01 Sep 2012

The School of Life

In the year’s final class, an HBS professor speaks from the heart to his graduating students. Now his message is resonating with a far larger audience.
by Professor Clay Christensen


For the past several years, in his last class of the academic calendar, Professor Clay Christensen has made life after HBS the topic of discussion. Why is it, he asks, that despite considerable professional accomplishments, so many of his former HBS and Oxford classmates are clearly unhappy? He then challenges his students to consider what they have learned at HBS that will help guide their own choices about career and family.

In 2010, at the request of one of his students, Christensen shared his thoughts about life’s choices with the entire graduating class, a presentation that led to a McKinsey Award–winning 2010 Harvard Business Review article. Now, with the help of former HBR editor Karen Dillon (who conceived of and edited the 2010 article) and his former student James Allworth (MBA 2010), Christensen has assembled the best insights from those end-of-year discussions into a book, How Will You Measure Your Life? The following excerpt, adapted for the Bulletin by Allworth, presents a fresh look at what it means to have “the right stuff” at work and draws a parallel to good parenting. Helping your children learn how to do the difficult things is one of the most important roles for a parent.

Is It Really the Right Stuff?

In 1979, writer Tom Wolfe captured the public imagination with his depiction of one of the most competitive professional environments in the world: the screening of American fighter pilots. To find out who should rise to the top, the pilots battled it out in an ever-increasing test of nerves, a kind of Darwinian gauntlet. Early NASA executives had decided this was how to identify who had been born with “the right stuff.”

Many companies looking to make top staffing decisions tend to replicate the same kind of thinking: that somehow there is a definitive way to identify the difference between the good and the great. Underlying this is a belief that top candidates achieved what they did because of innate talent.

Recruiters search for those candidates who have gone from success to success to success, a kind of business version of the fighter-pilot tests. But if finding the right stuff is a good way to identify top talent, why is it so common to see executives with a successful track record in one company coming into another company with great fanfare, only to be quickly dubbed a failure and ushered out?

Several years ago, in a major executive education program for over a thousand senior leaders from a variety of companies, I asked participants what percentage of the people they hired or promoted turned out to be a superb choice. By their own reckoning, about a third were superb choices, 40 percent were adequate choices, and about 25 percent turned out to be mistakes. In other words, a typical manager gets it wrong a lot. So if a “right stuff” screen doesn’t predict future success, what does?

I spent a lot of time searching. It wasn’t until I came across work initially developed by Morgan McCall, a professor at the University of Southern California, in a book called High Flyers, that I finally found a theory that could help people make better hiring decisions. To begin with, McCall has a very different view of the right stuff—and it explains why so many managers make hiring mistakes. While Wolfe’s fighter pilots may indeed have been the best of the best, McCall’s theory gives a causal explanation of why. It wasn’t because they were born with superior skills. Instead, it was because they had honed them along the way, by having experiences that taught them how to deal with setbacks or extreme stress in high-stakes situations.

McCall’s thinking is not based on the idea that great leaders are born ready to go. Rather, their abilities are developed and shaped by experiences in life. A challenging job, a failure in leading a project, an assignment in a new area of the company—all those things become “courses” in the school of experience. The skills that leaders have—or lack—depend heavily on which “courses,” so to speak, they have and have not taken along the way.

When the Right Stuff Isn’t Right at All

Take, for example, the story of Pandesic, an extraordinary collaboration between two of the world’s technology giants, Intel and SAP. Pandesic was designed to create a more affordable version of SAP’s enterprise resource planning software, targeted at small and midsize companies. It was founded in 1997 with high hopes—and $100 million in funding. Intel and SAP both handpicked some of their most highly regarded people to lead this prominent joint venture. But just three years later, it was declared a colossal failure.

One thing is clear in hindsight: Although the people picked by those companies to run the project were highly experienced, they were not the right people for the job. Not one of them had experience launching a new venture. None of them knew how to adjust a strategy when the first one didn’t work. None had had to figure out how to make a brand-new product profitable before growing it big. The Pandesic team had been used to running orderly, well-resourced initiatives for their respective world-class companies—but not a start-up. The team members hadn’t been to the right school to create and drive a new-growth project. That relegated Pandesic to a footnote in Intel’s and SAP’s histories.

