It’s still the small things that count
The Lime Group | Articles
I recently rediscovered an article written by Clayton M. Christensen in August 2010. I had tucked it away in my ‘keepers’ pile because it had an impact on me. It describes Christensen’s speech to the HBS graduating class of 2010. They were the class that entered the school when the market was booming, and then watched their expectations of limitless careers crash and burn as the economy went into a tailspin. The speech is not about work, it is about life. Christensen applies his models to critical questions of achieving a happy and successful life. Those of you looking for a new and easier path to the Promise Land, prepare to be disappointed. The advice is good, sound, tried-and-true guidance that reminds me of listening to my father when I was a teenager. Things like, ‘Instead of telling people what to think, teach them how to think’, and ‘Get clear on your life’s purpose or things will progressively feel hollow’, and ‘Spend your time and energy on the things that matter most… not just the things with immediate results or the things that everyone else is doing’.
I doubt much, if any, of this is new to you. Me neither. So why, then, did this article make it into my keepers pile? In a world of change bordering on chaotic, I was struck to read the thoughts of such an accomplished person and conclude that while much is changing, the basics are exactly the same as always. The basics of success; the basics of managing people well; the basics of doing a good job and sleeping straight in your bed at night. And here’s what I reckon it comes down to. If you want to be successful and happy, you have to source within yourself the discipline and courage to decide what your life’s purpose is and then do the small things every day that will add up to that. Living daily to a code of behavior that will ultimately lead to success is not easy. Deceptively difficult. Perhaps one of the hardest things most of us will ever attempt. Christensen highlights this well with what he terms “the marginal costs mistake”. That is, the fallacy of choosing to break a rule or cross a boundary “just this once” because of extenuating circumstances. Life is one long stream of extenuating circumstances. If you allow yourself to back away from the life you have decided you want to live, it can quickly become a slippery slope. Christensen wrote that two of his Rhodes Scholar class and one of his HBS class have gone to jail. Astonishing for such accomplished people.
Far from finding this a burdensome reminder, I found it incredibly helpful. Working in NY much of the time, I am often surrounded by people who speak as if success is a matter of buying or selling a company; or just a waiting game for the market to turn around. Still! So much changes but so much stays the same. I am renewed by the thought that doing the right things, quietly but consistently over a long time gets results. And that ‘the right things’ are certainly not all to do with money and career (not for me anyway). The people I truly admire are those that have clarity of purpose, and then the humility and discipline to conduct themselves in line with that purpose in a hundred small ways every day. It is not the flashy events and big speeches that determine success. Those are the easy bits. It is daily living and working that’s the rub. Where do you draw the line and how often do you allow yourself to cross it? I have been asking myself that a lot since re-reading the article.