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Nate’s Notes 19: Ambition, Achievement, & Strategy

By November 9, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

In the late 1990s Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School Professor, became famous for his theory of innovative disruption. He argued that outstanding companies could choose good, rational strategies, yet sill lose their market share or even go out of business. This is due, in large part, to the fact that managers are incentivized to choose strategies that prioritize short term rather than long term growth. Christensen’s theory was later published in the book, The Innovators Dilemma. The book has sold millions of copies and impacted countless business leaders. In fact, the Economist named the Innovators Dilemma as one of the six greatest business books ever written.

In 2013, when I was attending law school, Christensen came to our school to share lessons he had learned over his career. Much of what he shared that day was grounded in his theory of innovative disruption. But he also shared topics that were much more personal. The theme of his talk was how to measure your life. He had recently suffered a stroke and was now spending his time thinking about how he should measure his own life. In fact, he would pass away just a few years later.

Christensen started his presentation by describing his five year reunions with his classmates from Harvard Business School. At his first five year reunion, he looked around at his classmates and everyone seemed so polished and successful. They all had great jobs, in great locations, and he couldn’t help but think that he and his classmates were part of something special. Their lives seemed to be fantastic on every level.

But at the 10 year reunion, things that he had never expected were suddenly commonplace. Although his classmates were still wildly successful professionally, many were struggling personally. Many of his classmates were unhappy in their marriages (or divorced), and estranged from their kids.

What he had hoped was a blip, a mid life crisis, was anything but. At the 25 and 30 year reunions, the problems were worse, and one of his classmates, Jeffrey Skilling, was in jail for his part in the Enron scandal.

Christensen wondered why. Why had so many of these smart, kind, capable classmates succeeded professionally, yet struggled personally? He ultimately concluded that many of his classmates had fallen prey to the same thing that so often happens to companies, choosing a strategy that prioritized the short term over the long term.

And then Christensen shared one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned about ambition. He said that when people have an extra hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’re prone to spend that time on activities that yield the most tangible, immediate sense of accomplishment. And for many people, their careers are the most concrete evidence that they’re progressing. We finish a report, we make a sale, we ship a product…all of these actions are things we can check off our lists, giving us a feeling of accomplishment. However, investing time and energy in relationships with our spouse or children typically doesn’t provide that same feeling of accomplishment. And making matters worse, we can neglect our relationships on a day-to-day basis and our loved ones will still be there. All the while we may not recognize that our relationships are deteriorating. This desire to focus on short term accomplishment can lead well-meaning people to over-invest in their careers and under-invest in their relationships.

In Christensen’s final book, titled “How will you measure your life,” Christensen wrote, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that same lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.”

As I think back on my life I am struck by how often I see this pattern. For example, when I was in law school and considering whether to get an MBA, I spoke with a venture capitalist who had earned both his JD and MBA. He was impressive, successful and seemed to have it all. At the end of our conversation I asked him how he balanced work and family. He laughed and said, “Not very well.” But then he said, “When I think about balance I think about balance over the long run…I’m not very balanced right now because work is my priority. But in 20 years I plan to be done working and then I’ll spend more time with my family.”

I hung up the phone and thought to myself that that strategy was risky at best, and deeply flawed at worst. When I heard Clayton Christensen speak a few years later, I was reminded of the call with the venture capitalist. If we underinvest in our relationships in the present, we may not have those relationships in the future. Once serious problems arise in a relationship, it is often too late to repair it.

To avoid underinvestment in relationships, Christensen recommends two simple steps: defining our priorities and then choosing a strategy for the outcome we desire…rather than just focusing on achievement. Whenever I think about the strategies people adopt to achieve the outcomes they desire, I think of the following parable.

An American investment banker was at a pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The fisherman replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked the fisherman why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish? The Fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take naps with my wife, I stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to New York City, where you could run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will all this take?” To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the fisherman.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?” Asked the fisherman.

The American said, “Then you could retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take naps with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”

Like the investment banker in the parable, it can be easy for us to get so caught up in achieving that we lose sight of our priorities.

But so what. Why does any of this matter?

A friend of mine reminds me often that organizations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get. But the same idea could be applied to our personal lives…that the strategy we choose to implement is perfectly designed to get us the results that we get. And if we want to change our results, we need to change our strategy. And if we ever wonder what our strategy is, we simply need to look at what we do. Strategy is created through hundreds of everyday decisions about how we spend our time and money.

So kids, I hope you will follow the advice of Clayton Christensen: define your priorities first and then choose a strategy for the outcomes you most desire. Don’t ever lose sight of your ultimate goals. And above all, don’t under-invest in your most important relationships.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

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