How Will You Measure Your Life?
A four-page excerpt of a book that I found thought provoking, dealing with purpose in this excerpt. The author is a Christian. Don't be put off by the occasional business speak.
by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon
New York: HarperCollins, 2012
The Importance of Purpose
A few weeks before the end of the fall semester in 2009, I learned that I had a cancer similar to the one that had killed my dad. I shared the news with my students, including the fact that my cancer might not respond to the therapies that were available. For several years, I’d used my last class to discuss with my students the same questions about their lives that I’ve posed for you in this book. Try as I might, however, my sense was that previously at best half of my students had left this class with a serious intent to change. The rest left with an assurance that the topics were relevant to other people, not to them.
For that class, that day in 2009, I wanted all of them. I wanted them to feel how important it was to think about the lives before them. As we discussed together the theories as applied to their lives and mine, our conversation was, indeed, more powerful than it had ever been before.
The reason, I think, is that we took time in the class to discuss how critical it is to articulate the purpose of our lives.
I want to describe to you the best process I know to develop a purpose, and illustrate it with the example of how I used this process in my own life. Mine was a rigorous process, and I recommend it to you as well.
The Three Parts of Purpose
A useful statement of purpose for a company needs three parts. The first is what I will call a likeness. By analogy, a master painter often will create a pencil likeness that he has seen in his mind, before he attempts to create it in oils. A likeness of a company is what the key leaders and employees want the enterprise to have become at the end of the path that they are on. The word likeness is important here, because it isn’t something that employees will excitedly “discover” that the company has become at some point in the future. Rather, the likeness is what the managers and employees hope they will have actually built when they reach each critical milestone in their journey.
Second, for a purpose to be useful, employees and executives need to have a deep commitment—almost a conversion—to the likeness that they are trying to create. The purpose can’t begin and end on paper. Because issues demanding answers about priorities will repeatedly emerge in unpredictable ways, employees without this deep conversion will find that the world will compromise the likeness by wave after wave of extenuating circumstances.
The third part of a company’s purpose is one or a few metrics by which managers and employees can measure their progress. These metrics enable everyone associated with the enterprise to calibrate their work, keeping them moving together in a coherent way.
These three parts—likeness, commitment, and metrics—comprise a company’s purpose. Companies that aspire to positive impact must never leave their purpose to chance. Worthy purposes rarely emerge inadvertently; the world is too full of mirage, paradox, and uncertainty to leave this to fate. Purpose must be deliberately conceived and chosen, and then pursued. When that is in place, however, then how the company gets there is typically emergent—as opportunities and challenges emerge and are pursued. The greatest corporate leaders are conscious of the power of purpose in helping their companies make their mark on the world.
The same is true for leaders outside of the business sphere, too. People who have led movements for change, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama, have had an extraordinarily clear sense of purpose. So, too, have social organizations that have fought to make the world a better place, such as Médecins Sans Frontiers, the World Wildlife Fund, and Amnesty International.
But the world did not “deliver” a cogent and rewarding purpose to them. And, unfortunately, it won’t “deliver” one to you, either. The type of person you want to become—what the purpose of your life is—is too important to leave to chance. It needs to be deliberately conceived, chosen, and managed.
Finally, please remember that this is a process, not an event. It took me years to fully understand my own purpose. But the journey has been worthwhile. With that as background, I will share how I have come to understand my purpose.
The Person I Want to Become
The likeness—the person I want to become—was the simplest of the three parts, and was largely an intellectual process.
The starting point for me—as it will be for most of us—was my family. I was very much the beneficiary of strong family values, priorities, and culture. I was born into a wonderful family, and as I grew up, my parents had deep faith. Their example and encouragement were powerful. They planted the seed of faith within me. It was not until I was twenty-four, however, that I came to know these things for myself.
These two parts of my life were a very rich source of inspiration for me of my likeness. I have used what I learned from my family, and from scriptures and prayer, to understand the kind of person I want to become—which, to me, also entails the kind of person God wants me to become.
Finally, I am a professional man. I genuinely believe that management is among the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers more ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. I drew heavily upon this learning to mold my likeness.
From these parts of my life, I distilled the likeness of what I wanted to become:
A man who is dedicated to helping improve the lives of other people
A kind, honest, forgiving, and selfless husband, father, and friend
A man who just doesn’t just believe in God, but who believes God
I recognize that many of us might come to similar conclusions, whether based on religious beliefs or not, about the likeness we aspire to. It’s a form of setting goals for yourself—the most important ones you’ll ever set. But the likeness you draw will only have value to you if you create it for yourself.
It is one thing to have these aspirations in mind. How do you become so deeply committed to these things that they guide what you prioritize on a daily basis—to drive what you will do, and what you will not do?
When I was in my twenties, the Rhodes Trust gave me an extraordinary opportunity to study at Oxford University in England. After I had lived there for a few weeks, it became clear to me that adhering to my religious beliefs in that environment was going to be very inconvenient. I decided, as a result, that the time had come for me to learn for certain and for myself whether what I had sketched out as a likeness—the person I wanted to become—was actually who God wanted me to be.
Accordingly, I reserved the time from eleven p.m. until midnight, every night, to read the scriptures, to pray, and to reflect about these things in the chair next to the heater in my chilly room at the Queen’s College. I explained to God that I needed to know whether the things that I was holding in my hands were true—and what they implied for the purpose of my life. I promised that if He would answer this question, I would commit my life to fulfilling that purpose. I also said that if they weren’t true, that I needed to know that, too—because then I would commit my life to finding what is true.
