Book Review of How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen

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Genre: Management & Leadership
Author: Clayton M. Christensen
Title: How Will You Measure Your Life? (Buy the Book)

Summary

This book offers guidelines for finding happiness and meaning at work, at home, and in life generally. It is structured to help readers answer several important questions in hopes that one can have a happy life. How can I be sure that I will be successful and happy in my career? That my relationships with family and friends become an enduring source of happiness? That I live a life of integrity – and stay out of jail?

In order to find happiness in your career, you must start by determining what is most important to you. While some factors at work such as compensation and working conditions are important factors, getting these right does not mean that you will enjoy your job — it just means you will not hate it any more.

Instead, what will cause us to truly enjoy our jobs are factors called motivators that include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Get these factors right, and you really can completely enjoy your job.

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We all have resources – time, energy, talent, wealth – that we use to grow several businesses in our personal lives. These include having a rewarding relationship with our spouse, contributing to community, raising children, and so on.

These resources are deployed not when you review your calendar, but rather through a continuous process. Unless approached strategically, this allocation of personal resources will be decided by the “default” criteria that are wired into your heart and mind.

The danger for high-achieving people is that they tend to unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments. This often means favoring career at the expense of family, even though there is much more to life than your career.

It is important to realize that who you are at work and the amount of time you spend there impacts the person you are outside of work with your family and close friends. Given these truths, it is incredibly important to overcome the natural tendency to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.

Because the relationships we have with family and friends are the primary source of happiness in our lives, you must dedicate yourself to them even when it seems unnecessary. It is easy to think that when things are going well at home, you can dedicate more time to work. However, that would be an enormous mistake since it is often too late to repair serious problems by the time they arise. Those who make having a successful family a priority will have a much better chance of becoming successful.

When seeking to live a life of integrity, it is important to remember the first step toward a life without it begins with small decisions. Small decisions ultimately lead up to the big one, so by justifying them along the way the big one doesn’t seem so enormous anymore by the time you get there. You don’t realize the road you are on until you look up and see you have arrived at a destination that you once would have considered unthinkable.

If you give in to “just this time” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you will regret where you end up. Indeed, it is easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. The boundary – your personal moral line – is powerful, because once you have justified crossing it even once, there is nothing to stop you from doing it again.

Bottom line: decide what you stand for, and then stand for it all the time.

Introduction

Clayton M. Christensen is a renowned author, innovation expert and Harvard Business School professor. In his book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Christensen offers guidelines for finding happiness and meaning at work, at home, and in life generally. This book has a special meaning to Christensen, as he wrote it after overcoming a life-threatening disease that had taken his own father’s life.

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Many of Christensen’s classmates at Harvard Business School were great men and women and had enormous potential to change the world, and many did. However, his class also included members such as Jeffrey Skilling, the incredibly wealthy Enron CEO who was ultimately convicted of multiple federal felonies, and suffered through a divorce.

Other classmates experienced similar disappointments: One played a prominent role in a major insider trading scandal, depicted in the book Den of Thieves; another was a prominent politician with three children who was thrown in jail because of sexual relations with a teenager on his campaign. None of these people graduated from Harvard Business School with a plan to divorce, break the law, and lead an unhappy life, but for many this is exactly what happened.

This book is structured to help readers answer the following questions in the hopes that through answering these questions, one can avoid an unhappy life:

How can I be sure that:

  • I will be successful and happy in my career?
  • My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?
  • I live a life of integrity – and stay out of jail?

Finding Happiness in your Career

“The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

When we are young and our parents ask us what we want to be when we grow up, careers as an astronaut, firefighter, football player, and even President of the United States, roll off our tongue because we think that these jobs would make us happy.

Unfortunately, for most of us, we allow our childhood dreams to be peeled away and we pick our jobs for the wrong reasons and settle for them.

Some even accept as reality that it is not possible to do something you love for a living. Christensen suggests that too many of us who start down the path of compromise never make it back. Considering the fact that you’ll likely spend more of your waking hours at your job than in any other part of your life, it’s a compromise that will always eat away at you. But you should not resign yourself to this fate.

