Clayton Christensen


This is a short excerpt from a conversation between Clayton Christensen and Tom Ashbrook on the On Point NPR radio show. Christensen is the co-author of How to Measure Your Life, a book that uses business and real-life examples to teach you lessons. Sandwiched between religious and political sidebars, there is thought-provoking conversation as Christensen answers questions from the audience. Listen to the full conversation here.

Where You Spend Your Resources

Toyota didn’t come to America with the Lexus. Rather they came into the bottom of the market with a rusty little compact called a Corona. They went from Corona to Tercel, Camry, Avalon, Four Runner, Sequioa, and then a Lexus.

General Motors and Ford would look at Toyota coming at them from the bottom, and they weren’t asleep at the switch, but they would look at profitability of a crummy little sub-compact or profitability of making bigger SUVs or trucks for bigger people. And it just didn’t make any sense then to defend the least profitable part of the business.

Never did the president or board of General Motors agree to get together and develop a plan to run this corporation off a cliff. They never intended to do it. But that’s actually what they did.

The reason was on a individual basis - what product should we invest in? What product should we not invest in? What product should we advertise? What product should we not advertise? Incremental decisions at the time made consummate sense, added up to what they didn’t what to do.

It turns out that we have the very same situation. Just as General Motors had to decide which of all these products that they’re making should they invest in and which they should not invest in - in our personal lives we have multiple business units.

We have our careers. We have our children. We have our spouses. We have our commitment to our churches sometimes. Our commitment to our communities. And we have to decide which of all these things should we invest in. Invest meaning of of energy, of our time, and our talents. And which will we put off until tomorrow.

People who have a very high need for achievement - and that includes nearly almost all of this - when we have an extra ounce of energy or 30 minutes to time, we will instinctively invest our resources into whatever activity yields us the most immediate evidence that we’ve achieved something.

Our careers provide that evidence. I finish a sale. I ship a product. I complete a presentation. I finish teaching a course. I get promoted. I get paid. Our careers provide very tangible immediate evidence of achievement.

In contrast when we spend our time and energy with our children, on a day-to-day basis they just keep misbehaving. And it’s really not for 20 years, you can step back and put your hands on your hips and say “we raised a great young man.”

Because it pays off only in the long-term. We have a tendency in our minds to invest in those things that give us the most immediate evidence of achievement.

The reason why corporations have this propensity to invest in the short rather than the long term, is that they are run by people like you and me.


Deciding to be Happy

My other co-author, Karen Dillon, was the executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. She edited the article I wrote before we wrote this book. And she decided that she needed to quit.

The reason was when she added up how she was living her life on a day-to-day basis, it didn’t sum up to the life she wanted to live. So she quit.

And she realized her children met a lot more to her than how she spent her time. You should talk to her, she’s just happy in ways she never imagined before.

That’s what you have to decide. If this is the type of person I want to become, and this is the relationships with my family that I want to have, and I’m not investing to do that - then what is life for?

Because your strategy isn’t what you say it’s going to be, rather your strategy is what you’re spending your time in on a day-to-day basis.

What I found is that the world is actually very accommodating to invest in a life that we want to have. For example, when I first got out of school, I worked for a big consulting firm in Boston where you spent 70-90 hours every week.

I been there about a month and my project manager came to me and said Clay we have a meeting Sunday at 2 p.m. Because we had a big meeting with the client the next day. I said Mike, oh my gosh, I can’t come on Sunday because I committed to God. That’s my Sabbath.

And he was just so mad at me. He talked to the team and said we’ll meet Saturday at 2 p.m. I said oh my gosh Mike, I’m sorry but I committed to my wife that I wouldn’t work on Saturday. That’s the day for my family.

Mike was even madder at me and he walked away. He came back and said, Clay do you happen to work on Friday? And it turned out that never again for the 5 years I was working with the firm did anyone ever ask me to work on Saturday or Sunday.

I think everyone thinks their situation is unique and difficult. My experience, of course my own might be different, it might be harder - but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time with a lot of people.

I think a lot of times what we say we cannot do is actually something that we can do. We just have to tell people that this is not the reason that I’m living my life. This is my purpose.

And if I can’t be that kind of a person working in this company, I don’t want to be here.


Choosing Who You Want to Become

We each individually need to decide what kind of person that we want to become. To get to that point, I don’t think it’s inconsistent for me to say - what are the characteristics of Clay Christensen do I want to find myself having accumulated or built over the course of my life?

That will cause other people to say - he was a honest man. He was a selfless man. He gave whatever he had to help other people be better people. That’s not what other people what me to look like. I want to figure out what kind of person I want to be.

And having those characteristics or adjectives about Clay Christensen is the kind of person I want to become. I don’t think it’s unwise to think about what kind of impact I have on other people.

That’s wisdom.


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