A Passing

“That person is a success who has left the world
better than they found it; who looked for the best in
others and gave the best they had”

He died last Thursday following a ten year battle with cancer.  His thoughts and words linger.  He was a giant of a man, not only physically, but through the ideas he shared with his students and the rest of the world.  His research and theories laid the groundwork for a school of thought that is changing the nature of business.  He was also a man of faith; a man who believed that God will not assess our lives by the amount of money we make or leave behind, but rather by the number of lives we touch. His name was Clayton Christensen, and this morning I used his words as the introduction to a presentation I made at Church.

Best known for his development of the theory of disruptive innovation, Christensen warns organizations of the dangers of becoming too good at what they do.  They can become blinded by their sheer success.  A sense of complacency develops and it becomes easier to stick with what’s familiar, with what has worked.  Why? Because the costs of using what you have, and doing what you have always done, are almost always lower than the full costs of investing in something new.  When that type of thinking rules the day, when organizations fail to consider new questions and focus only on results and what has worked, the stage is set for disruption.  As English poet and clergyman John Donne wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Christensen will also be remembered for his 2010 commencement speech to Harvard’s Business School and his subsequent book, How Will You Measure Your Life?  The book draws upon his extensive business research and offers a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life.  Ironically he writes, “The book itself doesn’t offer easy answers. Instead it will prompt you to consider the most important questions you will ever face; one of which is purpose.”  It was those questions of purpose, in combination with his thoughts on “Disruptive Innovation” that inspired my comments to our congregation.

In his book, Christensen shares the importance of organizational purpose.  He believes whether wanted or not, every organization has a purpose – it rests within its priorities and effectively shapes the culture and behaviors of those within the organization. Organizations with “defacto” purposes, those which emerge via top down directive or which have the sole purpose of personal benefit, quickly fade away and its leaders and products are quickly forgotten.  However those with clear and compelling purposes have the potential to make an impact and leave a legacy that is extraordinary. No less is true with our own lives, we must each have a purpose.

Finding purpose is not an event, it is a process. It is the most important thing we will ever learn.  When we think about purpose there are three things to consider:

  1. A Likeness –  Project a likeness, a “Sketch” if you will, of what you want to become when you come to the end of the path you are on.  Remember, the journey, and those with whom you interact will influence you, but the value will be found in the likeness you create for yourself.

  2. Commitment – Once you have created the likeness of what you want to become, you need to commit to a path that enables you to become that person.  The processes used will be different for each person, but must constantly answer the question, “Who do I want to become? This process can result in you discovering that the likeness you sketched out is not right – this is not the person you want to become.  When that happens, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and begin again – remember, it’s a process!  

  3. Metrics – The third part of finding your life’s purpose is finding the right metric by which it will be measured.  For Christensen and many others, this is what takes the longest, as life experiences contribute to our understanding of what is really important.  There will be no one statistic that can be used as a metric, rather it will be an aggregate of experiences that are personally meaningful to each one of us.  Ultimately like Christensen, mine will be measured by the positive difference I was able to make in the lives of others.

In memory of Professor Christensen and a high school friend, Diane, who also passed last week, I end this week’s post with words that reflected both their lives.

I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: 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.- C. Christensen