A Life Defined in Six Words

How would you like your life to be measured? For what would you like to be remembered? Regular readers of this blog know how much I like to inspire people to think about those important questions. (“Food for Thought,” Nov. 28, 2012)

Am I helping those around me to learn and grow and become better people? Click To TweetRecently I was re-reading a famous essay by Clayton Christensen titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Christensen is a much-lauded Harvard Business School professor, co-founder of four companies, and bestselling author. The essay originated from Christensen’s address to Harvard Business School’s 2010 graduating class who asked him to apply his classroom theories and principles to their personal lives.

The article speaks to many ideas that align very closely to my personal philosophies as well as our leadership vision at Barry-Wehmiller. As I re-read Christensen’s piece, I thought the life and career lessons it offers were worth sharing. My favorite excerpts follow. (Click HERE for entire article.)

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.

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.

For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential… 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.

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.  When people who have a high need for achievement… 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. 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.

Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, ‘Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.’ 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. Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of ‘just this once.’

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to ‘just this once,’ based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

We…decided that humility was defined not by self-deprecating behavior or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others… Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves.

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….I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.

In the midst of reflecting upon Christensen’s thoughts, I was sent a link to SmithMagazine.net by a team member. Knowing how I enjoy challenging people to think about what they hope to achieve, she shared with me this site on which, in only six words, people write their personal memoirs. While the posts run from the serious to the silly, from inspirational to some filled with regret, it made me think again about how I want my life to be measured. Am I helping those around me to learn and grow and become better people? Do my actions reflect my beliefs and principles?

Since our measure of success at Barry-Wehmiller is the way we touch the lives of people, am I accomplishing that every day? Whether an exercise involving six words or perceptive advice from someone like Christensen, we can all use reminders to pause, reflect and check our progress. For it is the choices we make and the actions we take each day that collectively write our life stories.

My hope for my six-word memoir?  He listened. He cared. He acted.

And yours?

(Please share your own six words in the Comments if you feel comfortable.)

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • Seshadri says:

    Very thought provoking article. I am including a quote by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
    “This creation, this very life is a mystery, and the mystery cannot be understood. But it can be lived in its totality.
    – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

  • allison says:

    An idea for my six words:

    Showed God’s love…did not compromise.

    Good food for thought from the ultimate author….

    What profiteth a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul……

  • Kit Tennis says:

    Trusts innate genius of every individual

  • John Lochner says:

    Build enduring relationships that enhance people’s lives and leave a Legacy of Service.

  • Rhonda Spencer says:

    Use God’s gifts to their fullest!

  • Celina Anderson says:

    I am grateful for receiving this message today. Mr. Chapman, you truly are a blessing to many in this world. My husband and I communicate about how you inspire us to be better individually and as a couple. Thank you for helping us so that we can truly help others.

    I have learned to watch my thoughts, words and actions as they become habits of my character; which in turn becomes my destiny. (Lao Tzu)

    She loved, shared and inspired others.

    Celina Anderson

  • Dawn Romenesko says:

    Lived each day to the fullest!

  • Shayne Roberts says:

    serving others, developing people, solving problems

  • Tom Rausch says:

    He helped me open my heart.

  • Dan Aude says:

    Thanks Bob, for sharing this article; some very true words within. Years ago the time I spent with my son coaching youth football which did in fact have a financial cost i.e time away from work and may have not computed correctly with some people. I knew then I would never have this opportunity again to be involved with my son doing something he enjoyed. Today years later we are closer and have a very healthy relationship, and set an example for him when he has children. Listen to the song “cat’s and the cradle.” It inspired me to do the the right thing with my son.

    My six words: To thy own self be true.

    Dan Aude

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