How will you measure your life? A post about Clayton Christensen

I wanted to write about professor Clayton Christensen since he passed away last January. Truth to be told, I didn’t know about him, his papers, and his books until recently.

At first, I thought about writing about disruptive innovation, and I was looking to disruptive business models related to retail. But finally I decided to split it, the post was way too large.

In this post I will focus on the person, a brief view of his works, and last years with his essay-article-book “How will you measure your life”. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did when I first read that article.

Who was Clayton Christensen?

Clayton M. Christensen was an academic and business consultant, Harvard Business School professor, very well-known because he helped to introduce “disruption innovation” theory, and mostly helped to put “disruptive” term trendy.

He was a very religious person, member of the of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (he was mormon). He served as missionary in Korea and had several leadership positions inside the church. Religion was always present in his works, specially in the last years, as you’ll see below.

As a professor at HBS (joined in 1992), he taught an elective course he designed called “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise”, which teaches how to build and manage an enduring, successful company or transform an existing organization, and also in many of the school’s executive education programs. He focused his theories on a wide range of industries, from education to health care.

He received several awards and honors as a thinker, business theorist, and business influencer. E.g. He was considered The World’s Most Influential Business Thinkers, Hall Of Fame Thinker50, and Edison Award Honoree. Is that all? Dream On! He also holds eight honorary doctorates.

As always, if you are more interested in the man, please visit his wikipedia page. I had originally included his profile at HBS but it was deleted as he is no longer there.

The professor

Clayton Christensen was, at his core, a teacher. And his thinking was relevant not only to businesses, but to individuals.

“One of the curses that afflicts successful, prosperous people — many of whom have extraordinary talents and good hearts — is that they tend to live and work amongst similarly successful, prosperous people. They thereby become isolated from those who need their help.”

Excerpt from “Why I Belong, and Why I Believe” by Clayton M. Christensen

It is said that Clayton’s email was often flooded with requests from well-known business leaders and politicians eager to learn what he thought about their businesses, strategies, advice, etc.

But he would have been the first to tell that he didn’t teach us what to think, but he taught us how to think. He was a Socratic-style professor, not providing answers, but asking questions to guide people to the answer.

This probably sounds very sweetened, but it is better to check Intel’s story to see exactly how he did:

“Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel… Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t… I insisted that I needed 10 more minutes to describe how the process of disruption had worked its way through a very different industry, steel, so that he and his team could understand how disruption worked. I told the story of how Nucor and other steel minimills had begun by attacking the lowest end of the market—steel reinforcing bars, or rebar—and later moved up toward the high end, undercutting the traditional steel mills…. When I finished the minimill story, Grove … went on to articulate what would become the company’s strategy.”

Excerpt from “How Will You Measure Your Life” by Clayton M. Christensen (HBR)

Needless to say, people who knew him used to share that he was a fantastic storyteller.

A few lines about his works

He published several journal articles and 10 best-selling books, all of them under Harvard Business Review.

“Disruptive innovation” is the word linked to his career. He first published Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave , the seed of his first and most awarded book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.

The term disruptive innovation has been growing in interest over time, according to Google Trends’ data.

Due to constant misinterpretation of what means to be a “disruptive innovation”, Christensen often wrote articles trying to explain the concept even further.

I will deepen about it in my following post, it deserves it. As my musical composition and orchestration teacher used to say, you have to keep the fireworks for the right moment. So keep posted!

If you’re interested in the essential Clayton Christensen articles, you’ll find them in this HBR article.

The year of change

In 2010 he announced that he had been diagnosed with a lymphoma, and later he had an ischemic stroke. As everybody could imagine, these events influenced his life, and also late works.

Clayton usually saw innovation as a way to build solutions to challenges, also in a way accessible to many more people. Knowing that his health was failing him, created an urgency to refine and share his ideas so that others could use them to make the world a better place. He never thought that he could solve all the problems in the world, but he believed that his theories could help others do that.

So he did, extended his theories, arguing that bad things sometimes happen to good people because those people lack a strategy for their lives. Then he published “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, where he uses concepts from business to challenge students and readers to manage their careers and personal lives in a way that leads to happiness.

Measuring life

When Clayton was asked about how he would like to be remembered for, he said that he wanted to be remembered for his deep faith and his belief that God wants all of mankind to be successful, and his part on this goal was to help individuals become better people. So he concluded that he would measure his own life by the impact he’s had on others.

I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring out lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage — a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.

Excerpt from “How Will You Measure Your Life” by Clayton M. Christensen (HBR)

So, in the end, it was not about how many books he sold, how much revenue he generated or helped to generate, or how many times he was named the world’s most influential thought leader.

“I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is on me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved, worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.”

Excerpt from “How Will You Measure Your Life” by Clayton M. Christensen (HBR)

Following the strategy

On the last day of his management class every semester, he asked his students to “turn those theoretical lenses on themselves” and answer three questions:

  • First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?
  • Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?
  • Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

Before trying to answer any of these questions, I encourage you to read the article from HBR, or if you are deeply interested, the book. You’ll find the answers there. I’ll share some insights here.

Clayton claimed to “create a strategy for your life”. And having a clear purpose in life is essential for this. Nobody wants their strategy to fail, but it happens, and this is because of the lack of purpose or that didn’t keep it in front and center. As it is done on a company, management has to invest in initiatives and determine the resource allocation, and for a person is similar. You could think about your resource allocation as your time, energy, and talent. If you misinvest your resources, the outcome can be bad. This could help to answer partially the first two questions.

Humility is another important point for him. Asking a class about humility, they concluded that a humble person has high self-esteem. They also decided that humility was defined by the esteem with which you regard others. So in general, humble people have good behavior, don’t lie or steal because they respect other people. That could help answer question three. Humility is one of the values that I mentioned in the post Values for which fire and hire, and one of the core values from companies like Zappos.

“Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Excerpt from “How Will You Measure Your Life” by Clayton M. Christensen (HBR)

Bonus track: Clayton Christensen at TEDx

This TEDx video was probably the first thing I saw about Clayton Christensen, even before reading his HBR articles. This talk was done two years after the stroke. This terrible event wasn’t enough to stop his strong character, perseverance, and determination to share his message.

Clayton Christensen at TEDx Talks


Clayton M. Christensen passed away on January 23th, 2020, aged 67, due to complications from his cancer.

Christensen was a charismatic ambassador for his ideas and became a key influence in Silicon Valley. The best way to measure Clayton Christensen is to look for the number of people that after his death said that he helped them to become better people.

His fans included Apple’s Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, and many others. You could see the tons of media publishings, posts, and messages where people expressed how Clayton influenced them. Social networks were plenty of them.

As he liked to say, I am pretty sure that in his interview with God, he will be able to talk about the people he helped to become better.

Because, overall, this will be his real legacy. His books will continue selling, he will continue to be a business influencer, and his articles will be read one time and another. But his true gift is the people that he helped to grow and to be a better person with his kindness, humility, and humanity.


I hope you liked this post. This was my humble tribute about Clayton M. Christensen. A found him a very interesting person, don’t you think?

As I said at the beginning, I didn’t know about him until recently. I mean, I had probably misused the concept “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”, but I had never read his HBR articles or books like I did this year.

But I was even more interested in his late years, and his commitment to help people to become better. Don’t you find it inspiring?

If you have any thoughts, experiences, or you want to share anything, please, do not hesitate to include a comment.

I hope you liked it. If so, please share it! And, if you want to stay up to date, don’t miss my free newsletter.

Thanks for reading.

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