Reflections are only that, reflections, nothing more nothing less. Often these reflections are related to books I read, but occasionally also other things. These are often written very late, very fast,  using notes from my mobile phone, so the grammar and spelling is horrible.

"How Will You Measure Your Life", by Clayton M. Christensen, Karen Dillon and James Allworth

The alternative title should be ""How we lost an opportunity to help reduce 35 million tonnes of GHG and help move 3.5 million out of poverty” and it would refer to a rough calculation, see below, where I make some assumptions about the lost potential of this book.

I'm not sure how to describe this book. It is so simplistic and feels so outdates in so many ways. Most surprising is that it feels so out of touch with how leading people within the business community discuss the purpose of business.  If it was a book written by a 90 year old CEO from a fossil fuel company - who though Milton Friedman was right in every way - it would make sense. But this book is written by three intelligent people who explore one of the most interesting subjects when it comes to the future of companies, and society in general. All three seem to be interesting in ethical issues so the result is nothing but strange.

How you will measure your life?, focus on what I call the question of legacy. A book that focuses on how a person can measure his or hers whole life is a very welcome addition to the flood of books that focus on how you can be better at your job. When you look beyond immediate gratifications and the narrow need for profit in a company what have you actually contributed to?

So I was all existed about the book, but soon after I begin to read it Christensen list three questions that the book focus on and present them as: “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?"

I find it hard to believe that any person, especially a young person, would consider such low ambitions inspiring in any way. I thought they where joking when I first saw the list. Who, beside a total psychopath, would use “stay out of jail” as one of the main measurements when they think about their future? For a few pages I was sure that the authors would say that such targets would indicate that you are in a very bad place already as you basically can not set the bar any lower.

But it’s not a joke, they actually discuss the CEO of Enron and someone who was sent to jail for insider trading as examples of people who took “a wrong turn”. I guess a lot of people working in companies that destroys the climate, undermine biodiversity, make people obese, create images for young people that makes them hate their own bodies, etc. feel much better if they can refer to Christensen and company when they call themselves successful.

The fact that Bruce Upbin at Forbes wrote "One of the more surprisingly powerful books of personal philosophy of the 21st Century" back in 2012 when this book was released (and one of the reason I read the book) makes me really afraid of where the bar must be in parts of business world. Perhaps Urbin was referring to the fact that he was interested in the idea of applying business theory to ones personal life. While the idea is interesting (and highly problematic from my point of view) I find it difficult to understand how that would make it one of the more powerful books on personal philosophy of the 21st century.

In a way the book becomes even more simplistic than the simplistic self-help books they, rightfully, dismiss as simple check lists. Most of the self-help books do not claim to address the big issue about life. Those book tend to focus on how to be happy/successful in the easiest way, e.g. how to make a million, how to move up the food chain, and similar goals.

Not once do the authors discuss what people actually contribute to in society through their profession. E.g. do they help poor people out of poverty and ensure that people get nutritious food by providing markets for inexpensive organic and fair-trade vegetarian food, or do they push fast food that contribute to destruction of rainforest, make people obese, make poor people loos their land and push down salaries in fast food chains? There are no discussions about that.

The book feels in large parts like a guide for insecure persons who want to follow the mainstream (unsustainable) path in society and be happy while continuing to be a part of the problem. That might be what many people end up doing, but my experience from what people increasingly are looking for is a legacy that is more than a "happy and successful career, nice marriage and not go to jail". My experience is also that these questions are not the questions most people struggle with, they are the minimum people expected.

The fact that many companies now focus on how they can contribute to needs in society, and even set targets to become “net-positive” must be something that the authors are aware of. Christensen himself has even suffered heart attack, advanced-stage cancer and a stroke. The least I would expect would be a discussion about how you can work to make sure that your company help reduce these problems. There are obviously more and bigger issues (such as the global sustainability challenges), but if Christensen fail to make the connection between companies and the things he himself has suffered from it is easy to see that he will fail to make a connection between companies and the potential to be part of the solutions to the greatest challenges of our time.

The strange thing is that Christensen is not only aware of people who want to use their professional carrier to address global challenges, he has met them. I think he only mentions it once, but page 35 we find the following:

''many of my classmates had initially come to school for very different reasons. They’d written their entrance essays on their hopes for using their education to tackle some of the world’s most vexing social problems or their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs and creating their own businesses.''

