Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen is arguably one of the most influential thinkers in management today.
He’s most famous for developing the concept of “disruptive innovation” — the idea that established industries are vulnerable to being upended by fresh competitors with low-priced, apparently inferior products.
Articulated in his landmark 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, that theory has been used to explain the failures of companies such as U.S. Steel and Blockbuster and the successes of firms such as Intel INTEL CORPORATION
Now Christensen, 60, has co-written How Will You Measure Your Life?, in which he applies business-school theories not to organizational management, but to finding happiness and integrity in life.
The book is an outgrowth of a lecture Christensen has given to his students over the years, one that gained special significance after he received a diagnosis of cancer in 2009. Christensen spoke with senior editor George Mannes. Their conversation was edited.
You apply a lot of business-school thinking to life. What’s one example?
In organizations, once you articulate how success will be measured, everybody tries to game the system so that they are measured in the best possible way. If you judge schools based on test scores, every school will start teaching to the test. The whole organization optimizes on a yardstick, very often to the long-term detriment of that organization.
So individually we need to think very carefully about how we measure our life.
I believe that the source of our deepest happiness comes from investments we make in intimate relationships with our spouse, children, and close friends. But if you measure your life by how much money you make or where you go in a hierarchy, you invest more and more to maximize those things and less and less of your time and energy on family. Even though you think family is important, you invest in things that are counter to what you had intended to do in your heart.
How should a person be measuring his or her career?
You want to be in a job where you’re motivated.
There’s a theory that was articulated by the late psychologist Frederick Herzberg. He makes a strong point that there’s a big difference between motivation and incentives. An incentive is, “I will pay you to want what I want.” Motivation means that you’ve got an engine inside of you that drives you to keep working in order to feel successful and to help the organization be successful. It causes you to keep at it through thick and thin.
Motivators are things like, “I have the opportunity to achieve important things,” “I get recognized for my achievements,” “I learn ways to be better,” and “I’m an important part of a team.” If you have those kinds of experiences every day, you’re motivated, and you’ll be satisfied.
Many of the factors that we think will cause motivation, such as fair pay and a good manager, won’t make you love your job. Even if you eliminate what makes you dissatisfied, that doesn’t make you motivated. It doesn’t make your work rewarding. You just are less bothered by things.
Does that mean that if I’m changing jobs, pay should take a back seat to other factors?
Remember that once you’re in the job, what will make you happy is, “Is there substantial opportunity for responsibility and growth and achievement? And is it plausible that I can achieve those things?” You would always prefer more money to less money, but there is no evidence that more money makes you happier.
What’s the mistake people make when thinking about what will make them happy at work?
You believe you’ve figured out what you need to do to be successful, and you hunker down and execute that strategy. And you don’t look for opportunities that pop up at the periphery.
The things that really make our careers are almost always the opportunities that inadvertently arise. We need to have a better balance between a deliberate strategy and staying open. Because in the end, most of us end up being successful in a career that we never imagined we would be in at the beginning.
Say you’re in your forties or fifties and in a job that’s not giving you satisfaction. You’ve got a mortgage, you’re paying college bills, you can’t just drop everything. What do you do?
The way I ought to measure my life is in terms of the others I helped to become better and happier people. That’s the biggest thing to think about if you’re not happy.
Very little intrinsic happiness comes from an achievement like “Am I a vice president?” The satisfaction you get from investing in other people stays with you your whole life.
Are you saying you’re stuck?
If you can’t grow, there are all kinds of ways to create new companies and new environments where you can. The great thing about society today is that we are awash in money. With good ideas, a lot more people have opportunities to succeed than historically we might have thought.
Really? It feels as if there’s a lot less money washing around than there was a few years ago.
The advent of the cloud makes it such that you can start a company with far less money than you could have 10 and 20 years ago. With so many sophisticated information technologies available to you for so little, the barrier is low.
When you discuss new ventures, you say that you have to be impatient for profits. Why?
In all probability your initial strategy will fail. So you’d better not spend all your money pursuing the wrong one.
What you instead need to do is get out in the market as quickly as you can with the least money possible to figure out, “Does this strategy work, or do I need to tweak it?” Therefore, you have to be impatient for profits. If you are willing to be patient for profitability, you can pursue the wrong strategy for a very long time. Once you know you will be successful, you can be negative cash flow for a while to grow.
Let’s move from work to retirement. How do you plan for a successful one?
I’ll give you an analogy from my life. Four years ago I had a heart attack. Then I was discovered to have advanced cancer that put me into chemotherapy. About two years ago I had a stroke. I had to learn how to speak again one word at a time. The more I focused on the problems in my life, the more miserable I was. And then somehow I realized focusing on myself and my problems wasn’t making me happier. I started to say, “Every day of my life I need to find somebody else who I could help to become a better person and a happier person.”
Once I started to reorient my life in this direction, the happiness returned. So if you look at retirement and you think, “Oh, finally I can focus on myself,” you run the risk of becoming very bored very quickly.
The most important piece of planning for retirement most of us need to think about — of course you need enough money to survive—is, How are we still going to orient our lives on helping other people become better people?