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Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen on How Will You Measure Your LIfe

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HH: Buckle up, sit down, and pay very close attention. This is a very important hour. I’m talking with Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, where he is the Kim B. Clark professor of business administration. He’s also the founder of Innosight, a management consulting investment firm. He’s been a guest of mine before talking about his wonderful book, The Innovator’s Prescription. But I originally called a couple of months back to see if he would be available to talk about health care, and found out a new book of his was coming out, which he has co-authored with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, which is titled How Will You Measure Your Life. And I got it, and I read it, and it’s terrific. Every freshman seminar in America ought to read this, and I am going to make my law students read it next year. Professor Christensen, welcome back, it’s good to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

CC: Well, thanks. I’m grateful that you’d have me.

HH: I found this to be not at all what I expected, quite different from The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Prescription, and I wonder how the reaction is among your regular readers in the business world to How Will You Measure Your Life?

CC: Yeah, you know, I never thought of the application as clearly as it turned out to be. It was really my students that pulled me in this direction, because I’ve really spent the last twenty years trying to understand what is it that causes innovation to be so problematic, and why is success so hard to sustain. And my theories of innovation all have been applied to businesses. And a number of years ago, one of my students suggested that why don’t we spend the last day of class putting on your theories like a set of lenses, and instead of examining another company, let’s examine ourselves. And it turns out that a lot of the processes and statements of causality that are clear in the life of a company is still very much operating in the lives of each one of us.

HH: Oh, my goodness, it’s eye opening, and I want to begin right in the middle with what I think is probably the most important of many important chapters. It’s on what we pursue. You write, “Many of us are wired with a need for achievement.” I want to begin with a first question. Why is that, Professor Christensen? Why are many of us wired with a need for achievement?

CC: You’ve asked it in a way that I’m not sure I know the answer, other than that so many of us are wired this way. We are born with not a high need, or not a high level of self-esteem. And whether we end up as adults of having a high level of self-esteem or not then determines so much of what we can do for the rest of our lives. And so it’s actually quite important in our development that we achieve things. And so we have this, an inherent need for achievement, and that’s the foundation upon which we build self-esteem. And self-esteem gives us the confidence to take on difficult problems and succeed at them.

HH: Yeah, that was the one big unanswered question when I put the book down. You know, the world is divided between those who need to achieve and those who don’t, and this book is for those who do, but why that is, if it’s genetic, if it’s sociological, we’ll put it aside. I want to them plunge in. The audience has now divided itself into those who are self-identifying as achievement oriented. And that’s okay, because I want them to understand they’re the ones who are at risk of great things or great failures. You go on to write on Page 80, “In my experience, high achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work, and far too little on the person they want to be at home, investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children, or deepening our love with our love often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years.” Now some people will say that’s gooey for a Harvard Business School professor, but you’ve built your whole book on getting this key message through to the high achieving class.

CC: Oh, it’s so true, Hugh. I just have seen so many people who have become professionally very successful, and only to find out that actually, money doesn’t bring happiness. There’s almost a zero correlation between money and happiness. And in contrast, I’ve concluded both in my own life and watching this happen over and over again with my colleagues and our students, that the deepest source of happiness comes from intimate relationships with our spouse and our children and close friends.

HH: Now as you look out at your Harvard Business School super duper achieving elites who are all at the last day of class, and you’re trying to get them to believe this, what level of penetration, and I mean genuine acceptance, do you believe you’re achieving in a class of 90? That’s what a law school section typically is. I’m not sure about a business school.

CC: Yeah, well, since being an academic is my second career, the first one is I ran a company with several MIT professors, and I really then switched careers when I was about age 40 to be a teacher, and I always spent the last day of class giving a lecture on what I thought they need to know about the rest of their lives. And I had a sense that somewhere about one out of every five would finish that lecture saying I think what Clay taught is important, and the other 80% said well, that might apply to other people, and it doesn’t apply to me. But now, as we’ve taken this different approach, which is reflected in the book, and asked the students to examine themselves through the lenses of these records, of these theories, I bet you half of them find themselves really touched to the core, realizing that what I do now is going to have a huge impact for positive or negative in who I am, and what my life looks like twenty years down the road. I wish 100% of them did.

