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Clayton Christensen and How Will You Measure Your Life?

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This post originally appeared on TheDeal.com

Over the past few weeks, I've been struck by the sheer amount of play Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen has been getting. True, Christensen has a new book out, How Will You Measure Your Life? (with James Allworth and Karen Dillon), which attempts to tell readers how to be happy and satisfied with their lives. The book apparently came from a graduation speech at HBS in 2010 (there are similarities to Steve Jobs' graduation exhortation), which the Harvard Business Review turned into an article, and then Christensen and his co-authors -- Dillon was the editor of HBR -- turned it into a book. Suddenly, Christensen seems to be everywhere. The New Yorker, in its May 14 issue, ran a long, adulatory profile of Christensen that discussed at length his work on technological disruption (from his earlier book "The Innovator's Dilemma"), while weaving in the relevant aspects of his life: his Mormonism, his Rhodes Scholarship, his basketball playing, his devotion to family, his health issues (diabetes, cancer followed by a stroke). Why would The New Yorker care about a HBS professor whose big book on innovation came out in 1997? Why so panting a treatment of a business professor? Why now?

Well, clearly the book, which the magazine got around to at the end of its piece, motivated the profile. The New Yorker attitude would establish a pattern: What a great guy! What a great teacher! Reviews or excerpts of How Will You Measure Your Life duly appeared -- in Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider and in a long weekend piece in the Financial Times. Christensen even appeared on Charlie Rose. In all of this, Christensen expertly manages to tell the same essential set of stories: How he was struck by how many of his students later in life seemed unhappy, adrift or worse (Enron's Jeff Skilling, who attended HBS with Christensen, ended up in jail). And how he realized how lessons from his own life, and his own management ideas, could help make folks happier, notably how theories of causation, extrapolated from business problems, could be applied to -- in his own word -- happiness. "The causal mechanism is the same," he tells Rose, "but how it manifests itself can be very different."

About the most critical thing said about the book came from the FT's Andrew Hill, who noted that "sometimes the book is as schmaltzy as a ghost-written CEO memoir" and that while "The Innovator's Dilemma shifted business thinking about disruptive technological change, I fear the task of changing human nature is beyond even a teacher of his caliber." Other reviews were frankly hagiographic. Fast Company lobbed softballs to Christensen in a Q&A and then let him promote the book with his own piece: "Clayton Christensen On How To Find Work That You Love." Bloomberg Businessweek, if possible, went further: In a review embedded in an admiring profile, it called Christensen a cross between "Peter Drucker and Mitch Albom," the sportswriter and author of the inspirational bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie. (A number of reviews struggled to rescue the book from Albomesque self-helpery: "More generally a self-help book than the genre it disparages," wrote the FT, or Businessweek's suggestion that "it earns easy credit for being low on pyschobabble and casually self aware.")

Bloomberg followed up with a column from HBR by Scott Anthony, a former Christensen student and researcher, titled "The Secrets to Clay Christensen's Success," that really tops the rest. Anthony offers up three secrets: "An eternal quest for truth," which suggests that Christensen has figured out the "causal connection between action and a result;" "the belief in basic goodness," which is self-explanatory (we're all pretty good inside, even Skilling: no original sin here); and "persistence," which comes down to the fact that "he's so dedicated to his mission of bringing his ideas to as many people as possible that he pours himself into stories he has told thousands of time." He's also a generous and kind guy and a wonderful human being. He's a success.

I have no doubt some of this is true. Christensen may well be an inspiring teacher and fine father and husband -- he seems, despite his health issues, a naturally sunny guy, but then he is a longtime Harvard professor who's not digging ditches for a living, and, frankly, the shining virtues of his own family and friends get to be annoying. The book in itself is pithy, easy to read and insistently upbeat. The real theme of How Will You Measure Your Life? is that business can teach us a lot about life. The "research" Christensen talks about includes a scattering of famous papers and a number of case studies: Intel, Nucor, Ikea, Dell, Disney, Honda. The lessons of these cases, which get packaged into bite-sized "theories," are then applied to problems of life: picking the right career path, keeping relationships healthy, raising children. While some of the cases are interesting -- a number come from Christensen's own work on innovation -- the application to life tends to be pretty obvious: Be consistent, don't work just for the bucks, try to understand what your spouse needs, think of others.

Why should we care?

