Clayton M. Christensen, Professor at the Harvard Business School, and a world-renowned innovation expert, asked himself this question when he was diagnosed with cancer; the same cancer that had taken his father’s life. It’s a question he poses to students on the last day of each course he teaches at Harvard; what a big one!
He also wrote a book about it.
Sometimes it can feel that our lives are measured by our job title, company ranking, or salary. But what are the real factors that determine we’ve lived well? How can we find happiness in personal relationships and satisfaction in our careers? Christensen shares fascinating business examples to demonstrate that the value systems we live and operate by guide us in both our personal and professional lives.
Remember Blockbuster in the 1990’s? It dominated the movie rental industry and profited from late return fees (darn those fees!). But then Netflix came on the scene, flipped the DVD rental model and made money from a monthly fee (we got to return it whenever we liked!). While Blockbuster had thousands of employees, billions of dollars in assets, and brand recognition, they made the decision not to go after Netflix’ niche market. This marginal thinking ultimately led to them losing their market and declare bankruptcy in 2010. Christenson writes, “Because failure is often at the end of a path of marginal thinking, we end up paying for the full cost of our decisions, not the marginal costs, whether we like it or not.”
Marginal choices might not feel weighty in the moment—why should Blockbuster be worried about little Netflix?—but in the long run they add up and our daily decisions shape who we become. “The type of person you want to become—what the purpose of your life is—is too important to leave to chance, and needs to be deliberately conceived, chosen, and managed,” Christensen remarks. Thinking strategically and deeply about how we make choices at work and at home determine our legacy.
Christensen also emphasizes, “I want to become a man who is dedicated to helping improve the lives of other people, and I want to be a kind, honest, forgiving, and selfless husband, father and friend.” I wonder what his SMART goals look like!
What do you want your legacy to be? How will you measure your life? While we can’t avoid sadness and disappointment, we can make choices every day in our personal and professional lives that lead to lasting happiness and fulfillment.