Clay Christensen: How Will You Measure Your Life? at TEDxBoston (Transcript)

So the day came and they chose another person and, I wondered why did I have the feeling that an important thing was going to happen to me, did the people kind of lose guts? Or I don’t know. But I wrestled with — how will they measure Clay Christensen’s life? You know if they’re going to not make me the leader of a large institution, how do I know whether my life has been worth living? And again, how will I measure my life? And I realized that I studied this for a long time and I reached the strangest conclusion that, God doesn’t employ accountants or statisticians. And what I mean by that is, because you and I have finite minds, when we try to understand what’s going on in the world, we have to aggregate things. So in your company you can’t keep track of every individual invoice, and so you have to aggregate all those up, so that you have receivables and payables and revenues. And you can’t keep track of every element of cost, and so you have to aggregate all that up into total cost categories, and then you subtract that from this and there’s a number and that’s the way we try to understand the world is, because we have limited minds, we have to aggregate things up.

And then we’ll look at that number compared to last year’s number and if it’s better than we say we’re doing better. And that’s the way we look at the world, because of our minds. And it has then another interesting effect on us and that is, because we have to aggregate, we get a sense of hierarchy in the world. In other words, people who are higher up in larger organizations are more important than people who preside over fewer numbers of people and fewer numbers down the road, down the bottom. And so we tend to — we get this sense that people who achieve in a hierarchical sense, their lives will be judged somehow as better, having lived than those below. And we measure sometimes how high we go or how successful we are by how much money we make. But these are all the results of having limited minds and they’re having to aggregate measures of success. And this choice of measurement is actually a big deal in a company. For example, if you measure profitability by return on net assets, that’s a ratio. And sure, you could be innovative, develop successful new products and take that profitability and stick it into the numerator of the ratio. But you can also reduce the denominator of the ratio by outsourcing everything, and the ratio doesn’t matter whether you build it from the top or subtract from the bottom. If profitability is measured by return on net assets it causes us to manage it in a particular way.

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And in a similar way, if we follow our professors’ advices from finance, and we measure profitability on innovation in terms of internal rate of return or IRR, it’s a ratio, and sure you could get the ratio up by being successful with innovation. But you also could get that measure up by only investing in short-term projects. And it’s just the long way of saying, be careful in how you measure success — profitability in your company.

So how do you measure the profitability — the success of your life? And as I mentioned it’s because we have to aggregate, we have this sense of hierarchy, wealth and so on. But the reason I concluded that God doesn’t employ accountants is he has an infinite mind, and what that means he doesn’t have to aggregate up above the level of individual people in order to have a perfect understanding of what’s going on in this world. And when I realized that, that he doesn’t have to aggregate up above the level of individuals, then I realized, oh my goodness, when I have my interview with God at the end of my life, he’s not going to ask to show me how high I went in anybody’s orgchart, or how much money I left behind in the bank when I died. But rather he’s going to say, ‘Oh Clay, I put you in that circumstance, now can we talk about the individual people, whose lives you helped to become better people, because you worked with them or they were in members of your family or you just met them and they needed your help? And then Clay, I stuck you in this situation, well let’s talk about the individual people, whose lives you blessed because you used the talents I gave you to help them. And I realized that that’s the way God will measure my life, is the individual people whose lives I blessed.

And I just want to offer that as the second takeaway from at least what Clay Christensen is thinking about. And that is it’s actually really important, that you succeed what you’re succeeding at, but that isn’t going to be the measure of your life. God doesn’t count, he doesn’t aggregate and that he’s just going to assess you on the basis of how well you helped other people be better people. Well, God bless you, I hope that some of these ideas will be helpful to you and that you will be successful in the way that God will measure success. Thank you.