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A Business Student's New Required Reading: A Guide to Happiness and Staying Out of Jail

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Figuring out your purpose in life isn't what many people go to business school for, but perhaps it should be, according to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. In fact, it's something he believes in so strongly that he's even created a guide in his latest book How Will You Measure Life? Regarded as one of the world's top experts on innovation and growth, when Christensen was confronted with the same type of cancer that had killed his father, he reflected on what meant the most to him during his life. It wasn't that he had helped companies make billions of dollars, in fact those things meant very little to him. He realized that it was the impact he had on individual people that mattered most.

Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma was named by The Economist last year as one of the top six greatest business books of all time. How Will You Measure Your Life? shows readers how the same principles and theories of management used to examine companies can be applied to themselves in order to find happiness in a career, personal relationships and even staying out of jail. Rather than offering something anecdotal, Christensen says just as in business, if a person uses good theories of cause and effect, they'll be able to see the future outcomes of their actions a bit more clearly.

An edited transcript of his interview follows.

In your book, you write about your HBS classmate, ex-Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, and describe him as a good guy who had something in his life go off track. How do you think the processes presented in your book could have kept him from not ending up in jail?

CC: Life is an unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Over and over again, you're going to see a gray area in front of you and your instinct is most people should follow this rule but in my particular extenuating circumstance -- 'just this once' -- it's okay if I don't follow the rule. If we have that logic over and over again, we're confronted with opportunities that 'just this once' we won't follow the standard we've set for ourselves and can end up with a very different life than we intended.

The way you can steel yourself against that happening is to make a decision at the beginning that you will always follow certain rules 100% of the time. And then when these extenuating circumstances present themselves with this 'just this once' logic, you need to be able to say I already made that decision as opposed to every time deciding if I'm going to stay with my convictions or depart from them.

If you make that decision, that you'll always follow that rule, then your commitment to do it sinks into your heart and when you realize the benefits of having integrity time after time, it really changes your heart, not just your head.

Steve Jobs said The Innovator's Dilemma was greatly influential to him and how he ran Apple. What did you like about Jobs' approach?

CC: What I love about the way he did his work is very similar to what Akio Morita did, who was the founder of Sony. During the time Morita was running Sony, around 1955 to 1980, he was unbelievably successful in launching disruptive consumer electronics products, time after time. The way Morita did it was that he had a policy to never do market research, but rather he'd just walk around the world watching what people are trying to do. He'd try and understand the job they're trying to get done. Once he really got a sense, he'd go back to work and say this is the kind of product we need to make and develop things like the Walkman and so on that people just never thought about before. I think Jobs essentially did the same thing. He didn't get his ideas from market research or surveying people, he essentially just watched what people were trying to do and watched himself to figure out what he was really trying to do. If you have that kind of instinct to be observant and keep asking why are they doing this, that is by far the best way to do marketing. If you develop a product that gets what the customer is trying to get done, you don't have to advertise, people will just pull it into their lives. I think the evidence is very strong that for Sony during that era and Apple under Jobs, they didn't have to advertise until it was already a success. They could advertise it so more people could realize that this does the job but they didn't have to create the demand which so much of marketing is focused on.

Politics aside, it seems both presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama are men of integrity. You know Mitt Romney well, how do you see his values impacting the type of President he may be?

CC: I have known Mitt for 35 years and he really is a very smart man. He's raised a remarkable family. It's always hard to raise a good family, but the most difficult situation [in which] to raise a family is if you have a lot of money and notoriety [and] despite that he has very good kids. I've seen him in situations in our church where you have one of every type of human in your congregation, from the richest to the poorest, and he feels what the average person feels very deeply. He's a good and honest man. So I would be quite happy if he were elected. Everything that I sense from President Obama is that he's similar. You don't know the issues that you're going to run into and so you've just got to hope that you voted [for] women and men who are honest and smart and I think both of them are that way.

Michael Horn co-founded the Innosight Institute with you to apply your theories to improve education and health care. What has the experience been like grooming others to pass on your theories and knowledge?

CC: It's been very rewarding. A year ago Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, and Joe Klein, who is very well regarded and was the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education -- which is the largest public school system in the United States -- came to see me because they couldn't get on Michael Horn's calendar. I thought what an achievement that he has become so well regarded. I wish I could do that with everybody I work with.

Clayton Christensen co-wrote How Will You Measure Your Life? with James Allworth, an HBS graduate and Karen Dillon, formerly the editor of Harvard Business Review.