Planning Your Courses at the Schools of Experience

The value of giving people experiences before they need them plays out in many fields other than business. The coach of one of my favorite basketball teams while I was growing up was always driven to win and to win big. As one of his biggest fans, I loved watching my team blowing out its competitors.

I remember a particular game, however, when I realized the limitations to the coach’s drive to always win big. As usual, they’d made it all the way to the championship game. But this year, the team they were competing against was playing particularly well. By the end of the third quarter, the starters were exhausted. I remember watching the coach on TV. He looked all the way down to the end of the bench. He never bothered to do that in typical matches until the final few minutes of the game, when the stakes were no longer high. This time, however, he needed someone to put into the game at that critical moment.

But there was a problem: He didn’t see anyone on the bench whom he trusted. That’s because he had never before put them into tight situations where they could have honed their abilities to perform under pressure. So he had to keep playing his weary starters.

They lost that game—and the league championship. The coach’s school of experience didn’t offer open enrollment in a course on “How to deal with pressure.” It was closed for everyone except his five starting players. And the team paid the price.

Sending Your Kids to the Right School

Thinking back on your own life, I bet you had many visits to various schools of experience, some—like the basketball team’s course on dealing with pressure—more painful than others. As a parent, you can help your children avoid some of this pain by finding small opportunities for them to take important courses early on. Encourage them to stretch—to aim for lofty goals. If they don’t succeed, make sure you’re there to help them learn the right lesson: that when you aim to achieve great things, it is inevitable that sometimes you’re not going to make it.

Everyone knows how to celebrate success, but you should also celebrate failure if it’s as a result of a child striving for an out-of-reach goal. This can be difficult for parents to do. So much of our society’s culture is focused on trying to build self-esteem in children by never letting them lose a game, giving them accolades simply for trying their best, and constantly receiving feedback that never requires them to think about whether they can do better.

We have many opportunities to help our children take courses in life—and not all of them are courses we should want them to take. Many parents, for example, find themselves in a situation that probably happens at dinner tables all over the world: A child announces that he has a big report or project due the next day…and he hasn’t started it. The grade on that report does matter, and no one wants to see his child get poor marks. Panic ensues.

What should a parent do? Not only will many parents stay up late to help their child complete the project, some parents might even finish it for him. They might even think, “I’ve helped my child through this rough spot. I’m being a supportive parent.”

But think about what course you have just given your child with the decision to bail him out. He’ll think, “My parents will be there to solve hard problems for me. I won’t have to figure it out on my own.” What do you think will happen the next time your child is late on a project? He’ll announce at the dinner table that he needs help. And you will find yourself, again, finishing it up for him at 3 a.m.

The braver decision for parents may be to give that child a more difficult, but also more valuable, course in life. Allow the child to see the consequences of neglecting an important assignment. Either he will have to stay up late on his own to pull it off, or he will see what happens when he fails to complete it.

The challenges your children will face serve an important purpose: They help them hone and develop the capabilities they need to succeed throughout their lives. Coping with a difficult teacher, failing at a sport, learning to navigate the complex social structure of cliques in school—all those things become courses in the school of experience. We know that people who fail in their jobs often do so not because they are inherently incapable of succeeding, but because their experiences have not prepared them for the challenges of that job—in other words, they’ve taken the wrong courses.

It’s tempting for us to judge success by just looking at the nouns on a résumé—it’s like the scoreboard of what we have achieved. But much more important in the long run are the verbs on a résumé—the courses we have taken as we go through the various schools of experience.

More than any award or trophy, thinking like this is the best way to equip our children—and ourselves—for success in the years ahead.

—Clay Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at HBS and one of the world’s foremost experts on innovation and growth. James Allworth (MBA 2010) has worked at Apple and Booz & Company. Karen Dillon was formerly editor of the Harvard Business Review and deputy editor of Inc. magazine.

From the book How Will You Measure Your Life? © 2012 By Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon. Reprinted by arrangement with Harperbusiness, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers.


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