Cover image via YouTube.
Clayton Christensen, who died last week, was a professor at the Harvard Business School, a former Area Authority Seventy for the Church and the author of, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which The Economist called one of the six most important business books ever written, because of his theory of disruptive innovation. His pioneering ideas made him a key influence on Silicon Valley powerhouses like Intel and Netflix.
Jane Clayson Johnson said of him, “Clay was the most influential business theorist of his generation. Of course, but his legacy goes well beyond the books he wrote and the speeches he gave. Clay was absolutely one of a kind…in intellect, generosity, compassion and depth of faith…
“Among the world’s most influential business leaders and dignitaries, Clay was always the smartest person in the room—but also, incredibly, the most humble.”
What impresses me most, however, is his unabashed loyalty to his faith that was not carefully separated out from his teaching or consulting life. People knew where Christensen stood and as The New York Times noted, “A deeply religious man and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he incorporated his musings on religion into his academic work.”
In fact, in his book “The Power of Everyday Missionaries”, he is very clear about his conviction to let his faith vitally invigorate every aspect of his life, without political correctness or stashing it away as not fit for polite company.
He said that “If the prohibition against talking about religion at work were a preference of executives, then different companies would have different views on it. And if the injunction against religious discussions were based in a worry that they would hurt employees’ productivity, then discussions about other beliefs—like politics, ethnic difference, sports, and so on—would also be viewed as detracting from productivity in the workplace. The fact that the prohibition applies only to religion, and that the ban on religious discussion seems to be in force at nearly every workplace, leads me to believe that this particular cultural belief is the work of Satan. I see no other plausible other explanation.” He has convinced us that it is “awkward and politically incorrect to talk about God’s plan with others at work.”
Recognizing that this is a construct of Satan gave him courage, Christensen said, He used his religious words in conversation and did it in a matter-of-fact, every day way. He said that “even at a secular institution like mine, I have found so many who are eager to discuss their faith in God that I literally could spend hours every day with just a fraction of those who are anxious to discuss the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He advised, “If people say something like, ‘Oh, you are a Latter-Saint.’ You can answer, ‘I am, and it is a wonderful church. Why do you ask?’” Christensen said he found it very helpful to ask, “Why do you ask?”
In “How Will You Measure Your Life?” a significant talk at the Harvard Business School that became a popular book, Christensen told the Harvard MBA students:
“It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives. I tell the students that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question. If they think that they’ll have more time and energy to reflect later, they’re nuts, because life only gets more demanding: You take on a mortgage; you’re working 70 hours a week; you have a spouse and children.
“For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.
“Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned.”
It shouldn’t be bold to talk so clearly about God and life’s purpose, but in today’s secular society it is. It is considered wildly politically incorrect, but the yearning to hear it is there, evidenced by the popularity of his words.
As Clark Gilbert wrote in The Deseret News, “First, there was a heart attack. Then cancer. Then the stroke. In many ways it is a miracle that we had him as long as we did given these life-altering infirmities.
“When Clay Christensen initially started facing these health challenges, he wrote me and said what a blessing it was because, ‘Now I can talk to my students about what really matters and no one can get mad at me for speaking about God and spiritual purpose because I’m dying.’”
Decisions for Which I’ve Been Grateful
Christensen talked about the decisions for which he’s been grateful once to a Brigham Young University-Idaho devotional. These are the decisions that shaped him and changed his life, and we give you a sample of them, as he described them, here. The first picks up on his “How Will You Measure Your Life” talk, but gives more detail.
A Decision to Study the Book of Mormon
“When I arrived at Oxford it was very clear that it was going to be inconvenient to be a Mormon in Oxford. The Rhodes Scholarship Trust that had given me my scholarship had a lot of activities for the recipients of the scholarship, and if I was going to be active in the church it would be difficult for me to participate in those activities. I realized, as I thought through the extent to which I wanted to be involved in the church, that, you know, I didn’t even know that the Book of Mormon was true.
I had read the Book of Mormon, until that point, seven times in my life, and in each of the seven times I had gotten to the end of the book and had knelt in prayer and had asked God to tell me if it was true, and I had gotten no answer. And I realized, as I thought through why I hadn’t gotten an answer, that each of the previous seven times, I had read it on an assignment, either from my parents or a BYU instructor or my mission president or a seminary teacher, and my objective was to finish the book. But this time I just desperately needed to know for myself if the Book of Mormon was true. To that point in my life I had sustained myself on a belief in many of the doctrines of the church and in the trust of my parents because I knew they knew it was true, and I trusted my parents. But finally, when I arrived at Oxford, for the first time in my life I just desperately needed to know if it was true
“Some of you who have seen pictures of Oxford may know that it’s the world’s oldest university. The building that I lived in was built in 1410-beautiful to look at, horrible to live in. It just had a little heater that they had dug out of the stone wall and had inserted there. I decided that I would commit every evening from 11 to 12 o’clock to reading the Book of Mormon to find out if it was true. I wondered if I dared spend that much time, because I was in a very demanding academic program, studying applied econometrics, and I was going to try to finish the program in two years, whereas most of the people in the program finished it in three, and I just didn’t know if I could afford allocating an hour a day to this effort. But nonetheless I did, and I began at 11:00 by kneeling in prayer by the chair by that heater, and I prayed out loud.
