My Life is Measured by...


The following is Cynthia Tong’s review of “How will you measure your life?” by by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon, where she unearths and reflects the essence of her own life- in prioritising her values, career and those that matter to her most. How does Cynthia align her goals- not just for herself but also for others?

Abusiness professor survives cancer, and writes a book with his two co-authors on how to think about leading a fulfilled life using insights gleaned from (surprise!) an MBA class he taught.

What the book is about (in a nutshell):

In gist, the book asks the question -

“How can I be sure that:

- I will be successful and happy in my career

- My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?

- I live a life of integrity — and stay out of jail? ”

At business school, we invest so much time and money educating ourselves about how to best run businesses, why do we not even invest a fraction of that in how we run our lives successfully? At Harvard Business School, Christensen taught a special class teaching his students how to translate his business principles into a manual on how we as individuals make our life decisions.

3 lessons

1. Both Business and Life is about balancing what I want versus what I need

I found this book easy to read because while it leveraged theories learnt from the world of business, the lessons closely parallel the rules for life design — both of which are domains which interest me greatly.

In the life design course: MAD At Work, that I run for participants ranging from secondary school students considering their next step, to university students about to graduate, young interns experiencing work for the first time, or those contemplating career switches, a common life design question we keep hearing is the tension between making the money we need vs the freedom to doing what we love.

Growing up in a financially troubled family — I yearned for the freedom to be who I am, at the same time, I felt the pressure to be a responsible adult who can pay for things that I need. In the course of my life, as I became an accountant and later a general manager in the F&B and now coaching, I have found that businesses too, need to be able to hold these two tensions — lose focus on making the money needed for sustenance and the businesses get choked off; fail to deliver on the difference it wants to make and it becomes irrelevant or loses its moral compass. Seeing the parallel in cases of businesses that have thrived, helped me to see what it could look like if I successfully balanced the two tensions of what I want versus what I need. It is possible to make the money I need AND be free to pursue my passion for coaching.

2. Career occurs in the context of EVERYTHING ELSE

The authors adopt a balanced approach to thinking about life — paying attention to other domains like family, friends, emotional wellness while achieving success on the career front.

This reminded me of the life domain check-in that we do with participants at the start of the MAD at Work programme. Participants rate (in terms of their satisfaction) up to ten domains of their lives, and then rank them in order of priority. I have observed that family and relationships often show up as top in importance but low in terms of satisfaction. The “important” gives way to more tangible domains like career and finances.

Interestingly, in the sessions I have run with pre-working youths, they tend to rank their satisfaction for family and relationships higher. If so, then the book is spot on in their advice, that the optimal time for young people to think independently about the lives that they want would be BEFORE they graduate into the workforce.

3. Integrity is a daily practice

One of the more notable quotes from the book — “100 percent of the time is easier than 98 percent of the time” — is a distinction that speaks to me. I was inspired by how Christensen, a deeply religious man, stuck with not working on Sundays for God and not working on Saturdays for his wife. He is also known to leave work at 6pm on weekdays.

I looked up the word integrity. It comes from the word “integer” — yes a whole number. It has the meaning of wholeness, completeness. Where is that 2% in my life that is not in sync with the person that I want to grow to be? What daily decisions and actions would it take for me to live a life that can stand up to the test of completeness on my final day? What would my version of living whole-heartedly look like?

Two questions

1. How committed am I to a purpose-driven life?

Every company needs to be able to articulate its purpose. Correspondingly, we need to be clear in our own life purpose. The authors suggest that a useful statement of purpose requires three parts, namely “likeness”, “commitment” and “metrics”.

“Likeness” asks: Who is the person I truly want to become?

“Commitment” is a question of: how am I committing my life to actually become the kind of wife, mother, daughter and citizen I desire to be? I felt that I can do a lot better in terms of being present with my commitments rather than go through life with little or no awareness of where emergent priorities might be taking me. Have I been intentional in applying my purpose to decisions on how I make use of my talents, strengths and resources? To borrow the author’s analogy, the pencil sketching of the “likeness” on my canvass is easy, but the devotion to flesh it out in careful oil brushstrokes is challenging.

“Metrics” is about measuring progress to make sure we are on track, or as the title suggests: “How will I measure my life?” As an accountant, I love productivity metrics. I practically skipped past everything to get to the part on the metrics of life design —but I found no formula there, only an appreciation for the difficulty in determining the right metrics for everyone. While the question is still an open one for me, I concluded (for now) that I just care that — at the end of my life, I want to be someone who has used my talents and strengths responsibly to be of service to those who have been put in my way.

In light of the above, this passage was particularly sobering for me:

“With every moment of your time, every decision about how you spend your energy and money, you are making a statement about what really matters to you…. Watch where your resources flow… because if the decisions you make about where you invest your blood sweat and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person”.

How are my everyday decisions and moments a reflection of the person I am becoming, or not? This is a question that stayed with me long after I closed the book.

2. What is the real price I am going to have to pay for this decision?

I resonated most with the chapter on the trap of marginal-cost thinking. Economics and business courses advocate looking at marginal benefits and costs in making decisions. But the truth is: “we end up paying for the full cost of our decisions, not the marginal costs, whether we like it or not”. Many a time, I find myself agreeing to assignments or requests for help , making time for others at the expense of time with my husband and children. Packing my schedule to the maximum everyday, my “just this once”concessions to plug a gap, my decision to prioritise activity over rest — to what end do they serve?

It is called a trap as we only see that marginal cost is low and yet we perceive that the marginal benefit is high; in doing so, we forget that we will need to pay the full price at some point later anyway. People who have a high need for achievement (something I resonate with!) — whenever we have extra time, we choose activities that give us most tangible results, seeking affirmation that we are achieving something. In contrast, building intimate relationships with our spouse and children presents no immediate evidence of achievement. In the case of parenting, it is only after 20 years then we can see the fruit of our labour!

As I face the innumerable decisions on where I spend my time, I remind myself to confront this question: What is the real price I am going to have to pay for this decision?

One practice I would adopt as a result of reading this book:

I tried thinking about my integrity as the sum of my small, everyday decisions (that seem inconsequential) — pausing to ask if I continued doing what I am doing now, what would the outcome in my life be? And what do I need to begin doing now to take me in the direction that I want?

What emerged is me taking my health for granted, postponing my rest, exercise and healthy diet for urgent tasks that scream “priority!!!” at me. Something that I have known for some time now, but have always ignored.

As 2018 closes and we approach 2019, what if I invested more time in my health? If my daily attention and decisions matter, which area do I want to start practising discipline in?

For now, I will focus on the first 10 minutes when I awake and the last 10 minutes before I sleep. Of contemplation of my day and gratitude for the next ahead. I hope that this will grow into a lifelong discipline in wellness for me and my loved ones.

By Cynthia Tong

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