Life beyond the bottom line: Clayton Christensen's new book has business world buzzing

Published: Sunday, May 13 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on October 29, 2010.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It was the great irony of late Utah Jazz owner and car dealership magnate Larry Miller's short, accomplished life that he originally began working long hours — 90 hours a week for 20 years — to benefit his wife and children, but wound up neglecting them and creating heartache along the way.

This is not anything the late Miller wouldn't talk about freely today if he hadn't died in 2009. When I conducted the first of three lengthy interviews with Miller for a Deseret News profile in 2001, he eagerly and tearfully discussed his mistakes and regrets. He was hard on himself and pulled no punches. I believe it was cathartic. When Miller asked me to write his book a few years later — "Driven" — this became a major theme that ran through much of the narrative.

Miller's story is pretty well known. Uneducated and with little means, he built a billion-dollar empire, but in the process he was never home and his wife and children suffered for it. He missed the ball games and the science fairs and back-to-school nights and the first day of kindergarten and dinner at home with the family. He also neglected the church that was so much a part of his early life.

By the end of his life, he had long since embraced all of the above passionately.

"As a husband and father," Miller said, "I viewed myself much more as a breadwinner than an emotional leader. As long as I provided for my family financially, I fulfilled my role, or so I thought. I didn't realize, until my late 40s, that not only did my kids and wife have an emotional need for a father and husband, but it was my responsibility."

Every time business guru Clayton Christensen attended a reunion of his Harvard Business School class, he learned that success in the office had taken its toll elsewhere — unhappy marriages and divorce, strained relationships with children, unethical and illegal behavior at work. These were the best and the brightest of a prestigious business school who couldn't get work-life balance right. Like Miller, they were putting in long hours at the office and earning responsible positions and lots of money with big companies, but "despite such professional accomplishments … many of them were clearly unhappy."

So Christensen began to address the real meaning of family and life in his classes. He gave a speech about it and then wrote an article and now ultimately a book — "How Will You Measure Your Life?"

Business types are a little uneasy about discussing religion, faith and family in the workplace, but Christensen's book — which measures life beyond the bottom line and the big office with a view to encompass family, commitment, service, career, faith and more — has the business world buzzing. His book has won rich praise from the New York Times and Forbes Magazine and elsewhere.

The book began as a topic in Christensen's classes at Harvard. As Christensen tells it, at the end of every class he talked with his students about the purpose of life. He asked his students to consider three questions: "How can I be sure that I'll be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? How can I be sure I'll stay out of jail?"

The message resonated with students. Using common sense and the conclusions of his own business research, he offered advice for finding "meaning and happiness."

Students asked him to address the same subject to the entire Harvard class in May 2010. The talks were recorded and widely distributed by students. Seeing the popularity of the video, Karen Dillon, editor of the Harvard Business Review, asked if she could turn the video into an article. It went viral, becoming what is believed to be the most-viewed HBR piece ever. In turn, Forbes Magazine began to address the real meaning of family and life in his classes and turned the article into a cover story. Finally, Christensen turned it into a book.

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