A conversation with Clay Christensen

In what will go down as among the most thoughtful gifts I will ever receive, a close friend got me 20 minutes on Clay Christensen’s calendar. We are the average of those we spend time with. And, aside from close friends and family, Clay Christensen is one of those folks I’ve spent a lot of time with – thanks to his generosity in sharing his wisdom via his book. Just recently, I had written about how their personal cultures had gone such a long way in helping me define my own. In that post, I’d mentioned that Clay didn’t know I exist.


I have reached out to most of my favorite authors and interviewed them in the past few years. But, somehow, I stayed away from reaching out to Clay. Maybe it was because I knew he had a stroke and didn’t want to impose. Maybe it was because I felt I might be a bit disappointed if I never heard back. Either way, I didn’t do it. So, it was a real surprise when this friend forwarded his response to a note she’d left on his website about how I’d been inspired by his work to create “The Good Life sessions” at school. This was a true honor – it is always special meeting someone who has influenced you much more than they realize.

Our conversation revolved around purpose and the themes of “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

On his process of figuring out what mattered to him. Clay is a devout follower of the Mormon faith and his curiosity revolved around whether what he’d read about his faith was true. His experiences led him to experience what he considered a central teaching – if you do your duty, you will have opportunities to amplify your good work. And, that believe has been a constant through his life.

However, he didn’t want his book to be shut off as a religious book. So, he left this portion out (I always wondered why – it took me a long while to figure out how to build a process). In the process of attempting to convey some of his ideas, he had to dig deep to uncover principles that would apply to people of all faiths and belief systems.

On whether “don’t let life happen to you – instead, be intentional and thoughtful as you make your choices” is what he intended readers to take away. Absolutely. The principle here is to understand the resource allocation process. In his class, he teaches a case about resource allocation at Intel. Even though they were attempting to make a shift in the business to a lower profit per unit chip, they were still allocating resources based on “Gross margin per wafer.” This antiquated metric made it hard to make the shift they wanted. So, if managers want to drive change in organizations, you have to be fully aware of the resource allocation process.

Applying that to our personal life, this means understanding how we allocate resources. There are many forces that put pressure on our limited time and energy. For example, most of us habitually prioritize careers over families – even if careers are not that important to us. We can’t let life happen to us.

On parenting and the idea of quality time vs. quantity time. Clay talks a lot about parenting in his book. His reaction to this question was that quality vs. quantity time is the wrong categorization. Instead, first, we must ask ourselves if we are allocating time and energy to our children consistent with how we will measure our lives. And, as parents, our guiding question should be – “Are we working together toward building something or am I simply doing all the work for my children?” A natural following question is – “At the end of our time together, do my children have more confidence to tackle the hard things?”

Looking back, he shared that one of his children’s favorite memories was building kayaks. They didn’t seem to remember what they did with these kayaks. But, building them and tackling the associated challenges was a hugely memorable experience.

I found the idea that Clay had to dig deep to find principles that worked everywhere so as to make sure his wisdom reached people of all faiths and beliefs fascinating. It is, in my opinion, what made that book incredibly compelling – if you are ready for it. His pursuit of principles has inspired my own principle to find integrative principles that cut across all parts of our life. My leadership one pager was a result of a such a pursuit.

Thank you, Clay, for taking the time. And, thank you, for all your generosity. It all means more than I can express.