An article in The Atlantic last week suggests that, at 29, my happiest years may already be behind me.
Data from more than a million Americans, ranging in age from 13 to 96, shows that the tides are turning in what we collectively consider to be the happiest stage of life: “Adults 30 and over are less happy than they used to be, while teens and young adults are happier.” Researchers observed that the idea that “maturity brings contentment” is being ousted by unfulfilled dreams that eventually cause smiley scales to crash. The great expectations my contemporaries have in their youth are hitting the proverbial fan around my age, with little to no expectation of improvement.
I can relate to the high-hopes portion of the study. When I was a little girl, I wondered where I’d be far off in the future, when I was (gasp!) 25. As you can imagine, life has taken a series of turns that I didn’t see coming. I married my high school sweetheart a year after graduating college, and we started having children a year later. We now live back in our hometown and share a roof with my husband’s parents. Our children’s grandparents are an everyday part of their lives, which is a blessing for everyone. With my in-laws’ help, I have been able to grow my career as a writer while being at home with our three kids. Things are good, and I strive each day to be grateful for them.
But experience has also taught me that we can’t expect life to be all rainbows and unicorns. Stuff happens. What I’ve found, however, is that it’s worthwhile to act with intention in the present as preparation for the future. You can actively build a support system and frame a proactive mentality to life, including work, family, or even your sense of character at all times, even during hardships.
Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and coauthor of the 2012 New York Times bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life? has powerful insight to lend to the cause, and he delivers it through a seemingly unrelated set of corporate case studies.
Christensen claims that the theories he applies to business are just as relevant when applied to dimensions of our lives such as work, relationships, and integrity. In both professional and personal arenas, our histories and experiences are valuable only insofar as they tell us what has happened; they cannot predict what will come to be in future circumstances. But with an understanding of what causes what, we can make the decisions, big and small, that allow us to lead the kind of lives we want to lead and be the kind of people we want to be.
Here are just a few of the lessons in Christensen’s theories and how anyone, MBA or otherwise, can put them into meaningful practice.
01. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not likely to get there.
Christensen says that every company has a purpose, but only those that craft them intentionally outlast a single manager or employee and succeed indefinitely (Pixar is one example; Apple is another). Though it can take years to define a concise and comprehensive sense of one’s personal purpose in life, it’s never too early to start developing it.
Christensen approaches purpose as a three-fold concept: “likeness,” the kind of person you want to be; “commitment,” your sense of accountability to yourself; and “metrics,” or how you will assess your progress. At present, I can best articulate my purpose as this: I want to be a kind and generous friend, a loyal and loving wife, and a joyful but disciplined parent, who contributes positive and uplifting writing to those around me. These are the terms on which I choose to frame my daily decision making, and I can make a conscious effort to measure—though not necessarily in a pie chart—the fruit of the relationships I build and the reach of my work. My purpose is, in a way, both my starting point and my end point.
02. Staying the course isn’t always the best bet.
In working with graduate students, Christensen noticed that while the majority had plans for where they wanted to be in five, ten, and fifteen years, few were willing to change courses when a worthwhile opportunity presented itself. And that’s understandable. The time and money invested in an advanced degree such as an MBA can’t be ignored. So, how are we supposed to know which divergences to pursue?
Christensen cites studies that show that real career satisfaction comes from “motivating factors”—responsibility, recognition, continued personal growth—and not “hygiene factors”—things such as compensation and competent coworkers. If something’s missing in the former category, and it could be found in a new opportunity, then it could be wise to take a chance—in Christensen’s lingo, to pursue an “emergent” rather than a “deliberate” strategy. If an increase in salary is the deciding factor (assuming you are able to make ends meet in your current arrangement), don’t expect any lasting increase in job satisfaction.
For my family, this meant moving from a happy situation in Brooklyn back to our hometown a few years ago. We’d anticipated an interstate move at some point, though we planned to buy our own home somewhere closer to the city. Circumstances in both New York and New Jersey made the change in plans a simple decision and one that’s worked out for the best in more ways than we’d imagined.
03. Allocate resources to be what you want to become.
Your purpose doesn’t amount to much of anything if you’re not putting it into practice every day. The ways in which you spend your time, your creative and emotional energy, and your money are markers as to whether you are living in line with your purpose. The old adage, “Put your money where your mouth is,” rings true here. Am I looking my children in the eye when I speak to them or staring into an email that could wait for later? Am I spending the time while the kids are with their grandparents on revising that short story, or am I whittling away the hours surfing random websites that aren’t doing anything to improve my craft? And this, the one I am most guilty of: Am I making sure that I get enough rest at night to be the patient mom I want to be?
Christensen takes the “small stuff” a step further, and I am grateful for the reality check he courageously offers in the book’s final chapter. The same principle that applies to companies and careers is also enormously relevant to character. A concession made for convenience or potential profit can easily lead to another slip, and another, and another, until you don’t recognize yourself anymore. In order to maintain one’s integrity, consistency is key. “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,” Christensen says.
04. Even the little decisions must reflect the larger goal—or else.
There are few obviously pivotal moments in life, but there are millions of minor ones that matter just as much, if not more. Relationships require time and effort to grow; if they are neglected, it can be difficult to reestablish lost trust and assuage feelings of abandonment. “The time when it is most important to invest in building strong families and close friendships is when it appears, at the surface, as if it’s not necessary,” Christensen writes.
A year ago, my husband spent most of the month of November traveling for work, which is unusual for his position. It was an unlikely collision of circumstances, and it came at a time when I was five months pregnant and my grandmother was in hospice. My husband was exhausted from traveling and spending the little time he had in the office playing catch-up. At home, even with help from my mom and mother-in-law, I was pushed to my limits, emotionally and physically.
Everything came to a head the week before our daughter was born. I was in tears trying to explain to my husband how unprepared I felt for the challenge of caring for three children. We had to honestly and openly express our frustrations, fears, and doubts, and commit to a change. Life was happening to us, and we needed to turn things around, but we could only do that as a team.
When our daughter came home, I was surprised to find that through a simple but meaningful conversation, the transition was less demanding and much more joyful than I’d imagined. We returned to our purpose, we reallocated our resources, and we committed to consistency. I’d seen how the little things could snowball into self-inflicted disaster, and it wasn’t something I wanted to live through again. And if my choices continue to reflect my purpose, hopefully I won’t have to.
Having considered the theories that Christensen and his coauthors put forth, I’m not willing to believe that it’s all downhill from here. With the right mental framework and strategy, I can confidently predict how happy I will be as I advance into my thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond because I have a pretty clear idea of how I will conduct myself, how I will invest my time, and ultimately, how I will choose to measure my life.
After all, as Christensen himself says, “The type of person you want to become . . . is too important to leave to chance.”
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie Photography