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Extenuating circumstances?

By any measure, Clayton Christensen is a successful man. He is a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. He is a best-selling author. He is the founder of a thriving management consulting and investment firm.

In other words, he’s doing well.

There are probably a lot of reasons for that. He was raised in a loving family. He has had good health (if you don’t count his recent battle with follicular lymphoma). He has had some extraordinary educational opportunities. And he’s really, really, really, really smart.

That’s right. Four “really’s.” He’s that smart.

It’s hard to plot out a turning point in a life like his. But if you ask him, one of the most significant moments came while he was a student at Oxford University in England during the late 1970s. He was there as a Rhodes Scholar (what else?) to study something called “applied econometrics and the economics of less-developed countries,” whatever that is.

But his real passion was basketball. In fact, he was pretty good at the sport – good enough to be the starting center on an excellent Oxford University team. Christensen and the rest of the team played well enough through the season and through the post-season championship tournament that they found themselves with a berth in the championship game.

The school and his teammates were ecstatic. This was the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the NCAA basketball tournament, and they were just one win away from the title. I don’t know if they do March Madness at Oxford, but I’m sure the team’s success had all of those scholars feeling, if not mad, at least a little silly.

Except Christensen. The championship game was scheduled for a Sunday, and Christensen’s religious beliefs precluded participation in sports on Sunday.

It was an agonizing decision for the young man. He felt a strong sense of loyalty to his teammates, who pled with him to set his faith aside for one day to play in what would surely be the most important basketball game of his life. Everywhere he turned – his coach, school officials, fellow students – people were urging him, BEGGING him to suit up.

But his faith was important to him. He couldn’t just take it off and hang it in the locker while he put on his basketball uniform to play in the big game. Having no one else to talk to who understood what he was feeling, he found a quiet place where he could be alone and ask God to tell him what to do. He returned from his prayer feeling firmly resolved and completely at peace with his decision: he would not violate his conscience to play in the game.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” he wrote, years later. “In so many ways it was a small decision – involving one of several thousand Sundays in my life. In theory, surely I could have crossed over the line just that one time and then not done it again.

“But looking back on it,” he continued, “resisting the temptation of ‘in this one extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay’ has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life.”

I don’t know if Oxford managed to win the championship game without Christensen. To be honest, I don’t think it really matters. What matters is Christensen’s characterization of this as “one of the most important decisions” of a successful life that has been filled with big decisions. In my mind, what makes the decision so important is not the fact that a national championship was at stake. What makes it important – in his life or in anyone else’s – is the firm, steadfast establishment of personal priorities that place faith, values and principles right at the top.

“Extenuating circumstances” notwithstanding.

~ Joseph B. Walker

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