Sunday, March 3, 2013

The meaning of life, courtesy of Harvard Business School

How Will You Measure Your Life?How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen

There’s an interesting idea behind this book: a prof from Harvard Business School, having overcome a life-threatening cancer, considers how we would live our lives if we used the business lessons he teaches his high-flying students to apply to companies.

For instance, just as a business often makes the mistake of focusing on the product it could make rather than the needs of its customers, so in our relationships, instead of assuming what selflessness would be for our partner, we need to explore their needs – which may be very different from our assumptions.

Christensen apparently has the perfect marriage, and is a committed Christian - so committed that, as a young man, with great strength of character/bloody-mindedness, he refused to play an important football game on a Sunday, threatening his team’s success in a championship. (The team won anyway: make of that what you will.) This aspect of his life is somewhat unhelpful to his readers, because what he tells us about himself – which is quite a lot – is obviously hugely influenced by his faith in God, rather than in the principles of business.

But there is some real meat here. I liked the idea that a person’s capabilities are the product of their Resources (talents, learning, material goods, time, for instance), Processes (ways of thinking, experience of situations, skills) and Priorities (values, decisions). In providing Resources for our children in the form of special classes and other ‘outsourced’ experiences, are we denying them the ability to develop their own Processes and Priorities through having to organise their own time?

Look at Dell (the computer company), Christensen says: they let Asus grow from their outsourcing manufacturer to becoming their product development centre – until Asus took what they’d learnt and grew their own computer business. So don’t outsource the key capabilities on which the future of your business – or your life – will depend. If parents want to shape their children’s priorities, they need to be there when the kids are developing their Processes and Priorities.

In the end, Christensen’s religious insights – such as how he prayed for an hour every night as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford before dedicating his life to God – rather get in the way. And beside the honesty and openness (including the admission of failures) there is slight but unavoidable smugness. Try this:

“My wife Christine, and I started, when we were newly engaged, with an end goal – a specific family culture – in mind …We wanted our children to love each other and support each other. We decided we wanted our children to have an instinct to obey God. We decided we wanted them to be kind. And finally, we decided we wanted them to love work.”

Although he tries to avoid sounding too preachy by adding that “every family should choose a culture that’s right for them”, that doesn’t quite ring true. If I said, for instance, that I don’t believe that I'll be able to give my children “an instinct to obey God”, wouldn’t that necessarily be a challenge to his values, rather than just another choice?

In the end, this is a book with its heart in the right place, and, what drew me to it, the question ‘how will you measure your life?’ is surely worth thinking about, however much or little of Christensen’s answer you take on board.

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