Editor's note: Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He has published numerous works on innovation, including "The Innovator's Dilemma." He holds a B.A. from Brigham Young University, an M.Phil. from Oxford (where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar) and an MBA and DBA from Harvard. Christensen is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.
What is it that plants and nurtures the seeds of personal commitment and responsibility? In my observation, commitment to any cause is proportional to the degree we sacrifice and suffer for that cause.
Why could Tom Brokaw write his book about "The Greatest Generation" in reference to those who are now 90 years old rather than those who are 40 or 50? Was there something bred into this age group that fitted them to endure the challenges of economic depression and international war? There was nothing hereditary. Instead, extraordinary sacrifices were asked of the men and women who faced those challenges, and their corresponding commitment to America was strong.
It was a decorated World War II veteran, President John F. Kennedy, who famously said in his inaugural address, "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." Today, with society asking far less of our people, the question seems to be what can America give to us. And this generation's response? We'll take it or leave it.
We can now engage in a war on the other side of the world, and have it designed so that none of us have to think about it or experience it. But because it requires less collective sacrifice to fight our battles, people are actually less committed to the cause.
This issue of sacrifice and commitment is not just a concern for our country, but for what it means to raise children. A couple of generations ago, the typical household required a tremendous amount of work. Families had to grow much of what they ate and preserve much of what they grew. If you wanted hot water to bathe, you needed to heat it yourself, and if you wanted heat, you had to shovel coal into a stove or furnace. There was simply a great deal to accomplish in order to subsist. Consequently, the children had to work for the parents and the vital by-product of that sacrifice was commitment to the family.
But little-by-little, it has become so much cheaper to buy food and clothing rather than make it; little-by-little, we have automated or outsourced most of the physical work that used to go on in our homes. The reality now is that the only major physical demand on children in most homes is to clean up their messes. Ironically, they don't do that very well. So we have now inverted the roles in the family; parents now work for the children.
The concern has even affected faith. In the past, theistic religion was a powerful institution for reminding people that they were ultimately accountable to God for their actions, regardless of whether social institutions capably enforced a norm. Faith asked of parishioners the sacrifice of time, resources and (importantly) desires. A prominent leader in my religious tradition once said, " A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."
Too often, however, I see well-intentioned religious leaders trying to meet the immediate wishes and desires of potential adherents. For example, in an effort to make religion relevant to the next generation, I have seen entertainment replace worship, service and sacrifice. While it may temporarily attract an audience, it does little to foster the loyalty and commitment required for lifelong devotion.
Unraveling this contemporary dilemma is not simple. Myriad individual decisions, most of them rational and few of them wrong in-and-of-themselves, have brought us to this point. But if it is true that the personal responsibility, with its attendant commitment to family, faith and society, requires lessons in sacrifice, then we must begin to rethink what it is we require of our children. We must learn that it is not merely appropriate but absolutely necessary to ask them, and ourselves, to do hard things.