How Will You Measure Your Life

By: Clayton Christensen

Published: 2012

Read: 2018


Management theories typically used to analyze companies, company strategies, and industries are used instead to define and explain what causes success, happiness and meaning in people’s lives, relationships and careers.

As these management theories are “re-applied”, they provide frameworks for the formulation of priorities, the balancing of priorities with (emerging) opportunities and threats, and the allocation of resources in your personal life.

Worth Reading:

Written by a Harvard business professor famous for his thinking on innovation, this book offers some great insights and many practical lessons about priorities, balance and family values.

These insights and lessons perhaps flow more naturally from the author’s personal history (his health struggles, his career, his own clear value system; see his TED Talk ( or this extended speech at LinkedIn: than from the strict application of strategic management frameworks. Sometimes it is a bit of a stretch to fit everything neatly into theoretical frameworks.

The business anecdotes sprinkled throughout are interesting and applying some of these management theories to your own personal or family situation does indeed provide a fresh and interesting shift in perspective.

For instance, the book is a healthy reminder of how easy it is to focus too much on work and career because it can be immediately gratifying. In work, gratification is measurable and rewards are immediate, which makes it easy to, without too much thinking, allocate a disproportionate amount of time and resources to your career, as opposed to dedicating it to areas that don’t provide as much immediate feedback and you have to wait much longer for any potential “reward” (such as, raising kids).

Another interesting concept is the definition and application of “culture” to families: culture is defined as people working together to resolve a recurring problem until it results in a successful and then instinctive way of doing things, which gets institutionalized as the norm, an automatic way of doing things. This requires an agreement on values, consistent behavior and positive feedback loops. It’s easy to imagine how all these things apply to developing a healthy family environment.

The ultimate lesson of “How to measure your life” is that what really matters is what you do each time you interact with someone. You are trained to appreciate not individual events, but their aggregation (the total of your achievements) and their innate hierarchies (how they rank), as opposed to the importance of each of those individual events. The challenge is to appreciate the importance of what you do in each specific and individual interaction.

Religion creeps in here and there as well, but in a natural and not too disruptive manner.

Practical Takeaways:

There are many. Here are some:

  • Don’t expand your lifestyle to fit expanded salary – it is difficult to unwind things.
  • Allocate your resources (time, money, talent) in line with how you want to grow your “businesses” (work, family) – it is easy to overweight work. 
  • Agree on values and strive for consistent behavior and positive feedback loops (when raising kids) – family values emerge as you find solutions together.
  • Decide what you stand for and stand for it all the time – 100% of the time is easier than 98% of the time.
  • Appreciate the importance of what you do in each specific and individual interaction.

Key Concepts:


  • Priorities (using motivation theory): What makes you tick. A nice reminder of the lifestyle trap (expanding your lifestyle to fit expanded salary, which becomes difficult to rewind), here framed as making life choices based on hygiene factors (job status, compensation, security) as opposed to motivators (personal challenge, growth, responsibility).
  • Balance pursuit of aspirations with changing environment (using deliberate vs emergent strategy theory). One needs to understand when to change strategy and how to choose between strategic options (using discovery driven planning): articulate (and rank) assumptions that need to be true in order for the new strategy to succeed. Same is true for analyzing job opportunities (what is it that needs to prove true in order for you to be happy in your choice; what is under your control, etc.). If needed, experiment, pivot, and adjust.
  • Execute (using examples on the mis-allocation of resources from Innovator’s dilemma, one the author’s previous books): how you allocate your personal resources (time, money, talent) determines how you grow your “businesses” (essentially career vs. family). 


  • Theory of good and bad capital: good capital starts small, pursues profit and then growth. Bad capital starts big, pursues growth and then profit (and runs out of money). The lesson is that (established) companies that realize they need growth invest large amounts of money too late in the game (planting saplings only once you realize you need tree shade). The same is true for relationships, ie start early to invest, nurture and develop (there is an interesting bit on the research about the importance of parent–baby language interaction and later stage development).
  • Doing the job you’re hired for: many companies fail because they don’t understand the reasons company buy their products (ie, what “job” they perform for the customer – understanding the problem the customer is trying to solve). Similarly, in relationships: you need to understand what is important to the other person, not just what you think is (or should be) important to the other person, and what is your role in that, and then act on that.
  • Capability theory: A child’s capabilities can be defined as resources (knowledge, skills, experiences), processes (ability to apply the knowledge and skills) and priorities (values, making choices). There is a danger to overly focus on providing resources (for instance, experiences), while overlooking the need to challenge and provide opportunities for solving hard problems. Reverse engineer to find the right experiences to help build necessary skills and values.
  • Danger of outsourcing: in business, when using the return on capital ratio to measure a business’ success, it is easier to improve this ratio by decreasing “capital” (through outsourcing, getting rid of assets) than by increasing “return” (growing profits). While seemingly successful in the near term, outsourcing in the long run can lead to the loss of core capabilities. You need to assess what capabilities to keep in-house to ensure future success. The link is made with the danger of outsourcing the development of a child’s capabilities to others.
  • Culture: defined as people working together to resolve a recurring problem until it results in a successful and then instinctive way of doing things (as norms on what constitutes success begin to form, so does a culture – ie, automatic way of doing things). The same is true for families – values emerge as you find solutions together. This highlights the importance of an explicit agreement on values, consistent behavior and positive feedback loops.

Staying out of Jail:

  • Importance of integrity: trap of marginal cost analysis/marginal thinking – deciding not to invest because you only see the the immediate costs, but not the long term gains of an investment. In personal life, marginal thinking translates into thinking that behavior at the margin (deviating from your values just once) has limited and only near-term impact, but the danger is that in the long run you continue making those types of decisions (ie, the slippery slope). Decide what you stand for and stand for it all the time (100% of the time is easier than 98% of the time).


  • Importance of finding the right performance metric: essentially quality over quantity. Because we are not able to assess performance from individual bits of information (one order from one customer), we aggregate (revenue, profits), which leads to an appreciation of hierarchy (more revenue). Measuring your career or life, using the same lens, there is a danger to focus too much on quantity (how many people do you supervise, number of relationships), as opposed to the quality of individual relationships. This highlights the importance of what you do in each specific and individual interaction.

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