So he is aware that some students (and according to studies and increasing number) are interesting in sustainability. ”Sixty per cent of domestic students revealed a desire to learn more about sustainable development, a figure which rises to 75% amongst international students.” Does Christensen not think that these people would measure their life based on what they have done for sustainability? And even if people would not think that it is important to contribute to sustainability, would not a book with a title about “measuring your life” be a good place to at least highlight such ideas?

Christensen is also aware that there are people that spend their lives trying to contribute to society, but he do not seem to understand that this is something people might want to do in business also. He has taken one step, as he realise that some people do not work for money, but think that people are only caring about themselves.

“some of the hardest-working people on the planet are employed in nonprofits and charitable organizations. Some work in the most difficult conditions imaginable – disaster recovery zones, countries gripped by famine and flood. They earn a fraction of what they would if they where in the private sector…. You might dismiss these workers as idealists. But the military attracts remarkable people, too.”

The book almost seem to have as the objective that people should think more about themselves, but not about society or those less fortunate. This is a telling quote from the book (bold added): “Is this work meaningful to me? Is this job going to giveme a chance to develop?  Am I going to learn new things? Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? Am I going to be given responsibility? These are the things that will truly motivate you. Once you get this right, the more measurable aspects of your job will fade in importance.”. Maybe the book is actually written by G-Eazy x Bebe Rexha who sing "Me, myself and I"…   [There was a song with that name back (or if it was just in the refrain) in the 80s that I tried to find, but could not find it when I was searching for it. But this new song has a similar message...]. Sorry for a link to trivial pop, but I just had to.]

A quick search through the book (one of the benefits of ebooks) indicate a total lack of interest to include any discussion about the greatest challenges of our time. Climate change and poverty are both mentioned exactly zero times. Cancer is mentioned seven times, but six of those refer to Christensen’s own experience and the last is used as an analogy. There are really no references to the challenges of our time. It is as if we are living in a perfect world, and the only challenge that exists is to feel challenged at work and have a happy life at home.

Christensen even manages to have a conversation about selling milkshakes as a service instead of product over four pages without reflecting about any social aspects. And he lives in a country that is one of the leaders in obesity. Christensen is not just ignoring the heath issue, he is actively dismissing it when he (accidentally?) stumble across it. “You might add chunks of fruit – but not to make it healthy, because this is not the reason it’s being hired [This is Christensen’s word for “used/consumed”]. It’s being hired by morning customers to keep their commute interesting. The unexpected pieces of fruit would do just that.” What right does he have to say that people do not want to be healthy and spread such a message in todays society?

It feels sad to read a book and realise that even when concrete examples are provided that have extremely clear links to important issues Christensen push it away. As I read the milkshake story I kept thinking that I paid for this book and thereby gave money to people who ensured that anyone working in the fast food business and who do not want to think about the challenges they have (sugar, fat, low wages, stressful lives, etc.) will love this book. But even worse was that I realised that I know a lot of people who want to do good in the (fast) food business and they can’t get anything meaningful from this book at all.

Taking a step back I realise that I can’t think of anyone that can use this book. I’ve realised that I read the whole book desperately trying to find anything that I can link to/use. I’m sure that there must be something, but I can’t get myself to reread it as it is these kind of books that makes me question if we have any chance of creating a sustainable society? [I was reading e. o. Wilson’s book Half-Earth so I got energy from intelligence and empathy from that book that gave me hope].

What makes me feel so sad about books like this is that they continue to spread a message that you have no responsibility to ensure that the company you work for, or started, has a positive impact on society.

Measuring the impact of a book One concrete outcome of reading the book was that I started to think about the responsibility of best selling/high profile authors that write books that can influence the way society evolves.

