Work-Life Lessons from The Legendary Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker’s influence on business management is legendary, yet his ideas about personal growth have largely been overlooked. In his new book Living in More than One World, Bruce Rosenstein compiles Drucker’s wisdom on self-management.

Peter Drucker—“the father of modern management”—turned management theory into a serious discipline.

In a legendary 70-year career, Drucker revolutionized modern business practices, influencing such far-reaching developments as decentralization, privatization, and empowerment. He was among the first to address the emergence of the information society and, in 1959, coined the now defining term “knowledge worker.”

Yet, today, most people don’t know that Drucker’s teachings on personal growth—or self-management—are as profound as his views on organizational management. This wisdom, while a recurring theme in Drucker’s work, had remained scattered throughout his myriad writings—until now.

Creating a total life

Drucker personified the value of creating and living a “total life” with diverse interests, relationships, and pursuits—or what he called “living in more than one world.” That way, when you have a setback in one area—suffering or surviving a layoff, for instance—you can soften the blow by developing other areas of strength and support. You can also add new meaning and dimensions to your life and, with activities such as volunteer work, make a difference in the lives of others. So, how do you create a total life? Consider five key elements as exemplified by Drucker himself.

1. Practicing self-development
Self-development is a major theme throughout Drucker’s writings and teachings. “What matters,” he said, “is that the knowledge worker, by the time he or she reaches middle age, has developed and nourished a human being rather than a tax accountant or a hydraulic engineer.” Think about your life, both as it is now and where you’d like it to go. Consider not just your work, but also your life outside of work—family, friends, interests, activities, and pursuits. Assess what’s working, what’s not, and what you might want to add or subtract to create more satisfaction and fulfillment.

2. Identifying and developing your unique strengths
The concept of core competencies may have been created for organizations, but today it applies to individuals as well. Drucker said, in his experience, few people could articulate their areas of strength. Consider what’s unique about what you do, and in what areas you excel and contribute the most, both at work and outside of work. Focus on those strengths—your own core competencies—and find new ways to cultivate and cherish them. Odds are, you can apply them to a variety of jobs, volunteer positions, and more.

3. Creating a parallel or second career
Drucker said, “The purpose of the work on making the future is not to decide what should be done tomorrow, but what should be done today to have a tomorrow.” One unique idea he advocated was creating a “parallel career” in areas such as teaching, writing, or working in nonprofit organizations. He also encouraged developing a second career, often by doing similar work in a significantly different setting—a lawyer, for instance, might move from a traditional law firm to a legal nonprofit dedicated to a personally meaningful cause. While still in your main job, start thinking about your own possibilities for a parallel or second career. Consider how they match your values, experience, and education, and what shifts you might need to make in your life to support such changes.

4. Exercising your generosity
An essential part of living in more than one world, Drucker believed, is displaying a sense of generosity. Here, he said, “…everybody is a leader, everybody is responsible, everybody acts.” Sharing your time and talents in areas such as volunteerism, social entrepreneurship, and mentoring not only provide opportunities to contribute, but also offer personal benefits, from broadening and deepening your life experience to expanding your circle of friends and colleagues. Think about what happens outside your workplace—in other industries, professions, and walks of life—and consider ways you can exercise your own generosity.

5. Teaching and learning
In Drucker’s vision of a strong, functioning society, education plays a key role. He believed that knowledge workers must start learning during their formal schooling and then never stop throughout their lives. However, it’s up to them, he said, to incorporate continuous learning as a natural part of their daily life— deciding what and how they’d like to learn and determining how they’ll build in the time. Consider your own priorities for learning, as well as how you learn best—taking classes, reading articles and books, asking or observing others, or some blend therein. You might also want to teach. As Drucker acknowledged, “No one learns as much as the person who must teach his subject.”

Start where you are

Drucker’s secrets to success can help your own life and career be more satisfying, meaningful and multidimensional. Seven tips for getting started:

1. Focus on achievement—not money
Drucker drew an important distinction between achievement and money. He suggested focusing on achievement and paying attention to how your successes, on and off the job, benefit both you and others. That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t make money, Drucker explained, but that the pursuit of money ought to play a subordinate role.

2. Make time for thinking
Thinking is hard work, and in our fast-paced society, said Drucker, it is sorely devalued. The point, he urged, is to break from the daily grind and think about where you are and where you’re going. You might not have the desire or means for Drucker’s suggested “week in the wilderness,” but surely you can carve out an hour now and then for self-reflection. Take a walk, practice yoga or meditation, or sit in nature.

3. Practice “systematic abandonment”
“People are effective because they say no…because they say ‘this isn’t for me,’” declared Drucker. Practice what he called “systematic abandonment”—stepping back, at regular intervals, to determine which of your present activities can be scaled back or eliminated. Only then can you make way for something more fruitful, such as teaching, learning, or volunteering.

4. Volunteer your time and talent
Drucker saw volunteerism as essential to the smooth functioning of society, as well as a satisfying way of ensuring that work doesn’t consume your life. Today, there are hundreds of volunteering opportunities to choose from. Drucker’s recommendation was simple: Find an organization and cause you believe in—and get to work!

5. Become a mentor
Mentorship may be broader than just showing someone the ropes in a group or organization. It can include wide-ranging career and life advice, and as Drucker said, provide big benefits not only to the “mentee” but also to the mentor. If you’ve been guided by mentors of your own, pay it forward by mentoring others. If not, look for opportunities to both mentor and be mentored.

6. Learn the art of leisure
Drucker observed that “loafing” is easy, but “leisure” is difficult. As important as work is, avoid allowing it to be your only source of fulfillment. Find an outside interest or two, focusing on things that may bring you pleasure, satisfaction, and a heightened sense of self-worth.

7. Be the CEO of your own life
Drucker saw self-management as an ongoing discipline, requiring self-knowledge, introspection, and personal responsibility. “In effect,” he said, “managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer.” Start now to think of yourself as the CEO of your own life and career, and take accountability for your decisions and actions. Know who you are, what is important to you, and how you will contribute at work and in the world.

Finally, take a deep breath and don’t expect everything to happen at once. Start where you are and move towards your total life one step at a time.

Bruce Rosenstein is author of Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, 2009, $19.95). A former business writer and librarian at USA Today, he has studied, interviewed, and written about Peter Drucker for more than two decades. He is a speaker, writer, and freelance journalist. Contact him on the Web at

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