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Success: You're Measuring It Wrong

Able and ambitious companies drive themselves to ruin through a focus on short-term measures of success, and so do individuals, argues Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.
Clayton Christensen

No successful company simply shrugs and plans to become obsolete. But in industry after industry, giants at the peak of their powers rather suddenly find themselves in a decline.

How is it that so many established industry leaders end up collapsing?

That's the question best-selling author and legendary Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen is most famous for tackling. His work, according to a lengthy recent New Yorker profile, uncovered the mechanisms by which small upstart organizations peddling subpar products time and again topple industry leaders offering superior goods.

It's a topic fascinating for anyone looking to build just that sort of scrappy, disruptive, giant-killer of a company. But Christensen's latest research question might be even more relevant to the average ambitious entrepreneur.

In his latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, he has extended the principles of how well-intentioned companies drive themselves to ruin and applied them to how well-intentioned, highly ambitious individuals hell bent on having a successful life drive themselves to misery. And just about all of us want the answer to that question.

One answer to both the self-destruction of successful companies and successful individuals, Christensen explains in the middle bit of this fascinating TED talk from last month's TEDx Boston, is an understandable but often fatal focus on short-term achievement and a consequent failure to invest in what truly creates value in the long term.

"Typically, the way you calculate profitability, investments that pay off tomorrow go to the bottom line and are much more tangible than investments that pay off 10 years from now," he says, before noting that this pursuit of short-term achievement distorts the lives of people as well as companies.

"When you have an extra ounce of energy or 30 minutes of time, instinctively and unconsciously you'll allocate it to whatever activities in your life give you the most immediate evidence of achievement, and our careers provide that immediate evidence of achievement," he says. "In contrast, investments in our families don't pay off for a very long time."

Check out Christensen's complete talk below.  

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Last updated: Jul 24, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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