“I told God how desperate I was to find out if this was a true book, and I told Him that if He would reveal to me that it was true, that I then intended to dedicate my life to building this kingdom. And I told Him if it wasn’t true that I needed to know that for certain, too, because then I would dedicate my life to finding out what was true. Then I would sit in the chair, and I read the first page of the Book of Mormon, and when I got down to the bottom of the page, I stopped, and I thought about what I had read on that page, and I asked myself, “Could this have been written by a Charlatan who was trying to deceive people, or was this really written by a prophet of God? And what did it mean for me in my life?” And then I put the book down and knelt in prayer and verbally asked God again, “Please tell me if this is a true book.” Then I would sit in the chair and pick up the book and turn the page and read another page, pause at the bottom, and do the same thing. I did this for an hour every night, night after night in that cold, damp room, at the Queen’s College Oxford.
“By the time I got to the chapters at the end of 2nd Nephi, one evening when I said my prayer and sat in my chair and opened the book, all of a sudden there came into that room a beautiful, warm, loving spirit that just surrounded me and permeated my soul, and enveloped me in a feeling of love that I just had not imagined I could feel. And I began to cry, and I didn’t want to stop crying because as I looked through my tears at the words in the Book of Mormon, I could see truth in those words that I never imagined I could comprehend before. And I could see the glories of eternity and I could see what God had in store for me as one of His sons. And I didn’t want to stop crying. That spirit stayed with me the whole hour, and then every evening as I prayed and sat with the Book of Mormon by the fireplace in my room, that same spirit returned and it changed my heart and my life forever.
“I look back in the conflict that I experienced, wondering whether I could afford to spend an hour everyday apart from the study of applied econometrics to find if the Book of Mormon was true, and you know, I use applied econometrics maybe once a year, but I use my knowledge that the Book of Mormon is the word of God many times every day of my life. In all of the education that I have pursued, that is the single most useful piece of knowledge that I ever gained.”
A Decision to Serve in the Church Despite a Demanding Schedule
“The bishop of the Oxford ward then called me to be the young men’s president. We had 48 young men in the Oxford ward, only one of whom was active. I had no idea how I was going to carry on my course of study and do anything near a capable job as a young men’s president. But what I decided to do is that I would get up every morning at 7:00 a.m. and focus on applied econometrics until 6:00 p.m., and then thereafter I would focus on being a Young Men’s President. In the midst of this, I learned that my father was dying of cancer, and I dropped out of school for a time to come back home and take care of him until he passed away. When I got back, that meant that I even had less time to try to finish a very ambitious degree, and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’d better ask the bishop to release me because it would just take too much time away from my study.’ But then I thought, ‘No, if I know the Book of Mormon is true, then I better do what it says,’ and it had told me in 3 Nephi 13:33 that I should seek first the kingdom of God in His righteousness and all these things would be added unto me. And so that’s what I did. I bought a bicycle, and every night from six to nine, I rode around the streets of Oxford looking up these 47 inactive young men, inviting them to join us at church, and ultimately six of them did.
“We met (the Oxford ward did) in a meeting room in the top of a pub. If Lucifer had picked our meeting spot, he couldn’t have done better. The only place for the Aaronic priesthood to meet was at the top landing of the back staircase where they stored the kegs of Guinness ale. And so, we arranged the kegs in a semi-circle every Sunday and sat on the kegs. I fasted every Sunday that somehow the Lord would bring into that awful environment a wonderful spirit that would touch these young men’s hearts, and it did. All six of those young men served missions. But it was a big bite out of my studies, and as the time for my final exams arrived, I was really worried that I might not be able to pass, because in the Oxford system there aren’t any courses that you take. You just continuously study your subject and at the very end of the course you have to take a big, long, four-day, 32-hour examination where you have to put it out all on paper.
