis of the book is using the best of business theory like what we understand about strategy to examine the important questions in our lives. Another example: how to motivate people. That’s a really important question in business, and what we have learned from this is very helpful in understanding what will make each of us happy in the work we do. Similarly, managing the culture of an organization is a critical part of every CEO’s job; the book takes the best of what we know and applies it to making sure you can build a happy and productive culture within your own family.
The topic of happiness and how to lead a values-driven life is frequently covered in self-help books. What separates your book from this category?
Clay: There are probably dozens of well-intended people in your life who give advice for how you should live your life, make your career choices, or make yourself happy. Walk into the self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll be overwhelmed with dozens of choices about how you can improve your life. You know, intuitively, that all these books can’t be right. But how can you tell them apart? How do you know what is good advice – and what is bad?
This book is different as it doesn’t attempt to give you easy answers. Instead it helps you figure out the answers for yourself.
I have never done my research as snapshots in correlation; instead, my work has always been deeply focused on trying to figure out what causes things to happen, and why. The study of happiness is an area which hasn’t really been approached from this perspective — of what causes people to feel this way in their careers, and in their homes. That’s the line of inquiry we have pursued, and I believe we have yielded some deep insight into the most important questions we’ll face in our lives.
What anecdote from the book best represents the essence of what the book is about?
Clay: The anecdote that people have responded to most powerfully is the story I’ve shared about my decision not to play in a basketball championship game when I was at student at Oxford University. I hadn’t realized that the final match would be on a Sunday – and I’d made a personal commitment to God that I would never play ball on Sundays. We killed ourselves all season, and our hard work paid off – we made it all the way to the finals of the British equivalent of the NCAA tournament. So I went to the coach and explained my situation. He was incredulous. “I don’t know what you believe,” he said to me, “but I believe that God will understand.” My teammates were stunned, too. I was the starting center and my backup had dislocated his shoulder. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule just this one time?”
It was a difficult decision to make. We’d been dreaming about this all year. I was the starting center.
I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away and prayed about what I should do. As I prayed, I got a very clear feeling that I needed to keep my commitment. So I told the coach that I wasn’t able to play in the championship game.
In so many ways, that was a small decision — involving one of several thousand Sundays in my life. In theory, surely I could have crossed over the line just that one time and then not done it again. But looking back on it, resisting the temptation of “In this one extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK” has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over again in the years that followed.
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; once you have justified doing it once, it’s easy to do it again and again and again.
If readers walk away with one message, what should it be?
Clay: Readers should walk away with knowing the importance of purpose. Without it, you’re just going to get swept along by the currents of life. You’ve truly got to decide what is important to you, and then commit to it, not some of the time, not most of the time, but all of the time.
James: For me, it was really understanding the double-edged nature of what motivates us, of what makes us happy. You hear people say “money doesn’t matter” all the time, and for many people I feel like it’s this game where they say that, but then end up letting financial factors — or other things that really won’t make them happy — decide their life for them. I’ve come to understand not only that money won’t make us happy — but why it won’t make us happy. And what will make us happy, instead. Understanding that — and believing it — has been the most important part of this whole process for me.
Karen: The idea that you have to consciously stop and think about your life – what you want it to mean, what matters to you, and how you spend your time – is extraordinarily powerful to me. So many of us just move along from goal A to goal B without pausing to think if goal B is actually the right one. We have to take responsibility for our own happiness and we can’t do that if we don’t understand what our choices in life will lead to.
Clayton M. Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration of Harvard Business School, the author of seven books and a five-time recipient of the McKinsey Award for the Harvard Business Review’s best article.
Karen Dillon was the editor of Harvard Business Review until 2011. A graduate of Cornell University and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, she now lives in London.
James Allworth is a native of Australia and a graduate of the Harvard Business School, where he was named a Baker Scholar, and has worked at Booz & Company and Apple.