Measuring Your Life

Brendan Quinlan/ June 4, 2013/ 2013

Our time in Silicon Valley has been inspirational.  We are surrounded by some of the most successful companies in the world and the individuals who built them.  I will take the liberty of speaking for my classmates and say that for many of us this program has significantly shifted our career goals and clarified what we want to accomplish after we complete our educations.  However, there have been many instances where inspiration goes far beyond the professional realm.  Dr. Clay Christensen is one such inspiration.  Without exaggeration, Dr. Christensen is one of the most accomplished academics in the world.  While developing an entire school of thought on innovation, Dr. Christensen has been voted the single most influential business thinker in the world.  Not bad for a second career: he didn’t get his DBA until he was almost 40.  Despite his incredible success, Dr. Christensen carries himself with humility and friendliness. A few years ago Dr. Christensen suffered a severe stroke.  He had to relearn how to walk and speak the English language and has not yet fully regained his health.  Despite this Dr. Christensen spared his much sought-after time to fly to the Bay Area to teach a class of undergrads.  We are all glad he did.

Dr. Christensen surprised us by flying in to teach us on the third day of class. Already more intimidated than we would like to admit by his son, Dr. Christensen’s added presence did not help calm our nerves about the day’s case.  After Matt introduced his father the class applauded as he walked to the front of the classroom, Dr. Christensen quickly hushed us, joking never to clap before class because we had no idea how bad the teaching was going to be.  Of course, it was great.  The second day he joined us in class we took a group picture; Dr. Christensen proclaimed he never got to be in the front row of any pictures because he was too tall.  Upon hearing this those seated in front quickly cleared out some room and a laughing Dr. Christensen proudly lounged among my classmates in the front row, letting a few of us help him up afterwards. He clearly loves people.

At Apple headquarters, Dr. Christensen lectured for a few hundred Duke alums and Apple employees.  As he came on stage he apologized to the crowd, explaining that for long stretches he has to look at the ground to help him focus on remembering words as he continues to recover from his stroke.  Despite this, he lectured for well over two hours.  Several times he scrolled through in his presentation, laughed to himself, and said something to the effect of “This is great stuff guys. Quit napping.”  He had so much fun and clearly loves his work.

Through the two cases that we studied under Dr. Christensen, he stressed that managers take care to select the correct units of measurement for questions they need answered.  It is the application of this management theory to personal life that led to the title of his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Throughout the book Christensen reflects on how easy it is to place career success and the accumulation of wealth over one’s family and relationships.  Dr. Christensen warns that accolades and money are not the way to measure one’s life, rather the impact one has on those around him or her is a far more fulfilling metric.  He recalled an early conversation he had with his wife when they decided “Christensens will be known for kindness” and one of their priorities in life was to instill in their children a heart for others. Throughout the two days he shared with us in class he told several anecdotes about his children, seeming far prouder of the people his kids turned out to be than of their career success, or even his.

More than he loves laughing with students and teaching his work, Clay Christensen loves his family.  The students in Duke in Silicon Valley were lucky to have someone of Clay Christensen’s intellectual ability lead our class, but likely even luckier to have someone of Clay Christensen’s humility willing to share his wisdom.

For more on Dr. Christensen visit or check out “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon.

Brian Strubbe, Duke 2015

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