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In Memoriam – Clayton Christensen

One of the most influential business thinkers of my lifetime was Clayton Christensen. His theories on “disruption” paved the way for companies from Intel to Uber to completely upend industries and create new massive businesses.

His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma is considered one of the most important business books of the 20th century. No Fortune 500 CEO could have missed it and survived. Along with his colleague, Michael Porter also of the Harvard Business School, Christensen was a staple of the strategic planning courses I taught at both Texas and TCU.

You haven’t heard me mention him (certainly not as much as I mention Porter) because his theories don’t really apply to those competing in small, fragmented industries…like interior design.

But some years ago, after discovering that he was suffering from the same form of cancer that had taken the life of his father, Christensen turned his focus toward more spiritual matters, even introducing them into his classroom.

How Will You Measure Your Life?

Christensen then gave a speech which later became the book, How Will You Measure Your Life? 

Drawing upon his business research, he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. He used examples from his own experiences to explain how high achievers can all too often fall into traps that lead to unhappiness.

The speech was memorable not only because it was deeply revealing but also because it came at a time of intense personal reflection: Christensen had just overcome the same type of cancer that had taken his father’s life. As Christensen struggled with the disease, the question “How do you measure your life?” became more urgent and poignant, and he began to share his insights more widely with family, friends, and students.

In this groundbreaking book, Christensen puts forth a series of questions: How can I be sure that I’ll find satisfaction in my career? How can I be sure that my personal relationships become enduring sources of happiness? How can I avoid compromising my integrity—and stay out of jail? Before laughing at the last one, keep in mind that Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron was not the only one of Christensen’s Harvard students to actually end up in jail!

I often have “issues” when people from one field (sports, politics, business, etc.) start to opine on faith, and I struggled a little with that in How Will You Measure Your Life? Then again, regardless of your faith (or his) wrestling with the big life questions every and then can’t hurt. You just might learn something…probably about yourself.

Rest in peace, Dr. Christensen and thanks for you many contributions.

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