Clayton Christensen’s Purpose-Driven Life

Professor Clayton Christensen, in a recent commencement speech, lays out his life strategy. Excerpt:

For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.

David Brooks calls Christensen's approach the "Well-Planned Life." Religious people tend to call it the "purpose-driven life." Brooks then contrasts it to what he calls the "Summoned Life":

The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?” The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

I don't think Brooks' description quite nails it, and calling it "summoned" is confusing as it actually implies the opposite of what it means. All in all, though, I am more sympathetic to this second approach. I'm skeptical of the notion that each of us as some singular purpose we need to fulfill.

One friend emailed me about the lack of experimentalism in Christensen's purpose-driven philosophy. Using Brooks' language he added a third experimental option to illustrate his point:

Should I climb a mountain?

  • Experiential: Sure, as long as it's not too risky.
  • Summoned: Is this who I really am? Does this fit my goals or where I'm going?
  • Planned: It's not on the list, sorry.

How was the climb?

  • Experiential: Great! or "I hated it."
  • Summoned: It suited my context
  • Planned: Climb? I was busy talking to Jesus about my destiny.
5 comments on “Clayton Christensen’s Purpose-Driven Life
  • I like a ‘project driven’ life, adapted

    This is the Bill & Melinda gates approach to life purpose.
    -open a spreadsheet;)
    -list problems
    -rank by severity
    -rerank by ability for you to get done.

    I also really like Bill Gates commencement address to find a problem that is big, hairy, nasty (something you can chew on for the rest of your life).

    If you are a Clayton ‘Christian’ however, it follows that project/life strategy should dovetail into an ‘eternal strategy’

  • The Summoned life seems to be too reactive. The circumstances that surround you model your behaviour, not the other way around.
    Some may say: “Well, some times there are no options. You have to do what you have to do.” Yes, but it takes a lot of the responsibility from the subject and puts it in the environment. “This is what my environment made me do, I didn’t want to, but it suited best with it.”
    I wouldn’t have a purpose-driven life either, if that means no reconsiderations about the path that was taken, or if it means that your destiny has been decided by someone or something else rather than yourself.
    There’s a unity between us and the environment. We influence it, and it influences us. There’s no need to take one or the other, the middle way seems more appropiate to me. Receive the estimulus from it, but decide for yourself where you want to go, and act accordingly.

  • I’m not sure it’s that black and white. I think what Christensen is talking about is the importance of taking regular time to reflect on one’s values and what you want to accomplish in your life. Having a strong sense of self-identity gives you a framework with which to evaluate opportunities and decisions that inevitably cross your path in life.

    At the end of the day, time is your most valuable commodity. Ruining your family life because you are over-investing in your career is a product of not having enough time to do both. You have to choose wisely how you spend your time.

    So it’s not a matter of declining opportunities because they’re not on your “life list”, but rather having a clear set of values against which to weigh them to help you decide whether or not you want to do them and how you want to spend your time.

  • This article (Brooks’) didn’t hold my interest. Both questions “Why did God put me on this Earth?” and “What are my circumstances asking me to do?” contain assumptions that make them circular and ultimately unanswerable.
    I don’t always succeed, but I try and live a “hypothesis driven life”, where I try very hard to be aware of what assumptions I live with and to change my mind when the way the world really is interferes with the way I want it to be. I guess that’s fairly similar to the “experimental” option you mentioned.

  • I think Christenson’s model needs to be combined with Brook’s time horizon.

    The intention of the planning is important; its not “the mountain isn’t on the list” but “the mountain isn’t on the list, right now, and I’m busy climbing other mountains.” At the same time, Brooks accepts the limit to our knowledge about our future and adjusts accordingly.

    Christensen understands those with a well defined path (MBA students with spouses and children) while Brooks empathizes with the fresh college grad with their life before them.

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