Reading is one of my superpowers. I make time daily in my work life to consume an article or a chapter of a non-fiction book. I usually learn something—a new fact to absorb or a tactic to try.
Incredibly rarely, something I read actually changes me.
When I first read this piece, I was an exhausted, overworked, always-feeling-guilty mom with a long commute and a need for something to change.
Seven years ago, I first stumbled on an article called How Will You Measure Your Life? written by the renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The piece captivated me, and I credit it with setting me on a new path. Christensen, who has since passed away, offered me a sense of direction and clarity. I find many people around me seek the same thing right now, which is precisely why I'm revisiting a seven-year-old article with you today.
When I first read this piece, I was an exhausted, overworked, always-feeling-guilty mom with a long commute and a need for something to change. Reading it helped me ask and answer some big questions for myself—not by telling me what to think, but rather how to think. Christensen's article applied big wonky management concepts to the everyday business of humanity. And he did it beautifully.
Since I first read "How Will You Measure Your Life," I've made a habit of rereading it once a year. And each year I take something new from it.
Today, in case you’re one of those people sitting with big questions, I’d love to share some of my favorite insights. If you’ve ever wondered how to maintain fulfillment, balance, and integrity in your life and career, then this one’s for you.
How do I achieve fulfillment in my career?
Professor Christensen begins with an introduction to the work of Frederick Herzberg whose research in the mid-twentieth century taught us that money is not our most powerful motivating force.
As Money Girl Laura Adams tells us, money can buy us happiness … but only to a point. To have emotional well-being, we need to have enough money to cover basics like food and shelter comfortably. A widely cited 2010 study set that bar at $75,000 a year. Making more than that, data told us, didn’t equate to more happiness.
Unlock those golden handcuffs and free yourself to find joy in your work.
So if money doesn’t drive happiness, then what does? According to Christensen, it’s the opportunity to learn, to grow in responsibility, to contribute to the development of others, and to be recognized for your hard work and achievements.
So ask yourself: Are you having these fulfilling experiences in your work today?
If you could use a bump, are there ways you can infuse more life into your work? Can you take on a project that might help you expand your thinking, network, or knowledge? Can you mentor someone whose success you’d love to enhance? Can you publicly recognize a colleague who did you a small solid?
Or are you ready for a change you now realize you can afford to make?
Maybe you’ve always worked in corporate and dreamed of rolling into the non-profit space. Or you’re being pulled in multiple directions and want to transition to working part-time for a while. Or there’s that side hustle you always wanted to try, or that degree you dream of getting.
Unlock those golden handcuffs and free yourself to find joy in your work.
For me, this meant finally stepping out of a job that felt heavy and taking that chance on starting my own business. I’ve never looked back.
How do I maintain balance?
This, Christensen explains, is really a question of how your strategy is defined and implemented.
”…A company’s strategy is determined by the types of initiatives that management invests in.”
If a company's strategy is to win by creating high-quality products, but it chooses to maximize its profit margin by using cheap materials to manufacture them, well … I think you can see why the strategy is doomed to fail.
So the question here is what strategy have you defined for your life. And are you making the right investments to support it?
To make the analogy work, Christensen imagines each important part of his life as a line of business—his career, his family, and his community.
He wants each of them to succeed. So he allocates his investments—his time, his focus, his care—in alignment with that strategy.
I realized that my time is my investment portfolio. I wanted to take ownership of it.
“Allocation choices,” he says, “can make you turn out to be very different from what you intended.”
He goes on to observe that “People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers even though… loving relationships… are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”
When I first read this, I knew my sense of balance was off. Yet I somehow felt powerless to change it. But there was something in his framing about the allocation of resources that really hit me. I realized that my time is my investment portfolio. I wanted to take ownership of it.
Did I quit my job and start my business the next day? I assure you I did not. But this reframing was exactly the gift I needed to move from feeling constrained and trapped to feeling encouraged and ready to explore some options.
Where have you possibly overinvested in work and underinvested in the things or people that bring you joy?
I’m not suggesting you follow my path. I’m inviting you to assess yours. Are you investing according to the outcomes you hope to achieve? Where have you possibly overinvested in work and underinvested in the things or people that bring you joy?
How do I keep integrity at the forefront?
Ever hear of something called the “marginal cost mistake?” I hadn’t. It’s the idea that most people who’ve fallen from grace (think Bernie Madoff) didn’t wake up one day and decide to commit a major crime.
“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. It suckers you in.”
Personally, I’ve never stood on the precipice of making a criminal choice. But this concept has shown up in my life in different ways.
Think long and hard before you break the golden rule. Otherwise, your 'marginal cost mistake' will stay with you.
In my life today, I stand firmly in the camp of respect and equality for every human being. If someone in my life—a client, a colleague, even a family member—makes an off-color joke or comment, I know it’s easier to ignore it. Just this once.
But I won’t. And having that clarity makes the choice so simple for me.
Maybe your boss asked you to “borrow” a competitor’s idea you heard about… just this once. Or a friend needs a reference and wonders if you’ll play the role of her former boss… but just for this one potential job.
Think long and hard before you break the golden rule. Otherwise, your "marginal cost mistake" will stay with you. I still remember kids I didn’t stand up for on the playground. I can’t change what’s behind me, but I can be a version of myself going forward that the little girl in me would be proud of.
I wish the same for you.
I hope these ideas have triggered some insight or courage or inspiration. May you be fulfilled, may you be in balance, and may you be the most gleaming version of you.