HH: Well, that would be…

CC: But as a general rule, people will learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them.

HH: I’m talking with Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. His new book, How Will You Measure Your Life, co-authored with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, it’s over at On page 94, and I want to get this into the first segment, especially for young moms and dads who are driving around right now, or people who are about to become young moms and dads, or even someone who have children a little bit later along, Page 94, “One of the most common version of this mistake that high potential young professionals make is believing that investment in life can be sequenced.” Would you unpack that a little bit for them, Clayton Christensen, because I think it’s the most obvious error I see all around me, and have for decades.

CC: Yeah, the fallacy is our children are small. When I talk to them, they can’t understand what I’m saying. They don’t have much to say to me. And so during that era of their life, I can focus on my career. And then when the kids are older, and we can talk one to another in adult language, that’s when I really need to focus on my family. And the fallacy of that is that the evidence is powerful that our children’s self-esteem and their cognitive capabilities are pretty much in place by the time they turn four. And those are the very years in which we think our career needs the most attention in order to get it on the trajectory that we want. And the problem is that if you put what now is an investment that you’ve got to make now, and you put it off until later in your life, the clock doesn’t rewind itself.

HH: The data on language dancing, that’s a phrase, America. You’ll have to read How Will You Measure Your Life to understand it fully. But the fact that highly verbal parents are going to speak 48 million words to their child as opposed to a 12-13 million word set for a non-verbal parent in a single parent situation. That’s extraordinarily descriptive, Clayton Christensen, and obviously, but I’ve never read it before.

CC: Yeah, it truly is scary, isn’t it?

HH: Yeah.

CC: I think the reason is that we categorize learning as, well, learning begins at age five in kindergarten, and so what people communicate to us about learning begins at age five, and ends when they graduate from high school, you know? And in reality, the most important learning occurs even before Head Start begins.

HH: Yeah.

– – – – –

HH: Professor, before I go back to some of the guts, I just want to point out a fact that’s also very stunning. 93% of all companies that ultimately became successful had to abandon their original strategy. That’s surprising to me, originally, but it’s also quite applicable to the life one chooses for themselves.

CC: Well, that’s very true. And I have, as I’ve wrestled with this problem in my own life, I have segregated my, the probably of getting it right the first time in my professional life versus the kind of person that I want to become. So in business, every new business, you’ve got to head off somewhere. And we call that a deliberate strategy. That’s what you intend to do with this business. And then you get funding, you put some new products into the marketplace, and as you put them in the market, you run into unanticipated problems, and unanticipated opportunities. And we call those emergent initiatives in your life. And so you’ve got, from the top, this is what I want to do, and then from the bottom, things bubble up, problems and opportunities. And you have to decide of the capital that we have, are we going to focus that capital on what we intended to do? Or to take upon, take the advantage of these new things that have emerged? And as we said, almost always, what you intended to do at the beginning wasn’t the right thing. There’s a better strategy that emerges. And the difference between successful companies and failed companies isn’t that the successful ones got it right the first time. They just had money left over after they got it wrong.

HH: That is so interesting. You illustrate that again and again and again. I still wonder, though, do you think people believe that, that they can internalize the idea that 93% of successful businesses had to pivot?

CC: That’s right. In other words, as I’m starting this company, ladies and gentlemen, there’s a 93% probability that I’m wrong. Most people can’t deal with that. They think that well, maybe everybody else is wrong, but I’m right. I’m sure I’m right.

HH: I’ll be the 7%. I want to talk about finding happiness, because you begin the book by talking about going back to your Harvard Business School reunions, and at the beginning, everyone is happy and doing what they want, but then people stop coming, or unhappiness catches up with them. So you begin the book by talking about finding happiness in your career. And you delineate. I thought, again, it’s a revelation, lawyers don’t do these things. Lawyers live in a different world from businessmen, and broadcasters straddle them both. But hygiene factors versus motivation factors, the former like status, compensation, security, can make you unhappy, but they can’t make you happy. Only challenging work, recognition, responsibility, personal growth can make you happy. I’m going to ask this question again and again. Will your students believe you about this, because it makes perfect sense to me at the age of 56, but I just don’t know if you could ever get it through to anyone at 25.