“My tutor told me that I wasn’t prepared, that I better wait and graduate the next year, but I knew that if I had gone and done the things that the Lord commanded that he would open a way for me to pass the test. So, I fasted and prayed and told the Lord I had two months left. I needed to know what questions the examiners were going to ask so that I could study the questions and pass the exam. I then prayerfully went to the library and put myself in the examiners’ shoes, and thought about, ‘If I wanted to really skewer Clayton Christensen, what questions and curve balls would I throw at him on this exam?’ Then for two months I studied to know the answers to those questions.
“The night before the exam, I went off to one of the meadows at Oxford and knelt in prayer, and I poured my heart out to the Lord, and I recounted how hard I had worked to study economics, and how hard I had worked to magnify my calling as the Young Men’s President. And I plead with Him that He would bless me. And the next day, as I opened the exams, every one of the questions that the examiners threw at me was a question that I had come to know that they would ask. And the lesson that I learned from this is that when Heavenly Father invited us to seek first the kingdom of God, and promises us that all these other things will be added to us that He was dead serious. That is a promise that we can bank on. And I invite you, my brothers and sisters, that when you find yourself confronted with a conflict between the pursuit of a career and the pursuit of magnifying your calling in the kingdom of God, that if you will believe God, and trust in Him, He will bless you in ways that are beyond your comprehension.”
A Decision to Be Exacting
“The fourth decision I made for which I am very grateful was also one that I made when I was at Oxford. You may have noticed how high they had to raise this podium – I am 6’8″, and when you are tall you don’t have to be very good to play basketball. So, I tried out for and made the Oxford Varsity basketball team. We had a great team. Those guys were the best friends that I’ve ever known in my life, and we went through the regular season and were undefeated. Then we went into the British equivalent of what we would call here the NCAA basketball tournament. We marched through each of those games in a fairly easy fashion until we came to the final four, and then kind of cluelessly I looked at the schedule to find out when the games were scheduled, and to my horror saw that the final basketball game was scheduled to be played on Sunday in Bristol. And I was devastated because I had made a commitment to myself when I was 16 that I would never play basketball on Sunday. I went to the coach truly conflicted because these guys, we had worked our guts out all season long and I was the starting center, and the guys on the team were the best friends that I’ve ever had in my whole life and I needed to help them win this goal that we had all practiced for.
“And yet I’d made this commitment to Heavenly Father. So, I told my coach about this conflict and asked him what I should do. And he was just incredulous. He said, ‘We have worked so hard for this. I can’t believe you’re even asking.’ He said, ‘I don’t know who your god is, but mine, let me tell you what he’s like. He lets us by on things like this. And Clay, just this once, just this once, play this game and then go off and do whatever you have to do with your god and make peace with him and never do it again.’
“Well, then we played in the semi-final game, and my friend who was the back-up center got up-ended on a rebound and fell down on his shoulder and dislocated his shoulder, which then increased the pressure for me to play that game. So, I went back into my hotel room after that game and knelt down and asked Heavenly Father if it would be all right, just this once, if I played that game on Sunday. As I started my prayer, really before I could even utter a word, Heavenly Father put a full-sentence answer in my mind, and it was ‘Clayton, what are you even asking me for? You know the answer.’ I sat up on the bed and looked at the door and I said, ‘You’re right, I know the answer.’ So, I went to my coach and I told him how sorry I was, but I just couldn’t play on Sunday.
“Then I went to the Bristol ward meetings that day, and prayed that God would bless my teammates that they would win, and they did, which means, I guess, I wasn’t that important to the team. But you know, as time has passed, and that was a decision I made now almost  years ago, it looms as one of the most important decisions I have ever made because it would have been very easy to say, in general, keeping the Sabbath day holy is the right commandment, but in my particular extenuating circumstances, it’s okay, just this once, if I don’t do it. And the reason that decision has proven so important to me is that my whole life has turned out to be an unending stream of extenuating circumstances, and had I crossed that line just that once, then the next time something came up that was so demanding and critical, it would have been so much easier to cross the line again.”
“And when I have been subsequently confronted with opportunities to look at pornography or not pay my tithing, or compromise on others of God’s commandments, this lesson that I learned has been very important. The lesson is it really is easier to keep the commandments 100 percent of the time than it is 98 percent of the time. If I could paraphrase Alma 34:34, that same spirit that possesses our souls before something “just this once,” possesses our souls after we do it as well, and if we do it just this once, doing it again becomes so much easier. And that’s why that decision has loomed to be so important in my life, and I am grateful that I drew the line in a safe place, and never crossed it.”
To see his other decisions for which he is grateful, click here. http://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/Devotionals/2004_06_08_Christensen.htm
As he shared these decisions, we get just the merest glimpse of why Clayton Christensen was both so beloved and so important to the world.