A more comprehensive approach is needed, and assessments of what areas that are the most important are necessary moving forward. For now however the idea is to start simple only by looking at lost opportunities for climate change and global poverty (two issues that tend to be on the top-list of many companies when it important issues). A draft formula for societal contribution could then look something like this for “How Will You Measure Your Life”:

Number of books read * % of people looking for guidance for/open to how to engage with poverty issues and climate issues * how many % of these people that take the ideas serious for how they should measure their lives * (for how long these people take it serious* Annual opportunities missed in the companies where these people work/will work/affect) * lifetime of the realised opportunities *the emissions that where not reduced and the people not lifted out of poverty due to these missed opportunities

To this we should also add: Number of teachers/other people presenting the core ideas in the book * % of people looking for guidance for/open to how to engage with poverty issues and climate issues * how many % of these people that take the ideas serious for how they should measure their lives * (for how long these people take it serious* Annual opportunities missed in the companies where these people work/will work/affect) * lifetime of the realised opportunities *the emissions that where not reduced and the people not lifted out of poverty due to these missed opportunities

and also this Number of positive articles about the core ideas in the book * * % of people looking for guidance for/open to how to engage with poverty issues and climate issues * how many % of these people that take the ideas serious for how they should measure their lives * (for how long these people take it serious* Annual opportunities missed in the companies where these people work/will work/affect) * lifetime of the realised opportunities *the emissions that where not reduced and the people not lifted out of poverty due to these missed opportunities

With the draft key factors identified we can put some initial numbers on this for the first category.

Those who read the book 1. Number of books read (not sold): 150 000 I assume 100 000 books sold, of those 50 000 actually read it and then the rest are people borrowing, downloading for free etc.

2. % of people looking for/open to guidance for how to engage with poverty issues and climate issues: 30% There are obvious degrees to this, but say that about 30% are interested in such guidance given that a credible source, like Christensen, provides it.

3. how many % of these people that take the ideas serious for how they should measure their lives: 80% I assume a high number for those that actually read the book and are interested.

4. for how long these people take it serious: average 10 years This is a really important number and I would put this number much higher than for most books as the focus is on the long-term.

5. Annual opportunities missed in the companies where these people work/will work/can affect: 2 I assume two per year as an average number, but this is something that would be very interesting to study. The number must also include those that are students and unemployed, etc that do not have an opportunity to change a company. It must also include regulators and board members that can influence a number of companies.

6. How long the average initiative will last: 5 years This is also very difficult to estimate but I will assume 5 years based on my experience with companies work to help contribute to sustainability.

7. the annual emissions that where not reduced and the people not lifted out of poverty each year due to each missed opportunity: 10 tonnes GHG and 1 people out of poverty This is a difficult number to estimate as it depends on: A. what position the readers have, I assume a reasonable high position due to Christenson’s fame in the business community. B. The role of the reader, I assume unusually important due to Christenson’s fame in the area of disruptive innovation. C: The potential of the company, this is very tough and it is probably a power distribution (many very small contributions and a few extremely high contributions). If a book like this swing one major company it does not only deliver enormous results, it also has multiplication effects. Just imagine if the CEO of Apple, Wal-Mart, or Exxon, would read this book at make them change focus.

So: 150 000 *0.3 * 0.8 * 20 * 5 * impact

Lost opportunity for climate change: 35 million tonnes of GHG About 3.5 million * 10 tonnes = 35 million tonnes of GHG (spread over different five year periods). This is a little hard to compare with other sources of emissions, but as a reference Sweden’s total annual emissions are about 50 million tonnes.

Lost opportunity for poverty: 3.5 million people not lifted out of poverty. 3.5 million * 1 person not lifted out of poverty = 3.5 million people not lifted out of poverty.

These numbers are obviously extremely rough estimations and they could be off by magnitudes, but I found the process interesting and I think it is important to begin estimation more indirect contributions (like books) as well as lost opportunities for sustainability.  Please remember that I have not included the impact due to the books use in education/presentations or through articles.

There might also be mitigating factors, such as people being inspired by the apparent lack of the “old” experts to address the most important challenges. But I have not found a reasonable way to estimate this and I think it might be neglectable.

Future estimations could also estimate the more direct negative impact. For this we could for example assume that the people using the ideas would be part of the problem in a company. The assumption would be that when ideas come up that would contribute to increased emissions/increased poverty the people using the ideas in this book would only look at the old way of being successful and support such initiatives. Assuming that all other estimations stay the same, but they support one bad idea per year they would have contributed to 25 million tonnes of increased emissions. We could also try to calculate the impact of these people blocking one good idea per year.