CC: It’s a great question, Hugh, and the answer is that what’s scary to me over time is that fewer and fewer of my students really believe that happiness in your career comes from helping other people be successful in their lives. And instead, they come to business school with this belief that all management is buying and selling companies, and shutting down businesses, and starting up businesses, and joint venturing, and consulting. And those are all important things, but that’s not management. And management actually is taking the bull by the horns, and taking people who work from us, and say you know, if I want these people to be really motivated to help this enterprise succeed, I’ve got to design their work so that every day when they go home, they feel like they’ve achieved something important, that they got recognized, that they learned something that is new, what they did was important to the team that they’re on. And that’s what management is. And I really concluded, really in building the company that I started, that management is a noble profession if practiced correctly, because you have those people working for you for ten hours a day, five days a week. And sociologists can’t do it, psychologists can’t do it. You can really help them feel inside of themselves that they can accomplish important things. And there is nothing in the world like management that allows people to do this, if you really care about helping people be happy.

HH: You know, because you and I both are God-believing and God-fearing people, I just thought this resonates, that at some point, if you are judged on how those people are governed or managed by you, so that they are happy, that’s a very different metric than anything else out there. It’s very eye-opening. But also, you have a section on calculation versus serendipity in companies and life. I never knew the story of the Honda Super Cub. I don’t even know if I believe the story of the Honda Super Cub. But would you tell the audience, that’s just so remarkable.

CC: Yeah, yeah, Honda, when they came to America, it was dominated by Harley Davidson. And they made big bikes for big people to go very fast for very long distances. And Honda thought, because during the 1950s, Japanese labor was so cheap, they could make the same things but cheaper. And it almost drove the company out of business. And they had, they were selling Japan not big bikes, but little, almost motorized bicycles, that they could drive in and out of dense traffic to deliver small things to small shops. And a couple of those, members of the management team in America, had brought these little motorized bikes here to America, just to get around Los Angeles while they were trying to build a business around big bikes. And one of them wondered, he was just so frustrated that they were failing, that they took his little bike up into the mountains east of Los Angeles, and zipped his little motorbike around in the dirt for a whole day. And he felt so good about it that he and his colleague just kept doing it and doing it, and then other people saw it, and they thought, well, give me one of those bikes. The original strategy was a disaster, but the dirt biking craze that emerged in the 1960s was totally serendipitous.

HH: Serendipitous. The dirt bike industry is an accident, America. More with Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen on his new book, How Will You Measure Your Life when we come right back.

– – – –

HH: The most important question I’m going to ask you from my selfish perspective, Professor Christensen, about How Will You Measure Your Life comes up now. What job does the audience hire a radio talk show for?

CC: I think what we hire you to do is I’m doing something that is boring and routine, and I’ve got to do that, but there just isn’t anybody that I can engage with to think things through. And when I have this problem to do, I just tune into your program, and you make me think.

HH: You see, I thought that section of the book…now I’m going to ask you the second one, on behalf of all my law partners. Last night, I had a partners meeting, and I had your book on the table. I was finishing up my interview prep. And one of my lawyer partners who’s a young mom said I need that book tomorrow, How Will You Measure Your Life. I said after I’m done with the interview, I’ll give it to you. Then I started thinking, what do you hire the trial lawyer for when everything is dissolved into a disaster and you’ve got to go hire the best products liability defense lawyer in America. What are they supposed to do? Are they supposed to win? Or are they supposed to save your company the most amount of money? I find this question the most interesting question.

CC: Yeah, you know, it’s hard to know, because I just try to stay away from that part of the world as far as I can. But I think there’s a big job out there, which is I just want to screw them. I don’t care what happens to me, but I am just so mad that I’m going to screw them. And so you hire court lawyers to do that.

HH: Interesting. And so…

CC: It’s not so much you want to help yourself, but you want to do bad things to people who think are bad people.

HH: So on our side of the table, it’s to stop that from happening. Now I want to explain what we’re talking about, and the best way to do that is with the Ikea story. What job did you hire the milkshake for grows from the fact that 50% of milkshakes are sold in America in the morning. It makes no sense at all until you read this chapter. It’s very deeply studies. Then you explain it through the Ikea story. We’ve got about three minutes in this segment. Would you tell people what people hire Ikea to do, Professor Christensen?