In order to really find happiness in your career, you must start with determining your priorities: What is most important to you in your career? Unfortunately, most people do not realize that what is important to people’s careers, is not usually what makes them happy. In order to avoid this mistake, it is important to know what truly motivates people. However, to really be happy in your career, you should have a strategy.

In life there are constant demands for our time and attention, and the challenge is deciding which of these demands gets our limited resources. Often people respond to those who scream the loudest, or those who offer the fastest reward – that is a very dangerous way to build a strategy. A strategy should be designed with your priorities, balancing plans with opportunities, and allocating your resources in mind.

Christensen illustrates the importance of getting motivation right through an experience he had while running a technology company. One Saturday the company had a family picnic where the colleagues could get to know one another better.

As Christensen strolled around the park he noticed one of his key scientists, Diana, playing with her two children and her husband.

Diana was the type of employee that wanted to help everyone, but did not have the company resources available to do so, and her days often ended up in “turf battles” with other scientists. As Christensen observed Diana, he began to imagine a mother and wife whose mood, happiness, and sense of self-worth had an enormous impact on her family.

He imagined Diana smiling and saying good-bye to her family on the way to work, and what it must be like for her to return home ten hours later, on a day that had gone badly. She felt underappreciated, frustrated, and demeaned, and her bad day at work negatively affected her interactions with her family in the evenings.

Christensen then imagined Diana coming home after a good day at work – full of self- esteem for having performed important work and having been recognized for it. Christensen imagined how a good day at work positively affected her time at home with her family, and how she would feel going into work the next day.

This insight illustrates the importance of work, and the impact a manager can have on one’s happiness at work, and how important happiness at work is to happiness at home and in every area of our lives. It is quite obvious that if you are not happy at work, it can be hard to be happy at home – which is why it is important for us to understand what really motivates us to be happy.

Frederick Herzberg, an incisive writer on the topic of motivation theory, notes that there is a common assumption among people that job satisfaction is a spectrum with “Very Happy” on one end and “Absolutely Miserable” on the other end, but that in reality that is not how the mind works.

Satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, and it is, in reality, possible to love your job and hate it at the same time.

While some factors at work, such as compensation, job security, work conditions, etc., are important factors at work, getting these factors right does not mean that you will love your job, it just means you will not hate it any more. Other factors, called motivators, are what will cause us to truly love our jobs.

These factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Motivation is less about external prodding, and more about what is inside of you, and inside of your work. Get these factors right, and you really can love your job.

Christensen uses a personal story to illustrate the power of motivators in helping people find happiness.

When two of his children were young, he decided to help them build a tree house. Weeks were spent on the details of what shingles to use and where to put the sides and the roof. He would get the nails started in the wood, and his children would finish pounding them in.

It took longer that way, but the children were proud of their contributions and when friends came over the first thing they would do was show them the progress of their tree house. However, after the house was finished, the children rarely played in it. The truth was that having the house was not motivating, their contribution to building the house was what made it satisfying.

This story illustrates the truth of the common phrase: The journey is more important than the destination. In order to truly find happiness, the author contends, you need to continually look for opportunities that you believe are meaningful, in which you will be able to learn new things, succeed, and be given more responsibility.

Understanding what makes us tick is a critical step on the path to fulfillment, but it is only half the battle.

To find happiness in a career, you have to balance the pursuit of aspirations and goals with taking advantage of unanticipated opportunities. Managing this part of strategy is often the difference between success and failure for companies and for careers.

In the 1960’s, Honda’s management decided it would enter the U.S. motorcycle market which was dominated by a few powerhouse brands such as Harley-Davidson. The goal was to steal some market share by offering their products at a much lower price due to the extremely low Japanese labor costs of the time.

However, this strategy almost killed Honda. The Hondas were not built to deal with the riding style of Americans and had to be air-freighted back to Japan in order to be fixed. Although the plan was obviously not working, it persisted with its strategy.

