Resolutions Redefined

January 6th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

A professor’s commencement speech provides a more holistic approach to setting goals.

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It’s the beginning of a new year, a time when people make lists of loosely (if at all) related resolutions with notoriously high failure rates.

I, like most years, didn’t begin January 1 with an enumerated list of goals; rather, I started with the amorphous aim of “doing better, being better, managing my time more wisely,” etc. In other words, I would become Me 2.0. Welcome to Failure 101.

By the second day of this year I realized that my circumstances had changed so drastically in 2010 that my approach to making resolutions simply could never be the same. So I’ve already ditched my poorly defined objectives in favor of internalizing one of the most inspiring essays I read in 2010 (whether this means I’ve already become a New Year’s failure rate statistic or a success is to be determined).

Written by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” culls from the commencement speech he delivered to the HBS Class of 2010.  And while Christensen spends the year teaching students about good management theory – examining management scenarios through theoretical lenses – his essay, like his class, asks students “…to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?” (Don’t laugh: Christensen notes that two of the 32 people in his Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail, including classmate Jeff Skilling of Enron.)

Since its publication in July of last year, the essay has gained considerable momentum, referenced widely in a column by New York Times mainstay David Brooks and eventually becoming, according to Harvard Business Review Online managing editor Eric Hellweg, “one of the most popular magazine articles that we've ever run on the site, if not the most popular article we've ever run.”

And while this post is in no way meant to summarize Christensen’s essay, I’ll pull for you some of the bits that I found to be the best argument for a full life-plan (and against a fragmented list of resolutions). 

In his essay, Christensen advises students to create a life strategy early on and stick to it. Viewing life through a management lens, Christensen notes he has watched more and more of his HBS Class of 1979 contemporaries come to reunions “unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with [that] deliberate strategy…And yet a shocking number of them implemented [it]. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”

In fact, allocating how you’ll spend your assets – or your time, energy and talents – ultimately determines how you’ll shape your life’s strategy, Christensen asserts. High-achievers, he says, have “this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers…”

“In contrast,” he adds, “investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good son or a good daughter.’ ”

One piece of Christensen’s essay I’ll be paying particular attention to this year is his advice to “avoid the ‘marginal costs’ mistake,” or evaluating life decisions as we’re taught to evaluate alternative investments – basing decisions on marginal costs and revenues. To wit: “A voice in our head says, ‘Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.’ The marginal cost of doing something wrong ‘just this once’ always seems alluringly low.”

Christensen points to his own recent battle with cancer as evidence that, in the final analysis, the best metric for success has very little to do with generating money. “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.” I’m following Christensen’s advice this year, and thinking about the metric that my life will be judged. My only resolution for 2011: work via my metric.

How are you planning to organize 2011? Are you a resolver, or do you have an alternative plan? Share it here.