CC: Yeah, you hire Ikea when your realize at the last minute, oh my gosh, we’ve got to furnish our new apartment, or refurnish a room in our apartment, and we’ve got to do it now. And when you realize that you need to do this now, the word Ikea pops into your mind. And its designed in a very different way than any other furniture retailer. But it’s all organized around to get this job done perfectly. And so you go in there, it’s right there, you can take it apart, you can get it from the store to your place, even if you just have a little sub-compact, and you don’t have to, you don’t need to be really an artist in order to assemble this stuff. And at the end of the day, it’s there. And you don’t need it for the rest of your life. You just know you’re going to be there for three or four years, and this is affordable and simple, and it gets the job done.

HH: And so they are hired repeatedly by people all over the world. I just heard from a young married couple in Japan who had to go off to Ikea, and after I had read your book. Now that leads to this question. What do you hire your spouse for? Now this may go over the break, but we’ve got about a minute, because that’s why you wrote this, is so that people would understand you hire your spouse to do something for you.

CC: That’s right. And let me flip it, and that is I spent a lot of my life trying to be unselfish as a husband. But my unselfishness has been targeted at my wife. I know what she wants. And by darned, I’m going to give her what I think she needs. And then I give it to her, and it turns out that’s not what she needs at all. And then I try to persuade her that yes, that’s exactly what she needs. And there’s a lot of, this happens a lot in marriage. And instead, if I were to just sit on the other side and sit in that chair, and say what’s going on in her life, what’s the job she needs to get done for which she might hire a husband?

HH: It makes a world of difference. It’s a paradigm shift. And we’ll come back and talk about it.

– – – –

HH: Now listen very closely. This segment is about what Dell computer can teach you about parenting. And if you’re not yet a parent, listen. And if you are a parent, pay very close attention. And if you’re going to be a grandparent, listen so you can tell your kids what Dell computer can teach you about parenting. Clayton Christensen, 20 pages, Pages 120-140, it’s sort of a condensed guide to how not to raise your kids based upon Dell. Would you give people a hint about this?

CC: Yeah, there’s a doctrine that is taught literally in every business school in the world that you should focus on your core competence. And if there’s something that you need for whom that’s not your competence, that somebody else can provide it, with higher quality and lower cost, you should outsource that to them. And so company after company, and I don’t pick on Dell other than they’re just an illustration of this trend, whenever they find somebody who can provide something at higher quality and lower cost, they outsource it. And little by little, they outsourced more and more and more until ultimately, they actually don’t do anything inside the company other than put the brand on it. And all of the difficult problems are resolved by those who provide these for them. And then what you find is that some of the suppliers who are solving the complicated problems, they say oh, what the heck, let’s just sell a computer under our brand. And it’s a mechanism by which the leaders of an industry got killed, and that’s because you outsourced the complicated problems. And what we’ve observed is that the very same process is going on in our lives as we outsource more and more. And to just to use ourselves as an example of why doing what makes sense actually could be very scary for you to do, when we were married 35 years ago, my wife is a wonderful seamstress. And so she would make the clothing for our children, and even make my shirts. But little by little, it became clear that it was cheaper to buy the clothing rather than make it ourselves, and so little by little, she stopped doing that, and we outsourced clothing. And then we got a big chunk of land from our town, and we raised most, much of the food that we ate. And I was in graduate school, and we didn’t have much money, and boy, this was nice. And then we would preserve much of it so that we could eat it over the winter. And we did that because it helped us save money. But little by little, it became so much cheaper for us to buy it at the store rather than grow it and preserve it ourselves that we just stopped doing that. And little by little, not just those examples but others, and not just in our family but as a general rule, we outsource more and more and more of the work that used to be done in our home. And as a result, in a lot of families, the only work that has remained in the home is for the kids to clean up the mess that they made, and they’re not very good at that. And it used to be that the children had to work for their parents when there was so much work to be done in the home. But with having outsourced all that, the parents actually work for the children.

