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Senior Correspondent

Clay Christensen changed my life this week.

I read his book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” and found myself coming up short.

I won’t tell you where I came up short … quite yet. Instead, I’ll summarize some of the major questions he asks. Then, let’s see if and where you too might have some things you want to change in your life.

Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School. He was asked by the 2010 graduating class to show them how to apply to their personal lives the management principles he teaches in his classes. In class, instead of telling his students what to think, he’s always taught them how to think. And that’s what they were asking of him again.

He suggested that the students seek solid answers to three questions:

  • How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?
  • How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?
  • How can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

Stay out of jail? Well, let’s look at all three in relation to our lives.

But before anything, let’s define words like “happy” and “happiness,” whether we’re talking about our careers or our personal lives.

What Motivates Us

Christensen’s conclusion is that the greatest motivator in our lives is not money. Instead, he defines it as:

  • the opportunity to learn
  • the chance to grow in responsibilities
  • a way to contribute to others
  • being recognized for our achievements

As I see it:

  • By having the opportunity to learn, we never become stagnant, but instead look forward to each day.
  • By having the chance to grow in responsibilities, we’re continually progressing over time.
  • By having a way to contribute to others, we can share from our personal bounty, however we define it.
  • By being recognized for our achievements, we enjoy a healthy self-esteem.

My Takeaways

Here are a few of my takeaways from Christensen’s book.

Our Careers: For Christensen, having a clear purpose in his life is an essential part of that happiness, against which everything can be measured. And one’s business pursuit or career is just one tool for achieving that purpose. Yet success without that purpose can be hollow, as we so often hear from those at the top. So having a clear purpose in life is non-negotiable, and the earlier, the better.

Our Home Life: When time is a commodity in short supply, do we apply those 15 minutes to doing one last email blast … or to spending a few more minutes with our spouse or children? Remember, both our businesses and our relationships are an accumulation of all the little investments made over time. However, as achievers, too many of us are more focused on the immediate return from that one email than on how successful our relationship will be with our partner or children 10 or 20 years down the line.

You see, whether for business or on the home front, we’re predisposed towards actions that bring us immediate returns. That means that when we’re deciding between different actions to take, over time we find ourselves dedicating less and less time to the things we once said were the most important to us. So we need a way to remind ourselves of what matters the most.

Keeping Our Noses Clean: We each claim to have a set of principles and values by which we live or die. But when some extenuating circumstance comes along, suddenly we think maybe it would be okay to make an exception.  (Christensen believes that making that exception is what ultimately led two of his seemingly respectable classmates to end up in jail. “I’ll just do it this one time.” And once a value is compromised, it gets easier and easier to do so, even if the intention was never to go as far as facing jail time.)

Life is full of extenuating circumstances. And Christensen’s life has taught him that it’s infinitely easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time … than just 98 percent of the time. With the former, you make the decision once. With the latter, you have to make the decision each time the question presents itself.

How Will We Be Measured?

When we reach the end of our lives, what’s the measuring stick that will be used? Will it be the dollars we’ve accumulated? Or the level of prominence? Or the number of cars in the garage? Or the square footage of our homes?

Or will it be the number of people whose lives we’ve touched? In short, will we have fulfilled our purpose?

Now it’s your turn: What is the metric by which your life will be measured? Once you know that, if you’ll resolve to live every day using that as your basis of decision-making … 100 percent of the time … in the end, you can’t help but have lived a successful life.

For me? I realized that things like those emails do take precedence over spending time with friends and loved ones … more often than I like. And it’s something I’m willing to change. So, right now, I’m headed to Hollywood Beach to go have a drink and a long-overdue talk with a very good friend.

What about you?

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