Measure Your Life

October 22, 2023 12 mins to read

Time out to reflect and act 

I have always loved the saying that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. To measure your life, you need to understand your purpose in life. Yet, there are numerous successful and wise people who say it is possible to live your life by design to achieve your purpose in life. I wish I could have invested more time to understand my purpose in life. Peter Drucker said, “Nobody learns except by making mistakes.” The key is to learn from mistakes that occur so that the same mistakes do not recur. Learning from mistakes is a quality to be valued. It is about managing worry, stress and anxiety when we make those mistakes. I have made so many mistakes which I wish I had not, but then life is about making decisions knowing fully well that you are not going to get it right every time.

A ship is always safe in the harbour, but that is not what it is built for.

So, at the end of each year, I take time out to reflect, even if it just for a day or two. This year, a difficult and tough one has come to an end. The Covid-19 pandemic crisis has turned the world upside down. Some remarked they had lost the entire year. Just to bring in some perspective, President Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in custody to achieve his purpose in life. My late father would tell me how the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II wiped out four years of his life. Here, having lost most part of 2020, we are at the end of the year, hoping for a better 2021.

At the end of each year, some people, if not all, take a timeout as is done in basketball. The teams review their achievements during the year and chart their goals for the future to align plans with their purpose in life. Most make new year resolutions. Over the last few years, I have kind of been enthusiastic about reviewing the past and planning for the future. I am not so much of new year resolutions person but more of one who crafts a plan for the next year. Together with a colleague, year after year, I have used a set of questions to review my annual progress and give my life a bit of focus with some goals. Not that I have succeeded 100% each year, but the process has been helpful.

The year 2020 has gone out with a whimper. I was hoping for a great year, but I had to completely rewrite my plans due to the lockdowns and challenges because of the pandemic crisis. There was joy, relief and concern as the year passed on and the news of the vaccines appeared. Those who are religious may remember the saying “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Rationalists say this could be attributed to the Malthusian check, where forces of nature work to balance growth and ensure sustainability.

I took a few days during the holiday week to review my 2020 happenings and 2021 plans. If I can get you to take some time out and review your past and plan for the future to align it with your purpose in life, the objective of my writing this piece would be achieved.

Set of principles

When I was on campus at the Harvard Business School, I was fortunate to attend a truly outstanding session by legendary Professor Clayton M. Christensen. When entering business school, his 2010 MBA class found the economy strong and their post-graduation ambitions limitless. Yet, within a few weeks, the economy collapsed. Responding to a request from his graduating class, Professor Christensen shared his ideas on how his principles and thinking could be applied in their personal lives. The session introduced a set of principles and three questions from his great article How will you measure your life? The article describes a set of principles and relates business concepts to Professor Christensen’s personal experiences. It was a thought-provoking and life defining read for me. If there is one article that you cannot afford to miss, this must be the one to ensure you are aligned to your purpose in life.

Teaching to think not telling how to think

His set of principles are premised on the fundamental notion of teaching people to think for themselves. Professor Christensen’s work on disruptive technology had caught the attention of Intel CEO Andy Grove. Given only 10 instead of the expected 30 minutes to explain the model of how the process of disruption works, he chose to explain how Nucor and mini mills had undercut the traditional steel industry with low-cost steel. The example was from a completely different industry. On completion of the mini mill story, Andy Grove apparently had remarked, “OK, I get it. What it means for Intel is…,” and he then detailed Intel’s proposed strategy to dominate the market with the launch of low-cost Celeron processors.

Professor Christensen thinks he “would have been killed” had he tried to tell Intel what to do. Instead, he says, all he did was to share an experience and get them to think for themselves and make the right decision for Intel. He explains that his teaching methodology at Harvard is structured to help students think by looking through the lenses of different theories using diverse examples. In my own experience, I have found that getting our employees, students and trainees to be active learners who learn by processing experiences, is far more productive than telling them what to do.

Three questions to judge your life progress

Annual performance reviews maybe on the way out, but a regular audit of where we want to go and where we are, helps a person to measure life progress. In his article, Professor Christensen asks his graduating students to turn the theoretical lenses on themselves to find persuasive answers to three questions on measuring your life: How can I:

Be happy in my career?

Ensure my relationships with close ones remain an enduring source of happiness?

Stay out of trouble?

Happiness in a person’s career

In answering the first question, he relates the motivation theory of Frederick Herzberg who differentiates between hygiene factors and satisfiers. While money is important, it is not a motivator. The lack of it creates dissatisfaction; the abundance of money does not necessarily create motivation. What motivates one is the “opportunity to grow in responsibilities, contribute to others and be recognised for achievements.” Management, he says it is not about deal-making but about building up people. Each one of us can contribute by promoting the self-esteem of our colleagues, in turn helping them to positively impact the lives of their loved ones. In my own experience, I have found self-esteem a powerful tool to shape a person. Each one of us can promote how good or lousy another feels.

