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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."

BYU-Idaho president Kim Clark first met Christensen in 1975 when they were both graduate students at Harvard. He found it natural that Christensen's article resonated with so many online readers.

"He stood out even then, intellectually and otherwise," Clark recalls. "He's so tall that if you see him, you'd know he literally stands out in a crowd."

Clark owned a front-row seat to the professorial exploits of Christensen while serving as president of Harvard Business School from 1995-2005 — a period that included Christensen's ascension to superstar status in the world of management theory with the 1997 release of "The Innovator's Dilemma," a New York Times bestseller.

"Clayton Christensen is a uniquely talented person," Clark said. "He is the rare combination of someone who possesses a superb intellect but is also willing to help and lift other people. Clayton is very open with his faith about the gospel of Jesus Christ — he lives it in all aspects of his life and is always willing to share it with others."

Dan Snow, a friend and former professorial colleague of Christensen's at Harvard, echoed Clark's depiction of Christensen as a very tall man who simultaneously possesses disparate attributes.

"He is a dichotomous kind of character," Snow said. "On the one hand, he's a superhuman. He works essentially three full-time jobs: He's a professor for 40 hours a week, he's a consultant for 40 hours a week and he does church work for 40 hours a week. He's a 6-foot-10 Rhodes Scholar who is far more accomplished than any other person most people know.

"On the other hand, Clayton is literally the nicest, most interesting person that you'll ever meet. If he weren't so busy, you'd love to sit at a beach with him and just talk about life because he's a really cool guy. He does woodwork in his basement. He loves to read. He tells jokes — he's a funny guy. So, in a way, he's this split character."

To read Christensen's article, go to hbr.org/2010/07/how-will-you-measure-your-life/ar/1.

Clayton M. Christensen

Age: 58

Education: B.A., BYU; M.Phil., Oxford University; MBA and DBA, Harvard

Job: Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School

Hometown: Salt Lake City

Residence: Belmont, Mass.

Family: Five children with wife Christine, three grandchildren

Published works: Bestselling author of five books, including his seminal work "The Innovator's Dilemma," which received the Global Business Book Award for the best business book of the year.

Notable: Area Seventy in the LDS Church; Rhodes scholar; speaks fluent Korean

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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