Although Honda was focusing on selling its larger bikes to Americans, a few smaller, Super Cub bikes were also sent to America. These small bikes began to be used by the Honda employees in Los Angeles to run errands for the company because their budget got tighter and tighter.

One Saturday, a Honda team member took his Super Cub into the hills to ride in the dirt.

He really enjoyed it and could work out his frustrations at work out in the hills. He then invited some of his colleagues to join him, and when others saw them having so much fun, they asked where they too could buy these “dirt bikes.” Although the Super Cubs were not for sale in America, one by one they convinced the Honda team to order them from Japan.

Soon, Sears asked Honda if they could sell the Super Cub through their catalog. Honda’s team was cold to the idea and wanted to stick to selling big bikes – a strategy that was still not working. Soon, however, they realized that the Super Cub sales were the only thing keeping the American business alive.

It was clear that a better opportunity had emerged. The Super Cubs were priced at a quarter of the cost of a Harley and were sold to an entirely new group of customers, “off-road bikers.” Honda became wildly successful and developed a strategy to sell the bikes through power-equipment and sporting goods stores instead of traditional motorcycle dealers.

The Honda story illustrates the implementation of an emergent strategy, which soon became the deliberate strategy for Honda.

However, this strategy is constantly evolving, creating the opportunity for continuous improvement. Often times in life, we think it is necessary to have a strict strategy and divert from it only if things go horribly wrong, when really such a strategy only makes sense in certain circumstances.

However, it is easy to say “be open to opportunities as they emerge”, but it is much harder to know which strategies to pursue. There is a tool that can help test whether a deliberate strategy, or an emergent one, will be a fruitful approach.

It works by forcing you to articulate what assumptions need to prove true in order for the strategy to succeed. The test is asking yourself: What has to prove true for this to work?

Companies, and people, often make decisions based on what initial projections suggest will happen, but then they never actually test whether those initial projections are accurate. Companies end up adjusting predictions and assumptions to fit what is actually happening instead of making and testing thoughtful choices before they get too far. This faulty planning led to the poor success of Disneyland Paris, and has been the downfall of many other projects at companies around the world.

A better way to plan for a new strategy or project is to acknowledge that initial estimates are very rough – since everyone knows that numbers have to look good for management to green-light any project.

Ask the project members to compile a list of all the assumptions made in the initial projections and ask them: “Which of these assumptions need to prove true in order for us to realistically expect that these numbers will materialize?” At the top of the list should be the assumptions that are most important and least certain.

After all the underlying assumptions are understood, try and find ways to perform cost- effective tests on the validity of the most important assumptions. Once you know whether the initial assumptions are likely to prove true, you can make a much better decisions about whether to continue with the project or not.

If the right questions are asked, the answers are generally easy to get.

This strategy should be used in choosing a career path, as well. Simply ask yourself, “What assumptions have to prove true in order for me to be successful in this assignment?” Also, ask yourself what assumptions must prove true for you to be happy in the choice you are contemplating. Be realistic about the path ahead.

You can talk about having a strategy for your life, understanding motivations, and balancing aspirations with unanticipated opportunities, but this means nothing if you do not align your strategy with your life.

Ultimately, how you allocate your resources is where the rubber meets the road. Real strategy is created through everyday decisions about how we use our resources. If you want to know whether you are headed in the right direction, watch where your resources flow.

One way to frame the investments we make in the strategy of our life is: we have resources – personal time, energy, talent, wealth – and we use them to try and grow several businesses in our personal lives. These include having a rewarding relationship with our spouse or significant other, contributing to church or community, raising children, and so on.

Unless managed mindfully, personal resource allocation will be decided by the “default” criteria that is essentially wired into your heart and mind. Your resources are not deployed in a single moment or when you review your calendar for the week ahead; it is a continuous process.

The danger for high-achieving people is that they will unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments.

Unfortunately, this is often their careers, and causes family and friends to be put on hold in order to direct their precious energy into launching the next product, or getting the next promotion. Family members are unwittingly overlooked because investments in relationships do not offer the same immediate sense of achievement that a fast-track career does.

