Newsletter: How will you measure your life?

Some fragments from Clayton Christensen (HBS professor, and quite an interesting life in general!): How will you measure your life?

The chapter is opened, as a summary of what’s to come, the following C. S. Lewis quote: “The safest road to hell –the gente slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

 (What follows is an edited fragment from a full chapter of which the main characters are Jeff Skilling (the Enron scandal) and Nick Leeson (a trader who started by hiding some small losses while “on a roll” and finally ended up making the Barings Bank bankrupt.)

“Most of us think that the important ethical decisions in our lives will be delivered with a blinking red neon sign: CAUTION. IMPORTANT DECISION AHEAD. Never mind how busy we are or what the consequences might be. Almost everyone is confident that in those moments of truth, he or she will do the right thing. The problem is, life seldom works that way. It comes with no warning signs. Instead, most of us will face a series of small, everyday decisions that rarely seem like they have high stakes attached. But, over time, they can play out far more dramatically.

 The marginal cost of doing something ‘just this once’ always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher. 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 okay.’ And the voice in our head seems to be right; the price of doing something ‘just this once’ seems alluringly low. It sucks you in, and you don’t see where that path is ultimately headed or the full cost that the choice entails.

 The thing is, you have no way of knowing where all is going to end [where the decision will ultimately lead you], but as soon as you take the first step, there is no longer a boundary where it suddenly makes sense to turn around. The next step is always a small one, and given what you have already done, why stop now?

 Yet many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules ‘just this once’. In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be. Sometimes, the first step down that path is taken with a small decision, and then you justify all the small decisions that lead up to the big one. Then the big one does not feel so enormous anymore. You don’t realize the road you are on until you look up and see you’ve arrived at a destination you would have once considered unthinkable.

 Resisting the temptation of ‘in this one extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay’ has proved to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary –your personal moral line- is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once there is nothing to stop you from doing it again.

 Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time. When the first step down that path presents itself, turn around and walk the other way.”

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