I would then sit in my chair, read a chapter, and then think about it. Was this actually true? And what did it imply for my life? I would then kneel in prayer—asking the same questions, and making the same commitments.
Each of us may have a different process for committing to our likeness. But what is universal is that your intent must be to answer this question: who do I truly want to become?
If you begin to feel that the likeness you have sketched out for yourself is not right—that this is not the person you want to become—then you must revisit your likeness. But if it becomes clear that it is the person you want to become, then you must devote your life to becoming that person.
I can recall with perfect clarity the intensity with which I focused on seeking to know if my likeness was right—and then committing to it. It is this intensity that truly makes this valuable—it becomes the oil brush strokes that powerfully replicate on canvas what starts as the pencil draft on paper.
As I followed this process, it became clear to me through feelings that I sensed in my heart and words that came into my mind that I had my likeness correct. It confirmed for me that the characteristics I sketched—kindness, honesty, being a forgiving and selfless person—were the right ones. I saw in my likeness a clarity and magnitude that I had never conceived before. It truly changed my heart and my life.
For me, defining the likeness of the person I wanted to become was straightforward. However, being deeply committed to actually becoming this type of person was hard. Every hour I spent doing that while at Oxford, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. At the time, I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it.
Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. This is the most valuable, useful piece of knowledge that I have ever gained.
Finding the Right Metric
The third part of my life’s purpose was to understand the metric by which my life will be measured. For me, this took the longest. I didn’t come to understand that until about fifteen years after the experience at Oxford.
I was driving to work early one morning when I got a sudden and very strong impression that I was going to receive an important new assignment from my church, which has no professional clergy and asks every member to shoulder important duties. A couple of weeks later I learned that a particular church leader in the area was going to leave. I put two and two together and concluded that this was the opportunity that I received the impression about.
But that’s not what happened. I learned that another man was asked to serve in this position. I was just crushed—not because I had ever aspired to a hierarchical position, but because I always have aspired to play an important role in strengthening our church. Somehow I felt that if I had been given this role, I would have been in a position to do more good for more people than if I weren’t in the role.
This threw me into a two-month period of crisis; I had believed I could have done a very good job.
As has been so often the case in the most difficult parts of my life, this personal confusion precipitated an insight that became the third element of my purpose—the metric by which my life will be measured. I realized that, constrained by the capacities of our minds, we cannot always see the big picture.
Let me explain in management terms: police chiefs need to look at the numbers of each type of crime, over time, to know whether their strategy is working. The manager of a business cannot see the complete health of the company by looking at specific orders from specific customers; he or she needs to have things aggregated as revenues, costs, and profits.
In short, we need to aggregate to help us see the big picture. This is far from an accurate way to measure things, but this is the best that we can do.
Because of this implicit need for aggregation, we develop a sense of hierarchy: people who preside over more people are more important than people who are leaders of fewer people. A CEO is more important than a general manager of a business unit; that general manager is more important than the director of sales; and so on.
Now let me explain in religious terms: I realized that God, in contrast to us, does not need the tools of statisticians or accountants. So far as I know, He has no organization charts. There is no need to aggregate anything beyond the level of an individual person in order to comprehend completely what is going on among humankind. His only measure of achievement is the individual.
Somehow, after all of this, I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage—a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.
This realization, which occurred nearly fifteen years ago, guided me every day to seek opportunities to help people in ways tailored to their individual circumstances. My happiness and my sense of worth has been immeasurably improved as a result.
The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Learn
As I have gone through life as a father, a husband, an executive, an entrepreneur, a citizen, and an academic, the knowledge of purpose that I have derived has been critical. Without it, how could I ever have known to put the important things first?
This was put into stark relief recently as I had to navigate one of the biggest challenges of my life. Almost immediately after I started writing this book with James and Karen, and in remission from cancer, I suffered an ischemic stroke. A clot lodged itself in the part of my brain where writing and speaking are formulated. It resulted in “expressive aphasia.” I could not speak or write, beyond just a few simple words initially.
This was a hard one. My job as a professor is dependent on those faculties.
Since that day, I’ve been working to learn to speak again, one word at a time. Regaining my cognitive faculties and my speech was so demanding, and the progress was so discouragingly slow, that it absorbed nearly all of my time and energy. For the first time in my life, I became focused on myself and on my problems. It was a numbing, downward spiral—and for the first time in my life I truly felt despair. The more I focused on my problems, the less energy I had to get better.
I recognized that I had come to a fork in the road. I could try to hide my problems, retreat from the world, and focus on myself. Or I could change paths. I resolved that I needed to refocus on expending as much of my cognitive and physical capacity as possible on what I knew to be my purpose. And as I did that—focusing on resolving others’ challenges rather than my own—the despair fled, and I felt happy again.
I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life’s purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they will ever have discovered. I warn them that their time at school might be the best time to reflect deeply on that question. Fast-paced careers, family responsibilities, and tangible rewards of success tend to swallow up time and perspective. They will just sail off from their time at school without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. In the long run, clarity about purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, the five forces, and other key business theories we teach at Harvard.
What’s true for them is true for you, too. If you take the time to figure out your purpose in life, I promise that you will look back on it as the most important thing you will have ever learned.