Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York

3: The importance of pursuing purpose

Newsletter 🗞 Feb 9, 2020

I lost two heroes last month and one was Harvard professor Clayden M. Christensen. I'm sharing some thoughts today from an article he wrote on living a life of purpose.


Not long ago I came across an excellent article by Harvard professor Clayden M. Christensen in the Harvard Business Review, discussing how we should measure our lives and sharing a set of guidelines for finding meaning. Mr Christensen sadly passed away this year on Jan 23 2020, just a few short days before the world also lost another great titan in Kobe Bryant. That week, for me, was a powerful reminder to put time in context and make sure every step I take is in pursuit of a greater purpose. I learned from Clayden that you can do this by:

  1. Creating a strategy for your life - The choice and successful pursuit of a profession is but one tool for achieving your purpose. But without a purpose, life can become hollow. Personal development doesn’t come from academic and professional success alone. An hour spent evaluating our goals and purpose can be just as fruitful as an extra hour studying or working.
  2. Allocating your resources - Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy. What you choose not to do can be just as important as the things you intentionally pursue. Substitute thinking “I can’t…” or “I don’t have time to…” for “I have decided to… ” or “I have chosen to prioritise…”. You are the Captain of your ship. Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. Sometimes that’s good: Opportunities that you never planned for emerge. But if you misinvest your resources, the outcome can be bad.
  3. Creating a culture - Knowing what tools to wield to elicit the needed cooperation is a critical managerial skill. There are two axis in cooperative decision making - agreement on desired outcome, and agreement on which actions will best produce that outcome. Ultimately, people don’t even think about whether their way of doing things yields success. They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision—which means that they’ve created a culture. Create and nurture positive cultures in your relationships by thinking intentionally about the process in which decisions are made and acted on.
  4. Avoiding the ‘marginal costs’ mistake - Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong… The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails. Define what you stand for and draw the line in a safe space. Considering the far-future consequences, it’s easier to hold on to your principles 100% of the time than 98% of the time. This ties into a great article I read on Second Order thinking.
  5. Remember the importance of humility - I asked all the students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic of these humble people stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about who they were. We also decided that humility was defined not by self-deprecating behaviour or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behaviour flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone, either.

Choose the right yardstick - I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

Here’s an over-arching highlight that stood out for me:

“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.

Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.”
An old man with grocery bag standing and resting on stairs in New York: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York

I recently had a great conversation with photojournalist Keleenna Onyeaka about the importance of finding an outlet for your art, and I lamented about never having the energy to maintain an Instagram page or website dedicated to my photography. I’ve now resolved to share things I’ve captured here on occasion. It’s also motivation to keep my camera handy!


Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads:

  1. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayden M Christensen - wishlisted.
  2. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - impulsively bought. I preordered this months before release, and guilt swept over me as I returned to preorder the second book in the series knowing full well I hadn’t opened the first. I’ve since repented.
  3. La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One by Phillip Pullman - wishlisted.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • Long Shot featuring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen seemed like it was going to be a run-of-the-mill romcom but it was thoroughly enjoyable. Predictable, but not overly reliant on stale archetypes. 75% of your capacity to enjoy this movie may turn on how much you like Seth Rogen, but I think I’ve finally succumbed to the cult of Rogenism!

Apps:

  • Letterboxd is one of those things all my favourite film people have been screaming about but, ever the contrarian, I had avoided investigating further. As usual, I’ve now realised there is wisdom in crowds. Letterboxd is basically Goodreads for films. A great app for keeping track of what you watch and also leaving reviews! Follow me here.

Misc:

  • Tunde, a newsletter reader, has contributed a suggestion that sounded so fantastical I almost didn’t believe it. Airtime Rewards is an app that lets you get money off your phone bill just by shopping at retailers you were going to shop at anyway. Suddenly the burden of being an early adopter of the iPhone 11 has been lifted. To sweeten the deal, you can get even more off with this code: 4YGTUJPT.

Be like Tunde - send me amazing things that save me money for no reason.

Resources

  • Takecare.io is a crowdsourced list of sustainable alternatives to popular consumer products. It’s awesome and I hope more people contribute to the project!
  • I had to do a digital double-take because the more I learn about Readwise the better it gets. I’ve mentioned before that it collates and resurfaces highlights from your Kindle, Pocket, and other surfaces, and then also uses AI to suggest quotes and highlights based on things you’ve read. HowEVER, there’s also a chrome extension web-clipper which lets you save quotes from anywhere. I use this every day. Several times a day. You can try it free for 90 days if you use this link!

Let me know if you have any suggestions for next week. Feedback is welcome too! Email me or drop me a tweet here.

Until next time!!

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