If you neglect your relationship with your spouse, nothing seems to change day-to-day, but twenty years down the road, the effects will be drastic. Small, daily decisions to allocate resources wisely will ensure success in finding happiness in life.

Finding Happiness in your Relationships

“The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.” – Thomas Jefferson

It is incredibly tempting to devote your resources to your career, and put your family on the back burner, because it is in your career that you find immediate gratification and you can see the rewards due to your work. However, as discussed earlier, there is much more to life than your career.

It is important to realize that who you are at work and the amount of time you spend there impacts the person you are outside of work with your family and close friends. Given these truths, it is incredibly important to overcome the natural tendency to focus on the short term at the expense of the long-term.

While Christensen offers a number of suggestions and guidelines on finding happiness in your relationships, he warns that there is no one-size-fits-all approach; “The hot water that softens a carrot will harden an egg.”

As you try to find happiness and success at home, and at work, remember that getting something wrong does not mean that you have failed!

Nothing can promise perfect results. However, it is almost guaranteed that you will not get it right if you do not commit to keep trying. Because the relationships we have with family and friends are the primary source of happiness in our lives, you have to dedicate yourself to them.

It is easy to think that when things are going well at home, you can dedicate more time to work. However, that would be an enormous mistake. By the time serious problems arise, it is often too late to repair them. This means that the time to dedicate your resources to your family and friends is when it seems as though it is not necessary.

Many of us thrive on the intensity of a demanding job – one that we believe in and enjoy.

Often times we will dedicate time that should be spent with family to work-related tasks – such as taking phone calls while on vacation. Work becomes how we define ourselves and we come to expect that the people closest to us should accept that our schedule is simply too demanding to make much time for them.

Does this sound like the recipe for a successful marriage? Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves in this position; neglecting birthdays and celebrations that used to be important to us.

Christensen relates the story of a neighbor, Steve, and his dream to one day own and operate his own business.

Although he had opportunities to learn from great business leaders in his field, he passed up these opportunities and dedicated long hours at work to realize his dream of becoming his own boss. While friends and family were understanding, in the end the lack of investment took its toll.

Just as Steve’s business started to take off, his marriage fell apart. When he needed the support of family and friends to get through this hard time, he found he was alone. He was seeking the returns on an investment he had failed to make. No one intentionally abandoned him, it was just that he had neglected them for so long.

Now he looks back over all those years and wishes he’d prioritized them differently – and invested in those relationships before he needed them to pay off for him.

Too many people neglect investing time in relationship building, only to find themselves alone during a health struggle or a job loss without anyone to provide support. That can be the loneliest place in the world.

One of the most common versions of this mistake happens with young people when they think they can sequence their life investments.

The common logic is, for example, “I can invest in my career in the early years, when our children are small and parenting isn’t critical. When our children get older, I can dedicate more time to my family and less time to my career.” Christensen asserts that by that time, the game is already over. Investments in family need to be made long before problems arise and children grow older.

One key to having a happy marriage is understanding “what job you are being hired for.” Getting this right, Christensen believes, is critical to sustaining a happy marriage. This theory can be illustrated through a real-world example.

Christensen and a few colleagues had been hired to help a fast-food company improve their milkshake sales. After failing to improve sales by making improvements to the milkshakes that corresponded with customer surveys, Christensen and his colleagues asked themselves the question, “What is this milkshake being hired for?” or “What job is this milkshake performing?”

They found, after intense research, that in the morning, milkshake customers usually had a long and boring commute ahead of them. Milkshakes were being hired to keep them occupied during the commute, and to stave off mid-morning hunger.

The milkshake performed this task better than bananas, bagels, donuts, and candy bars. With this target audience in mind, the fast-food chain improved their milkshake sales in the morning. However, in the afternoon the target audience was difference. In the afternoon, milkshake sales often went to children accompanied by an adult.

After having to tell their son or daughter “No” all week long, they finally had something to which they could say, “Yes”, when their children asked them if they could have a milkshake with their meal.

