by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection
At the end of your life, what will be the measure of your work success?
Put differently, day after day, what motivates your work? Is it the need to earn money to support a lifestyle or family? Personal recognition? Avoidance of blame? A desire to help the working group succeed? The sheer satisfaction of a job well done? A desire to provide truly useful goods and services to customers, or to make the world a better place?
This year, for its 100th birthday, the Harvard Business Review is highlighting twelve of HBR’s “finest articles.” It’s notable that the first in this series was written by a self-described “deeply religious” man, Professor Clayton M. Christensen (1952-2020)*, about the intersection of his faith and his work: How Will You Measure Your Life? (hbr.org)
Facing life-threatening cancer, Christensen wrote:
“Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.”
“It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that Harvard Business School draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives.”
“I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. 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.”
“My purpose grew out of my religious faith, but faith isn’t the only thing that gives people direction.”
“Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
For many like Prof. Christensen, the ultimate “why” of work is rooted in their faith. They seek to honor God in the way they perform their duties, and the way they treat others. That’s why they honor their commitments, treat others with respect, stand up for the rights of others, give credit where it’s due, visit coworkers in the hospital, and show other kindnesses. For some, such deeds are a way of earning God’s favor. For others, works like these are an appropriate, worshipful response of gratitude for God’s unmerited kindness to them.
Of course, many workers simply haven’t thought about it. They go to work day after day without reflecting on any ultimate why.
We at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation are driven to celebrate and enable cultures that encourage free and voluntary discussions about workers’ personal “whys.” We help companies listen to the diverse personal WHYs of their people. We do this because we’ve seen how such workplace discussions facilitate positive, transformative authenticity and connection. We’ve seen that, when employees voluntarily open up to disclose their “why,” there’s a self-induced accountability to act according to those expressed principles. When they tell, as Christensen did, about the intersection of their faith and their work, and live according to their professed principles, they inspire others, and sow hope. And when they die, they leave a legacy of civility that makes the world a better place.
The large positive legacy that Clay Christensen left is not measurable in dollars. His life story touches many who are outside his faith tradition. In a comment on Christensen’s Boston TedX Talk (with 1 million views), Cameron Fife aptly observed:
“For those of you who aren’t really religious, I think the point he is trying to make at the end of his talk is this: Don’t measure your life by the amount of money, the degree, or the number of friends you have by the time you die. It’s much better to think about some of the individual experiences or moments in your life where you can really see the good impacts you made on your peers or society as a whole.”
Whether we’re “religious” or not, the question of one’s ultimate “why” is, essentially, a matter of faith and belief. To the extent that we seek to conduct our daily work so as to leave a particular kind of legacy, we honor the core principles (God’s will, as it were) we profess to live by.
That is the standard against which our lives will be measured. It’s worth considering.
* Clayton Magleby Christensen (April 6, 1952 – January 23, 2020) was an American academic and business consultant who developed the theory of “disruptive innovation”, which has been called the most influential business idea of the early 21st century. Christensen introduced “disruption” in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, and it led The Economist to term him “the most influential management thinker of his time.” He served as the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (HBS), and was also a leader and writer in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Christensen was also a co-founder of Rose Park Advisors, a venture capital firm, and Innosight, a management consulting and investment firm specializing in innovation. For more, see the New York Times obituary of Christensen, which describes his lasting impact on business.