Harvard and Humility (Department Of: What Makes A Life Meaningful)

Harvard Business School alumni have been passing around an article via email. David Brooks referenced it on the Times Op-Ed page. The article was written by Professor Clayton Christensen, one of the most celebrated of the Ivy’s starry faculty. The piece is called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” and whether or not you ascribe to Christensen’s personal ideology, or whether or not you ascribe to the broader proposition that a life can be “made” meaningful via practice and choice (and will), this piece poses provocative questions.

On the importance of practicing humility, Christensen writes:

"I got this insight when I was asked to teach a class on humility at Harvard College. I asked all the students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic of these humble people stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about whom they were. We also decided that humility was defined not by self- deprecating behavior or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behavior flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone, either. It’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world . . . Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves."

You can be humble only if you feel good about yourself. This is the proprietary—or rather, disruptive—line in the essay. It is the line that, while not necessarily new or "game-changing" (as the MBAs say), still states a clear, practicable principle, one that the reader can back out of into a set of rules, and analysis. Like presenting a graduate economics student with a cash flow to discount, Christensen’s Good Life Laws allow for analysis of the UnHumble among us today, and perhaps it is particularly interesting to consider, via this lens, the UnHumble among us who are also graduates of the school where he works.

If humility is axiomatically predicated on self-esteem, can we assume that an absence of humility belies an absence of self-esteem? If so, we might say that one path to true meaning (Christensen says as much as this in the rest of his piece) is paved well in advance, and well outside of, any IPO, any Nobel Prize, any sea-side mansion or election to office. Christensen continues:

"I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success."

So the path is to find the path. The path is to find the right metric to measure the path. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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