The fast-food chain improved their sales because they reached beyond the assumption that they could improve their sales by changing the ingredients, and sought to identify what job the milkshake had been “hired” to perform.

Understanding the job that your wife has “hired” a husband to do, and vice-versa requires intuition and empathy.

As a husband, you have to be able to put yourself in your wife’s shoes, and indeed, her life, and ask yourself what you can do for her. More important, the jobs that your spouse is trying to do are often very different from the jobs that you think she should want to do.

It is easy for us to make assumptions about what our spouse might want, rather than work hard to understand the job to be done in our spouse’s life.

We can do all kinds of things for our spouse, but if we are not focused on the jobs she most needs, we will reap frustration and confusion in our search for happiness in that relationship. It is so easy to misunderstand each other in marriage and get caught up in the day- to-day chores of life.

Really, the path to happiness in marriage is not trying to find someone who makes you happy, but rather, it is about finding someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to. To cement a relationship, we sacrifice ourselves to make others succeed and make others happy. The principle that sacrifice deepens our commitment is applicable in marriage, family, friendships, as well as organizations and even cultures and nations.

It is natural to want the people you love to be happy.

What can be difficult is understanding what your role is in that. By asking yourself, what job needs to be done, it allows you to understand what is most important to the people you love, and is much better than speculating about what might be the right thing to do. To truly be happy, you have to devote your time and energy to the effort, be willing to suppress your own priorities and desires, and focus on doing what is required to make the other person happy.

Christensen also provides sound guidelines on raising children through the prism of avoiding the outsourcing of raising children. It is common today for us to outsource the rearing of children through the myriad of activities available to them – whether it be school, sports, band, or otherwise.

While all of these activities can be very beneficial to a child’s development, it is most helpful when the child is dedicated to doing it, rather than being forced into it. Christensen posits that we want our kids to get ahead, and believe that the opportunities and experiences we have provided for them will help them do exactly that.

But the nature of these activities – where they are not deeply engaged and don’t really challenge them to do hard things – denies children the opportunity to develop the processes they will need to succeed in the future.

Self-esteem is incredibly important in a child’s development and it comes from achieving something important when it is hard to do.

This does not mean throwing kids into the deep end to see if they can swim. Instead, it means finding them problems for them to solve on their own. Christensen recalls that some of the greatest gifts he received from his parents stemmed not from what they did for him – but rather from what they did not do for him.

It would, however, be a mistake to think that the simple act of allowing children opportunities to grow and develop would be enough to make them grow and develop. Children learn when they want to learn and are ready to learn, not when we want them to learn. As parents, or perhaps as managers, we should continually foster opportunities to learn and allow others to learn when they are ready.

Rarely do children remember the moments their parents sat them down to teach them an important lesson, but spontaneous defining moments can be incredibly important in a child’s development. Parents should always be a good example for their children and managers should always be a good example for their employees. If you make having a successful family a priority, it will have a much better chance of becoming successful – but it may not be on your schedule.

In our own lives, we often underestimate the importance of experience, and overestimate the importance of title, prestige, and compensation. The CEO of Black & Decker, Nolan Archibald, is an outstanding businessman and has the distinction of being the youngest ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

When asked about how he managed his career, he does not speak of corporate ladders or what the specific route is to CEO, he talks about why he chose the route he did. He continually asked himself, “What are all the experiences and problems that I have to learn about and master so that what comes out at the other end is somebody who is ready and capable of becoming a successful CEO?”

Instead of choosing the fast-track to the C-Suites, he chose career opportunities very deliberately for the experiences they would provide, and the experiences were always designed to be a challenge he would have to wrestle with. At age forty- two, he became CEO of Black & Decker, and stayed at the post for twenty-four years, thanks to his wealth of experience.

Although choosing experiences to have can teach a lot, it is not guaranteed that having great experiences will teach you to raise a great family.

Although most of us may have an idyllic image of what our families will be like in the future (well-behaved children who adore and respect us), reality is that wishing for an idyllic family and having that kind of family are two very different things. One of the most powerful tools to enable us to close the gap between the family we want and the family we get is culture.

