Clayton Christensen: Just a guy from Rose Park

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

Christensen has had diabetes, a massive heart attack, and non-Hodgkin's follicular lymphoma cancer. He was recovering from the cancer in July this year and was training a church group when he suffered a stroke. A neurological radiologist in the group recognized the symptoms and he was taken immediately to Massachusetts General Hospital where he was given the clot-busting drug TPA. Two days later he walked out with a cane, but with "expressive aphasia." His ability to think and reason were intact but his ability to connect to the right word was affected.

"It has clearly been the biggest test of his life," his brother Carlton said, "because his love is writing and teaching and speaking. This goes to the heart of what he loves to do the most."

At the end of September, Archibald went to the 40th reunion of his Harvard Business School class. Christensen spoke to about 200 alumni for more than an hour.

"He started off by saying that he had this stroke, that he was having difficulty bringing out some words and that there might be some hesitation," Archibald said. "But his knowledge of the subject matter and his great teaching ability was so evident, that when he was done … it was one of the most effective, instructional and inspirational meetings I have been in."

"I'm grateful that I made a commitment to God when I was in the middle of all this, if, by his measure, I could do more good in the next life than in this one, I'm ready to go," Christensen said. "And I just felt very grateful that I could say that."

His life wasn't over, and his next book, written with Henry J. Eyring, tentatively titled "University DNA: The Evolutionary History and Future of Higher Education," is getting ready for publication. Like all his books, the questions are the important thing, the thing that recasts the debates and shifts policy among the powerful. But to Christensen, there are questions that are even more important, they are the ultimate questions he has tried to answer with his life:

"When I have my conversation with God at the end, whether I was a stake president or whatever position I had or didn't have in the church and in my life, actually won't come up in God's conversation with me because he just doesn't think that way. He's going to say, 'Ok Clay, so I put you in that situation. Let's just talk about the individual people whose lives you helped. And then I stuck you in that situation. Tell me about the lives you helped there.'"

The song

Which brings us back to the song "I Love This Bar." Christensen's brother, Carlton — who is the person who said the song was his favorite — said he liked it because: "There's this whole myriad of people and they just come together. He is a person who is not looking for a homogeneous make up in his friends. He loves the variety of people that there are and finds a lot of joy and interest in how people can be different, not necessarily on how they can be the same."

But maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the real question isn't "Why does he like this song?" Maybe the question is, "What is in this song that everybody should like?"

Is it the celebration of diverse people? Is it the commonality of community? Is it an expression of societal disruptive innovation? Is it a hearkening back to a westside neighborhood? Is it the expression of unjudging love for all humanity?

Christensen's son Matthew doesn't think so. "He loves the lyrics (in country music). He just thinks they are hilarious." Matthew said his father thinks Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" is "a riot" and that he also likes Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."

Could it be that Christensen just likes Toby Keith's song because it makes him laugh?

Sometimes, even in the life of a deep thinker, there isn't something deeper going on. Sometimes a song is just a song and a professor from Rose Park is just another guy.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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