Marginal Thinking

In Clayton Christensen’s “How will you measure your life”, he keeps his final idea about life to a warning about marginal thinking. It was surprising because he was a business school professor and trained in Economics. One of the gifts of the subject of Economics is actually the ability to think in terms of marginal costs. And this marginal thinking allows us to achieve great optimisation.

The warning that Clayton was sounding is really about over-optimisation in a context and environment that is ever changing. And because the context and actions of others are going to change and influence your flow of cost and benefits, thinking marginally can cause you to miss the big picture and fail to take the right pre-emptive actions. You will fail to realise the cost of not investing in something new and disruptive.

His application to life is equally surprising. It was to issues of moral and integrity. And I think his idea is important because so many of us have begin to think of cost-benefit analysis exactly in the marginal way prescribed by economics textbooks that we no longer leave room for discussion of values and morals. The economic principle of marginal thinking assumes that the costs and benefits assessed are independent of the context and unlike to change any of the future costs and benefits. Either that, or the dynamic element of time do not exist in the decision-making framework here.

Clayton encourages us to understand the full costs of our seemingly one-off deviations from our values and principles. Because when we perform cost-benefit analysis and think that the once off deviance would be worthwhile, we do not realise how the deviation changes us as a person, our identity and relationship to our principles.