Well, Christensen is a big deal in management guru circles, and HBS is, of course, one of corporate America's most elite professional schools. Beneath the homilies and heartfelt sentiments, Christensen et. al are making a large universal statement about the power and validity of management theory, and about the application of management research and insights to ethics and life. Despite Christensen's argument about causality, much of what he's really getting at has overtones of his own strong religious faith. He's quite explicit about that. He tells Rose that he and his co-authors conducted "deep individual studies" to generate the theories of causation. (There's no sign of that in the book.) Then, just like Jesus in the New Testament, they tried to "communicate it with stories," many, he admits, from his own life. Rose asks him about Skilling. Christensen insists that Skilling "never intended to end up where he ended up," which is clearly true -- who would plan to go to jail? -- but that he lost his way. He then veers to his own life. He won a Rhodes Scholarship, went to Oxford and played basketball. The championship game, he says, was scheduled for Sunday, forbidden to him under the Mormon rules for the Sabbath. After some hesitance, he prayed to "tell God that he had decided to play," and then heard a voice tell him that he knew the answer already. He didn't play. Later he saw this as a watershed moment.

Christensen's conclusion from that story "is that it's easier to keep your standards 100 percent of the time than it is 98 percent of the time." Skilling drifted into illegality bit by bit, he speculates, without really knowing where he was headed. Christensen adds that he doesn't believe you can teach "the contents of ethics" at a business school. But you teach the practice of setting standards and keeping them.

But why is he confident of that? There is a "content of ethics" that belongs to various religious and ethical traditions. But ethics, as a philosophical subject, is less about the practice of specific acts and rituals and more about the difficulties of anchoring ethical and moral acts in some certainty. Christensen doesn't expect his students to share his ethical concerns -- most of them won't be Mormons -- but what if they have no strong attachment to a religious doctrine with its own standards and a god that speaks to them directly? Standards, in some sense, involve a goal, or as Christensen says, a mission. What he is really saying is that his standards involve the goal of leading a life defined by Mormon doctrine -- a life pleasing to a Mormon God. But what if your standard of moral practice is to sacrifice means to ends by getting rich or powerful? (You'll be unhappy, he says.) What if you feel there is no watchful deity, and your standard is to do what it takes to enjoy the accolades of the crowd? What if your standard is to obey the dictates of history, whatever that may involve? What if your standard involves a deep belief (perhaps one driven by a reading of the Bible) in discrimination -- to women or blacks or Jews or gays or members of other religions? What if there are fundamental conflicts between equally weighted standards? What if the application of these standards turns out to be deeply ambiguous?

Standards are slippery, which is why we've been arguing about them for thousands of years. Christensen is sophisticated enough to understand that he must offer up a kind of meta-theory to avoid telling everyone they must behave like him, but by trying to anchor all this in "standards," he cannot escape his own long shadow. His theories only work if an individual shares the same general sort of standards as Christensen himself; this entire effort, in fact, is driven by Christensen's autobiography and personality. (The evidence for that is his insistence that human nature is fundamentally good. Not everyone would agree with that; in doing so, he's essentially fixing the game.) Perhaps the world would be a kinder and more generous place if that was the case, but it's not. Christensen's parables and theories are not necessarily any more persuasive to his students than, say, arguing for Kant's categorical imperative or the Golden Rule -- both of which are universal meta-ethical doctrines. True, they have very little to do with business, except that business is a part of life. But then Christensen's theory of causation and standards only borrows rhetorically from management studies anyway. Christensen himself tells stories -- like his talk with God about the Sabbath -- that occurred before he attended HBS or did an ounce of research on the subject.

Is there anything wrong with this? Maybe not, though the hype about "profundity" and "deep research" is misleading. Christensen is trying to get his students and his readers to think about their lives, which is never a bad thing. But there's something about this book that's just far too easy. Again, Christensen assumes that everyone is like him: full of willpower and discipline. It's very American: Emersonian "self-reliance" filtered through management studies. It's a kind of feel-good doctrine that smooths out the knotty complexities of ethics and life in this extremely complicated world of ours. Did Dick Fuld violate Christensen's standards in some ways? Did Jamie Dimon? Ethics and morals are difficult, particularly in practice. Harvard itself has sophisticated faculties that teach and study philosophy and theology. How do they feel about Chistensen's causation theories? (How would HBR feel if the philosophy department started cranking out management texts?) Christensen may be inspiring, but teaching folks how to value and measure their lives is a stretch.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.