The end of year holiday slow down is often an opportunity to reflect on what you achieved during the year. It is also often a time to plan for what you want to achieve next year. Many of us spend a significant amount of time thinking about how to achieve things.
From a work-life balance perspective, many of us also are trying to figure out how to balance the achievements we want in business with the achievements we want in our personal lives. I haven't found that Holy Grail yet but am still searching.
I was recently talking with a business colleague of mine about this very thing, and he guided me to some of the fascinating work of Harvard Business Professor, Clayton Christensen, who among other things is a world renowned expert on business disruption and disruptive innovation.
You may wonder what any of that expertise has to do with the question of personal achievement and work-life balance, but Christensen actually asks a very important question about the role the quest for achievement plays in how we decide where to spend our time related to our careers and our personal lives.
His question is simple but seemingly impossible to answer:
"How will you measure your life?"
Then he applies years of business research on why otherwise very successful companies ultimately fail to help us think about this very personal question very differently and with unexpected insight.
Applying Business Disruption Theory To Our Lives Might Just Help Us Make Decisions That Will Make Us Happier
First, it is important to define business disruption theory. It is fairly complicated, but at a very high level and in his own words from a Tedx talk:
"What kills successful companies is that someone comes in at the bottom of the market. The successful company is ultimately killed because they are trying to maximize their profitability. Typically, investments that pay off tomorrow and go to the bottom line are much more tangible than investments that pay off years down the road."
What does this have to do with our personal lives and the pursuit of happiness?
In his talk and his book, Christensen discusses how we as individuals use the same approach successful but failing companies use when making decisions about where to focus our time at work and at home citing the fact that we generally get more tangible short term pay off from achievements at work than at home. This then causes us to invest more focus there even though most of us talk about how our families are the most important things in our lives.
It is an interesting paradox and fascinating thing to think about when you break it down. At work and in my particular job, I get a lot of immediate feedback when things go well with a client. That in turn makes me feel like my hard work and achievements there have paid off right away.
I get positive reinforcement. I actually get paid for my work. Often, I get more work because they liked what I did. That's what my business is all about. I feel good about the fact that I focused on those achievements that got me tangible benefits right here and now.
But Christensen talks about the fact that it doesn't often work this way at home and uses our children as an example. Any of us who are raising children at any age know that there is very little immediate gratification or satisfaction that confirms that you have done a good job raising them.
In fact, it is often quite the opposite. They are defiant. They don't listen. They screw up even with our experience-based advice that they toss to the curb (particularly relevant for any parent still trudging through the particularly difficult teenage years).
The payoff doesn't come for years even decades.
What is the big point?
Quite simply, as Christensen describes, it is very easy to focus on the work achievements that give us short term tangible results at the expense of the long-term investments in family even if that was never our intention.
This is the mistake that kills otherwise successful companies, and it is the same mistake that causes many of us who are very achievement oriented to go down a path in life that is very different than what we said we really wanted - making great achievements at work but with collateral damage on our personal relationships with our friends and families.
It is a pretty heavy thing to consider. It is also an inspiring new lens through which we can look at our lives, though. It forces us to think about why we choose to spend time in the areas we do related to our careers and our personal lives. Maybe more importantly, it challenges us to think about if we want to change any of that.
That forced thinking was an unexpected gift for me this holiday season. In the holiday spirit, I thought I would pass it along.