HH: Yeah.

CC: The term soccer mom wasn’t in the English language a generation ago. But it exists now, because we have outsourced much of the work to others, and what is remaining left in the home is very little, unfortunately.

HH: And this is a long invitation, well-written, it’s not very long, but an invitation to parents to think long and hard about how, what they’re outsourcing, and whether or not they want to bring that back in, or they’ll end up like Dell, putting the last name on the kid, but not having much to do with what’s on the inside of it. I’ve got to ask you about the fact that this is probably the greatest testament to the power of How Will You Measure Your Life. You have wonderful co-authors, James Allworth and Karen Dillon. In Karen Dillon’s acknowledgement, she quit her job after she wrote this book. She was the editor of the Harvard Business Review, maybe the most prestigious magazine in all of the world of management consulting and management. And she quit on the basis of this. Are you surprised by the impact that you had, even on your co-author?

CC: You know, I never imagined that it would have the impact that it’s had. But oh, my goodness, I talked to Karen about this all of the time. She walked away from a marvelous profession to become a full-time mother to two wonderful kids, and to focus on helping her marriage become even stronger. She is so happy. She is so happy. Whoever would have imagined that that as a profession would be a source of deeper happiness than…because she impacted the world by the way. She was just an artist in how she could transform a draft into something that everybody wanted to read.

HH: But you are careful throughout How Will You Measure Your Life, you’re not judging people. Other people have to make different choices. You’re urging them, wherever they are in their life, whatever their degree of happiness, unhappiness, predicament or success, that they reevaluate, because usually when people do that, it’s too late. Just like companies, just like Blockbuster, what a great story. We’ve got about a minute to the break, Clayton Christensen.

CC: Yeah, it would be foolish if we tried to emulate the people that we admire, because we’re not going to be in their same shoes, confronting the same problems. But the answer is different for each one of us, and what we’ve tried to do in the book is just try to help our readers learn how to think their way through these problems so that they can realize if I do this, this is going to be the result, and if I do this, that will be the result. And understanding what causes things to happen is really what we are trying to offer so that people can make good decisions that are appropriate to their situation.

– – – –

HH: Professor, here’s the surprise, the meta-message. You’ve been sick. I knew you were battling cancer when I started the book. I didn’t know about the stroke until I finished the book, and I didn’t know how this interview would go, but you would never know it, and I didn’t tell my audience that. And so in many respects, the meta-message of this book is illness doesn’t stop you. You just have to overcome it.

CC: You’re exactly right. What the stroke did was a clot came from somewhere, and enlarged itself in my brain right at the place in my brain where I formulated speech and the ability to write. And speaking and writing is my profession. And just instantly, I couldn’t speak, nor could I write. And so I went to our airport in Boston and got a copy of Rosetta Stone for English, and sat down with my five year old granddaughter, and we started with Lesson one, level one, and just, I had to learn to speak again, one word at a time. And I learned an important lesson in that, because I used to be articulate. And all of a sudden, I wasn’t. And it just was so hard for me to stay with it, you know? Sometimes, I wanted to not talk to anybody, because every conversation, I botched it up. The wrong words came out. And I made stuff, cognitively, my brain was still fine. But to mess it up, conservation after conversation, it was just a lot easier for me to go into the basement and make furniture, which is a hobby of mine. And what happened to me is the more often I focused on my own problems, the more depressed I was. And I was just less and less happy. And then at some point, I realized Clay, you don’t want to go down this road. And I began to then, it just didn’t matter how miserable I felt. I needed o think about how could I spend my life every day helping some other person become a better and a happier person. And when I started to stop focusing on my problems, and focus instead on helping other people be better and happier people, the happiness returned to my life.

HH: That is a remarkable, Professor, that’s a remarkable story, and I think it will be interesting if it turns out that the most influential book you have written is the one you wrote after you lost speech and the ability to write, and had to relearn it. And that is, I think, is How Will You Measure Your Life, in ways that even The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is a very important book, would not have done. Professor Clayton Christensen, thank you for spending an hour with us. I look forward to another conversation. Good luck you all, Mr. Allworth and Ms. Dillon. And may the book prosper.

End of interview.


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