In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Professor Clayton M. Christensen (The Innovator’s Dilemma) published a powerful article entitled, How Will You Measure Your Life? In it, Professor Christensen lays out how the strategies he teaches to Harvard Business student for enhancing and refining management skills can be applied to their own personal lives. Professor Christensen states that he poses the following questions to all of the graduates from his course:

On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.

Three fairly straightforward questions that are probably not asked often enough. Knowing the answers to these questions can be the difference between a life of soul-crushing drudgery or finding purpose and fulfillment in one’s career and family. Professor Christensen lays out strategies for each and I don’t have too much to contribute as he does an excellent job in communicating what he thinks are effective strategies for each of these questions. However, I wanted to highlight two bits that I thought were particularly poignant. First:

One of the theories that gives great insight on the first question—how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

While Professor Christensen is writing in regards to business, his word are equally true for lawyers. It can be easy for a lawyer to become caught in their work and the lucrative compensation that comes along with it. Which can in turn, lead the lawyer to increasingly define his or her success – not by learning, growth, and achievement – but money and perceived power. Just as a business executive’s career should not be defined by investments and dividends, neither should a lawyer’s be defined by judgements and settlements. Contributing to the growth of yourself and those around you – your colleagues, your clients, your family – is ultimately more fulfilling.
When people who have a high need for achievement—and that includes all Harvard Business School graduates—have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse, and on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem as if things are deteriorating. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.
Lawyers often have this problem to fault, especially at the beginning of their careers. Competition for prestigious, well-paying jobs is fierce in the legal field and the competition has only become more vicious during this recession. As a result, new lawyers will devote almost every single bit of their free time to their job, with little thought to family and friends. For some they might see total devotion to their career as necessary to provide for their family (and pay back those six figure student loans) or, as Professor Christensen noted, because they perceive that they have so little in the way of free resources (time), that they prefer to spend that resource on what provides immediate impact, as opposed to cultivating that which provides a more long-term benefit in regards to growth and hapiness.
If you don’t know your answers to the three questions Professor Christensen poses above, please take the time to read the article and take a moment to give the questions some amount of consideration. Taking time to do so now might seems inconvenient or unnecessary, but the return on this small investment could have profound impact on your career.
Best wishes in finding your answers to these questions.
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