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.

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