First, there was a heart attack. Then cancer. Then the stroke. In many ways it is a miracle that we had him as long as we did given these life-altering infirmities.
When Clay Christensen initially started facing these health challenges, he wrote me and said what a blessing it was because, “Now I can talk to my students about what really matters and no one can get mad at me for speaking about God and spiritual purpose because I’m dying.” Those last lectures became so treasured by Clay’s Harvard Business School students that he was soon asked to be the school’s graduation speaker.
The ideas from that talk were eventually captured in the book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The core premise of the book was that the criteria we value most shape our everyday decisions and it is those criteria that ultimately shape who we really become — it is those criteria that reflect our real strategy in life, no matter what we might formally declare to others. In other words, when we measure our life, it will be those seemingly small, but very real criteria that shape how we spend our time and attention and, in the end, shape who we become over a lifetime of thousands of seemingly small choices.
Clayton M. Christensen passed away Thursday having lived a life that, no matter how it is measured, so clearly reflected the criteria that shaped him into not just an intellectual giant, but a man of Christlike love that has influenced people for good all around the world.
Last year, Clay Christensen was inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame, honoring the most influential strategic thinkers in the world, having been named the most influential innovation scholar in the world on multiple occasions in years prior. Interestingly, the insight that Clay identified in “How Will You Measure Your Life?” shared the same causal mechanism that brought him such acclaim for his academic work on innovation.
Memorialized as the “Innovator’s Dilemma,” Clay found that the reason great companies failed in the face of what he called disruptive innovations was that the everyday decision rules in these organizations were unable to prioritize the new technologies that often looked inferior when measured against the norms and decision criteria of legacy organizations. Not only did Clay’s insights help explain the failure of leading firms, they helped guide the search for new innovations that lead to the birth of whole new industries.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Clay’s ideas inspired the entrepreneurial spark of hundreds, if not thousands, of leading start-ups, from technology, to data science, to digital media. Entrepreneurs from the founders of Netflix to Amazon credit Clay with inspiring their company origins. Social innovators see Clay’s ideas as the catalyst to bringing education, health care, and nutrition to markets that could never have been possible without Clay’s “disruptive” thinking. In my own work, Clay played a pivotal role in shaping my thinking in digital media as we worked to transition the Deseret News you are reading today from its paper origins to its online future. He also influenced many of the ideas for online learning that influenced our early work in the creation of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, an online organization that has unlocked learning for thousands of students across the world.
As noted in the introduction, Clay’s writings spanned far beyond traditional academic literature. He seemed to have an ability to bridge the secular and spiritual domain in a way that was unrivaled. His article “How Will You Measure Your Life?” in the Harvard Business Review that eventually led to the book by the same title is still one of the most downloaded articles in the history of the publication. The editors included this statement in their introduction to the piece: “Though Christensen’s thinking comes from his deep religious faith, we believe that these are strategies anyone can use.”
Nonbelievers loved to reflect on spiritual matters with Clay. I remember him telling me that many of the religious “nones” who claim no affiliation with religion were not actually rejecting God but rather a misperception of God and real religion. In his personal efforts to be a missionary for his own faith, Clay chose not to preach complex doctrine, but rather invited his friends to engage in the work of serving and lifting others, and therein show them the power of true religion.
Clay’s spiritual work was not confined to intellectual analysis or formal writings. Clay lived his religion in a very authentic way. He was the first to help a family move into his neighborhood, the first to show up for a visit to the hospital. Clay followed spiritual promptings to place a call or send a note. He shared both his financial and attention-based resources with those in need. I remember a time when I didn’t know if I had the capacity to finish my doctoral program and I received a call from Clay and his wife, Christine, together encouraging me to keep going.
Of course, Clay also felt that honoring God requires all of us to magnify the gifts and talents we are given. I know that Clay very much saw his academic and intellectual work as inseparably connected to his spiritual calling. Even as Clay’s health continued to deteriorate, he would take demanding speaking assignments, many of them in international settings, because he believed his ideas could unlock innovation that would help change the world.
How can we measure the life of Clay Christensen? Certainly the impact of his intellectual and academic portfolio will be felt for generations to come. But for me and so many who knew him, the impact of Clay’s life comes from the goodness and desire he has always had to serve God and lift others. The world has lost a great light in Clay Christensen’s passing, but his ideas and example will continue to bless so many in powerful and lasting ways.
Clark Gilbert currently serves as the president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide and is a former doctoral student and faculty colleague of Clay Christensen’s at the Harvard Business School.