Disrupting Your Own Happiness

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen famously laid out the theory of disruptive innovation in the mid-1990s. In basic terms, disruptive innovation occurs when a new company or idea shakes up an existing industry, product or market. It was fortuitous timing on his part as we’ve seen firms such as Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and Google spring up in the past couple of decades and completely change the nature of entire industries.

Christensen gave some thoughts at a recent talk about another aspect of disruption and how it can affect your personal life:

Christensen, author of the equally successful How Will You Measure Your Life, ended on a personal note: “disruption occurs even when you do everything right,” both in life and business, he said. “I look at my students and not a single one had a strategy to get divorced or alienate their own children. But many of them implement that strategy — even though they don’t want this to happen.”

Why? When you’re a productive person driven by achievement, Christensen suggest, you naturally invest time and energy into outlets with tangible returns — most often, your work. But when you go home and with your family, the feedback loop is much less tangible than a promotion, a salary raise, or an award. “The causal mechanism behind this is the impulse to seek immediate and tangible evidence of achievement.”

Telling a story of how he lives what he writes, Christensen finished, “It is easier to hold to our principles 100% of the time than 99% of the time.”

Basically, those people who spend so much time and effort trying to being successful with their career, start-up or company often do so at the risk of having a well-functioning personal life. The same type A personalities that achieve great wealth and business success can have a difficult time finding a work-life balance because their work is so important to them.

Read a biography about any of the most successful business people or investors and you will invariably find that they didn’t have the greatest personal or family lives. All those people that we’re all quoting all the time on social media and reading about and trying to emulate — many of them aren’t the greatest people. They never see their families. They treat their employees like crap.They don’t have time to work out, watch sports, hang out with their friends, read, go on vacations, watch TV shows or movies or have a social life. Every ounce of energy they have is spent on work.

I’m glad we have people like this because I think they make our lives better in many ways. I just think people need to temper their hero worship when considering the sacrifices that are made to achieve a certain level of success.

One of my favorite books from the past few years is Happy Money: The Science of Smarter SpendingI’m always a little weary of happiness studies because there are different ways that different people can find happiness in their own life, but this book had some great research on the topic of what makes most people happy in life. Here are a few that stood out:

  • In terms of spending money or time, studies show that the biggest bang for your buck comes from social connections with other people. You can’t really put a price on creating a memorable story that you can tell for years to come or an experience you share with people you love.
  • Another study showed that people experience their most positive mood of the day while spending time with family and friends.
  • In one study, 83% of people said their biggest regrets dealt with inactions and missing out on experiences while the opposite was true of material purchases (they wish they hadn’t bought something they spent money on).
  • Another study shows that wealthier people have a much harder time enjoying life’s little pleasures. People who have more free time on their hands are more likely to participate in activities that are linked to increased levels of happiness — volunteer work, exercising, spending time with loved ones, etc.

More money can lead to more work, more stress and more of a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses way of looking at the world. It’s tough to get off that hedonic treadmill once you jump on.

I’m not saying don’t try to be successful, don’t start a business, don’t try to make a lot of money. These things can obviously bring you a certain amount of happiness. I’ve worked in a job before where I wasn’t happy. Being on the other side of the coin and working for a firm and with people that you like and respect can definitely make for a better life. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t have a fulfilling career and work life.

Life and happiness are all about trade-offs. There’s no such thing as a perfect work-life balance. One or the other will always be deserving of more of your attention. But I think it’s nice to know that even the most successful and wealthy people in the world have a tough time getting this right.

No one has it all figured out in every facet of their life (save for maybe Bill Murray).

Marc Andreessen & Clayton Christensen: “Venture capital is abundant, opportunity is scarce” (Startup Grind)
Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending

Further Reading:
How Spending Money Affects Happiness

Now here’s the stuff I’ve been reading lately:


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