How Will we Measure Our Lives?

Clay Christensen
We make the most important decisions about life every single day. How do we go about deciding? Is there a thought-out reason behind the plan, or do we go for the easiest choice? Say we are not a deeply spiritual person, we live in the secular dimension, what are our guiding principles?

If there ever is a perfect time for reflection, the holiday season presents a good opportunity — cheer in the air, work projects reach a natural culmination, and we turn our attention to family and friends. Yes, I know about the dangers of generalizing.

For someone who enjoyed reading since an early age, after a couple of years of doing much less of it I missed it. Aside from the occasional business book asking a question differently (thus why I read and recommended it), I felt the poorer for not spending more time offline and curled up with a good story or a classic.

Which is why this year I started reading books with gusto again — practicing remembering and noticing the changes in perspective by re-reading books in my library, and returning to timeless topics and themes. When we read books, we engage in a conversation with ourselves, we learn to listen to our thoughts more deeply.

Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren have written the book on How to Read a Book: the Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. They say there are four levels of reading:

  1. elementary
  2. inspectional
  3. analytical, and
  4. synoptical

Reading is an active process since the author/teacher is not available to discuss the material. Using Adler's and van Doren's advice on elementary and inspectional reading we can learn to read faster to enhance comprehension, find answers to our questions, and take the right kind of notes.

“Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it,” he says. We know we understand the message of the author when we can deliver it concisely in our own words. One of the ultimate goals of reading is synoptical. Syntopical reading is the reading of different works on the same subject with a view to constituting a general view on the subject by comparing and contrasting.

Essentially we conduct research about the topic, writing down key questions and setting out to find answers from different angles. After reading a book, we should know the answers to:

  • What is this book about?
  • What is the author saying and how?
  • Is the content of the book valid and how?
  • What applications can I find?

As part of the process of finding a valid hypothesis for what is the meaning of life, is a topic of philosophical and spiritual interest. So when professor Clay Christensen asked: How will you measure your life? I paid attention.

His premise is that we can look accomplished, we may have done a lot of work to get to where we are right now, and still have that nagging feeling that our life's work is somewhere in you, unexpressed. View Christensen's approach for starting this dialogue in the short segment below.


Talking is a good method for making sense of issues, sharing lessons learned, and staying in touch with people and topics. In How will you measure your life? Christensen says the “jobs to be done” theory of identifying product demand applies to being a good spouse and parent. He talks about how the perils of outsourcing a PC business to Asia has parallels in how parents outsource the teaching of their kids to other caregivers.

[…] “The decisions that cause it to happen,” he says, “often seem tactical–just small decisions that they think won’t have any larger impact. But as they keep allocating resources in this way–and although they often won’t realize it–they’re implementing a strategy different from what they intend.”

This is important work we're outsourcing one minute or hours at a time.

Comparing the self-destruction of successful companies and successful individuals is an understandable but often fatal focus on short-term achievement and a consequent failure to invest in what truly creates value in the long term. He says:

“Typically, the way you calculate profitability, investments that pay off tomorrow go to the bottom line and are much more tangible than investments that pay off 10 years from now.”


“When you have an extra ounce of energy or 30 minutes of time, instinctively and unconsciously you'll allocate it to whatever activities in your life give you the most immediate evidence of achievement, and our careers provide that immediate evidence of achievement. In contrast, investments in our families don't pay off for a very long time.”

We should spend more time thinking about how we will measure our lives. The book is organized into parts with a particular focus on core questions:

  1. Finding happiness in our career, where he discusses the true basis of motivation and reward
  2. Finding happiness in our relationships, concentrating on spending time consistent with our priorities, patience and how they apply
  3. Staying out of Jail, about living with integrity and the pitfalls of marginal versus full thinking.

Values work is an investment that will help us figure out what we stand for — and standing for something in the end is much easier than falling for everything.

Watch Christensen elaborate on the parallels between businesses and individuals in the video below.



[edited from archives]