We need to understand how it works and be prepared to put it in the hard yards to influence how it is shaped. Unfortunately, creating culture is not as simple as setting family rules and hoping for the best – a family’s priorities have to be set correctly so they will know how to evaluate options and make a good choice.

Like business leaders want their midlevel managers to make good decisions without them by their side, parents want children to make good decisions once they get out in the world.

Every company has a culture, but whether or not the stated culture is the same as the real culture depends on a number of factors, especially the example of the leaders. At Enron, for example, it is reported that they had a “Vision and Values” statement: Respect, Integrity, Communication, Excellence.

Clearly, all the way from the top, Enron did not live the values it espoused. If you do not articulate a culture and enforce that culture, a culture will still emerge – but it will not be the culture you want it to be. This applies to companies and families.

Making a culture is not an instant loop; it is not something you decide on, communicate, and then expect it to suddenly work on its own.

You need to be sure to follow through on your culture commitments. Christensen assures the reader that there will be many days when enforcing the rules is harder on a parent than it is on a child. Inconsistencies, however, allow a culture of laziness or defiance to creep in. Culture is like an autopilot. In order for it to be effective, it must be programmed effectively by building the culture you want in your family.

If it you do not consciously build it and reinforce it from the earliest stages of your family life, a culture will still form – but it will form in ways you may not like. Although it can be difficult to be consistent with praise and punishment, it is in these everyday interactions that your culture is being set. And once that happens, it is almost impossible to change.

Staying Out of Jail

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” – C.S. Lewis

It is hard to imagine that anyone caught making bad decisions expected that they were going to make such decisions when they graduated from college, started their career, or anywhere else along the way.

Unfortunately, many times people make bad decisions because of how they weigh their decisions. Using the “full versus marginal thinking” theory, Christensen teaches the reader how to answer the final question: how can I be sure I live a life of integrity?

Blockbuster’s demise is a classic example of getting caught in marginal thinking when it should have been thinking about the full cost of its decision to avoid entering the movie rental by post industry in which Netflix has thrived.

Blockbuster followed a principle taught in every fundamental course in finance and economics: that in evaluating alternative investments, we should ignore sunk and fixed costs, and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues that each alternative entails.

This is a dangerous way of thinking. Almost always, such analysis shows that the marginal costs are lower, and marginal profits are higher, than the full cost. This doctrine biases companies to leverage what they have put in place to succeed in the past, instead of guiding them to create the capabilities they will need in the future. If we knew the future would be the same as the past, this analysis would be fine – but the future is hardly ever the same as the past.

Marginal thinking made Blockbuster believe that the alternative to pursuing the postal DVD market was to continue what it was doing, at 66 percent margins and billions of dollars in revenue. But the real alternative was, in fact, bankruptcy.

Blockbuster should have been thinking: “If we didn’t have an existing business, how could we best build a new one?

What would be the best way for us to serve our customers?” Blockbuster did not, and Netflix did, and Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. This is almost always how it plays out. Because failure is often at the end of a path of marginal thinking, we end up paying for the full cost of our decisions, not the marginal costs, whether we like it or not.

Likewise, in life, we often find ourselves thinking marginally. The marginal cost of doing something “just this once” always seems to be negligible, but the full cost will typically be much higher. The voice in our head often says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular circumstance it’s okay.” It suckers you in, and you do not see where that path is ultimately headed or the full cost that the choice entails.

The first step down the path to a life void of integrity begins with small decisions. You justify the small decisions that lead up to the big one and then you get to the big one and it doesn’t seem so enormous anymore. You don’t realize the road you are on until you look up and see you have arrived at a destination you would have once considered unthinkable.

If you give in to “just this once”, based on a marginal-cost analysis, you will regret where you end up. It is easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time. The boundary – your personal moral line – is powerful, because you do not cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there is nothing to stop you doing it again.

Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.

HookedtoBooks.com would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content. Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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