Source of happiness

One theory that Professor Christensen says can help in answering the second question is how strategy is defined and implemented. Long term sustainability is affected by a focus on short term results. He shares the unhappy fates of many graduates and attributes them to not having a purpose in life in front of them and allocating time, energy, and talents appropriately.  They missed out on creating a strategy for their life. It is indeed surprising that some of the world’s most intelligent people gave little thought to the purpose of their lives. Purpose in life is critical, but the surprising element is that very few of us pause to think and act. It is important to measure your life. Steven Covey’s sharpen your axe principle for increasing personal productivity is forgotten.

Professor Christensen emphasises time and again the need to figure out one’s purpose in life before sailing rudderless in the rough seas of life. The end of the year is a good time to pause and reflect to measure your life. Many things we should do are not done. We do not exercise, eat well, learn a new skill, read or spend time with those we value most. The usual excuse is that there is no time. Unfortunately, how we spend our time, talent and energy determines our life’s strategy. The way we allocate our resources is critical for success in life.

Drawing an analogy between a corporation and life makes sense. Just as a business competes for resources, so does family, work, and community compete for a person’s time. Wrong choices can result in unintended results. Most people focus on short term gratification, but investments in life can be very long term. Professor Christensen points out that high achievers often have this unconscious tendency to “underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers”—even though most people find lasting happiness predominantly in strong and loving family ties.

Family and organisational cultures are truly unique identifiers. Both consist of shared beliefs and values that govern our daily actions and ways of relating to one another in a consistent way. Culture defines the priority given to different types of problems and how we deal with them consistently. Shaping a culture is a long-term investment of time and requires cooperation, commitment and compliance in a willing way. Edgar Schein described the process of using the tools of cooperation and change to build a culture. Teams working together with a shared vision is necessary for success. When this is absent, there is a need to use power tools such as threats and punishment to secure cooperation. Choosing the appropriate tool to elicit the needed cooperation is a skill that determines managerial success.

Similarly, within families, children’s self-esteem and self-confidence which enable them to face difficult challenges do not appear magically. Instead of resorting to power tools, we have to design them into our family’s culture.  We need to invest time in shaping the way we live, early on in our lives. Power tools may give us instant but not long-term success. Like employees, children build self-esteem and self-confidence by doing things that are hard and learning what works. A family culture of respectfulness, obedience and commitment to do the right thing prepares them to do this consistently in an authentic way. Achievement and Happiness can be two sides of a coin.

Staying out of trouble

To address the third question on integrity, Professor Christensen brings in the theory of marginal costs and marginal revenue imparted to MBA students. He says that the focus on marginal costs encourages companies to lean on past capabilities instead of creating new ones relevant for the future. The future is unlikely to be like the past: 2020 was nothing like 2019. Given the disparity, such a focus on the past is the wrong thing to do. Often, most of us unconsciously adopt the marginal cost concept in our lives when we choose between right and wrong.

When faced with a dilemma, most people often persuade themselves that in certain circumstances, they do not have a choice. Therefore, they choose the wrong action, justifying that it is for “just this one time.” Professor Christensen says, “The marginal cost of doing something wrong ‘just this once’ always seems alluringly low.” One gets tempted and is sucked in. One ignores where the path is ultimately headed. The result is that all forms of lack of integrity is justified by the marginal cost economics of ‘just this once.’ The ‘just this once’ applies to skipping exercise, a family dinner or a family ritual.

The discipline to resist the ‘just this one time’ based on marginal cost analysis comes from defining for yourself “what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.” If you succumb to the ‘just this one time’ temptation, you are bound to do it again and again and head the wrong way. Professor Christensen concludes that it is easier to hold on to one’s principles 100% of the time than it is to hold on to them 98% of the time. There is a need to avoid the marginal cost mistake.

Choose the right yardstick to measure your life

How do you measure your life? What is the metric by which you can judge your success? The metric with which you judge your progress is important. Professor Christensen highlights the importance of humility. Humble people have a high sense of self-esteem and feel good about themselves. This is reflected in their behaviour with others. They are:

Respect people.

Do not cheat or lie.

Learn from everyone.

In an uncertain world like this, we need to take that sense of humility into the world. It is an important indicator to measure your life. Most MBA students, before they get into the graduate school, have learned from people smarter and more experienced than them. Once they graduate, they are likely to be smarter than most people they interact with. Humility will help one maximise the opportunities to learn from everyone. And learning is so critical to achieve your purpose in life.

Professor Christensen understands the huge economic impact he has had on corporations. Yet he considers that as an unimportant metric. Being a deeply religious person, he thinks the most important metric by which God will assess his life is not the dollars he helped organisations gain. He says the measure will be the number of people whose lives he has touched. This will work for all of us. There is no need to worry about individual success. He asked us to consider how much we have helped others to become better people.

His final recommendation: “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.”

Decide what you stand for. And, then stand for it all the time.

Stay Safe, Healthy, Productive and Happy.

Have a great 2021!