While a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Christensen spent an hour each night pondering what his life’s purpose should be. Never having been to Oxford, I can only imagine Christensen in a dim room, lit by a single lamp, huddled over his books and notebooks spread before him on the desk. The result of this investment was clear to Christensen:
It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.
In the same way that a business can’t be successful without a strategy, neither can a person without a purpose. And without a strategy or a purpose, it’s too easy to make decisions that aren’t consistent with your long-term goals.
Marginal cost of bad decisions
The challenge is that these long-term goals are always under attack by short-term decisions. Christensen relates that thinking only of the marginal cost of a particular bad decision, which is admittedly low, ignores the long-term effects of multiple bad decisions. Jeffrey Skilling, Christensen’s classmate at HBS, likely didn’t set out to defraud Enron employees and shareholders of billions of dollars. But he ended up there by making many small decisions that conflicted with his moral code or purpose. In fact, once that line is crossed, it’s hard to stop. There will always be extenuating circumstances.
When you lack a clear purpose, incentives can also impact you negatively. Christensen warns that high achievers will always choose their career when they want to achieve something unless they have a clear strategy for choosing something else. The reason is simple: you get immediate feedback. Christensen relates his experience as a parent where it took decades to see how well he parented his children. As a parent myself, I am faced with this challenge daily. If I refuse to read Knuffle Bunny Too for the 37th straight evening and instead opt to answer a work email, will it impact my daughter down the road? To some degree, undoubtedly. And not for the positive.
Christensen’s essay forces the reader to think about important topics that, for many of us, get thought about much too infrequently. Check it out and let me know what you think.