Life advice from Utah native, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen an online hit

Published: Thursday, Aug. 12 2010 12:16 a.m. MDT

Clayton Christensen

Courtesy of Harvard Business School

SALT LAKE CITY — The wisdom of acclaimed Harvard business professor and best-selling author Clayton M. Christensen has gone viral.

A BYU grad and Salt Lake City native who grew up in Rose Park, Christensen pondered his own mortality last year during a confrontation with cancer. The article he wrote as a result appeared in the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review and is an Internet hit.

The best yardstick for measuring his life, he surmised, is found in how his life impacts other people.

"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," wrote Christensen, who served an LDS mission to South Korea before becoming a Rhodes scholar. "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."

New York Times columnist David Brooks spent half of a recent column talking about Christensen's approach to life. Eric Hellweg, editorial managing editor of Harvard Business Review Online, credits the Brooks piece and social networks like Twitter and Facebook for the widespread dissemination of Christensen's clarion call to recognize the meaning inherent in helping others.

"It's been our most-read article every day for most of the last three weeks," Hellweg said Monday. "It's one of the most popular magazine articles that we've ever run on the site, if not the most popular article we've ever run."

Although Harvard Business Review doesn't disclose specific statistics regarding website traffic, Hellweg did reveal "it's pretty safe to say that hundreds of thousands of people have been reading (Christensen's article) since it became available on the site."

Christensen's article, "How Will You Measure Your Life?", originated like the literary equivalent of a grass-roots campaign.

"I have talked with my students at the end of every class on the purpose of life," Christensen wrote in an e-mail this week. "This year, however, for some reason, the talk seemed to make great sense to my students. Several of my students asked me to speak for the entire second year of the Harvard Business School student body to hear, which I did (at Class Day on May 26). Both of these talks were recorded, and the students broadly distributed my talk outside the school.

"As a result of the broad distribution of the video, I was approached by Karen Dillon, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, asking if they could turn the video into an article. She did the first draft of the article, and I improved it. I had no idea what would then happen."

The three questions he asks his students on the last day of class are, "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?"

Christensen, whose cancer is now in remission, subsequently urges his students to find their life's purpose and then, utilizing management theory, allocate their time and resources accordingly.

In his New York Times column, Brooks encapsulated Christensen's vision of business theory intersecting life's purpose. "He combines a Christian spirit with business methodology," Brooks writes. "In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs.

"When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition."

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