Clayton Christensen on the Well-Lived Life

Well-known Mormon author and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was quoted at length in David Brooks’s New York Times column, called “The Summoned Self.”

Brooks contrasts two ways of thinking about one’s life: the “Well-Planned Life” and the “Summoned Life.” Brooks suggests that Christensen typifies the former, based on Christensen’s recent Commencement Address. Brooks writes:

Christensen is a serious Christian. At university, he was the starting center on his basketball team and refused to play in the championship game of an important tournament because it was scheduled for a Sunday. But he combines a Christian spirit with business methodology. In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs.

When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.

In the “Summoned Life,” by contrast, “Life isn’t a project to be completed.” Rather,

it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose. That young person — or any person — can’t see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom. She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn’t really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

Which raises the question: Is the Well-Planned Life a more “Mormon” way of viewing the world than the Summoned Life?

  • Martin Kokol

    No, I think the well-planned life is the business model that permeates the church (because a strong majority of mid and upper management of the church is from that world).

    As an educator, my intellectual hero is Parker Palmer (see his Courage to Teach (1998)). He would hearken all of us to the Summoned Life (as well as all my professors at Harvard Graduate School of Education by the way).

    Another way to see it is that the split occurs because of the male dominated way of seeing the world thus transferred into a patriarchal church. And so, yes, the well planned life is a more “Mormon” way. Too bad that other LDS voices are squelched.

    But this is what one gets when there is surety from the pre-existence, top down management, and certainty that we have the complete truth. One voice, as Gladys Knight sung a few years back is beautiful in its possibilities. But the downside is that you even had to ask this question – so that we might box our way out of the paper bag.

    “Life is a journey, not a destination” says the poster in a high school classroom of mine. “Life is an old time railway. . . where we [are just happy to be able to go for the ride]” said President Hinckley not too long ago. Surely we can hope for a more pluralistic model than the businessman’s way of seeing the world that dominates our church???

    PS Don’t get me wrong. I have loved Clayton Christensen since I met him 22 years ago when I was baptized in Cambridge, MA.


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