In tandem with my latest writing project, a field guide I’ve been working on for leaders, I did a deep values inventory. In all the business classes I teach and when I collaborate with a client, I ask people’s top 3-5 values. Almost to a person, this question leaves people feeling unprepared.
I put this question to myself, and I thought I had answers I was comfortable with: integrity, health, authenticity, etc. But those responses still felt deeply unsatisfying because I wasn’t actively living all of them. For example, I say health is important, but I’ve not oriented my life in a way that lives that out.
Values are the rocks that ground us when we become overwhelmed by life’s intertia and pressure. They drive a fair amount of our behavior and when I looked back on my own life experience, choices I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned, I realize that I needed to go deeper in assessing and defining my values, and then linking them to principles that ultimately orient my day, serve as a prism for my decisions, and ultimately guide my life.
I believe that if we don’t understand what drives our behavior, we lack a meaningful understanding of how we make decisions.
Artist Ann Hamilton has said, “labor is a way of knowing.” In other words, what we work on is what we understand about the world. If this is true, and I think it is, then those of us who have primarily relied on principles of efficiency, speed, and data over process, direction, and intuition (and vice versa) walk a Life Path that is 3-degrees off course. And we wonder why we are not completely aligned with our boss, our partners, our work environments…
There is no lack of skills to develop and methods to learn—but little attention to guiding principles. The person who has principles, I contend, can more successfully select which skills and methods are needed because methods without principles lead to disaster.
We are seeing this play out in technology today, where the guiding principle was primarily “can we?” versus an ethically grounded principle of “should we?”
New readers of the Geology of Ideas might feel overwhelmed by the breadth and volume of articles on the site. There is everything from basic psychology and philosophy concepts, to lighter meditations and reflections. That can make it hard to tell at a glance what I’m all about, so over a period of several weeks I identified the core principles that drive what I do here and in my practice.
I started this process by what values guide my own life and learning. Obvious phrases came up like “meaningful work,” “always be learning,” “enable creativity,” and “invest in maintenance” were just a few.
Next, I grouped together values in a kind of mind map. Some naturally grouped, others could belong to multiple groups, and some stood alone. I set the document aside for a while, thinking that it was a wasted exercise and I had fallen for what felt like a classic, dead-end leadership exercise.
But there were some leaders that I have worked for and with, those that make me pause and think, some whom I have studied for research—people who really stand out—and I went back to my research to understand how exactly they embody their values differently:
Reflect on your life. Take your whole life path and all your major decisions, particularly when you were under pressure. Understand what values showed up and why. Context is important.
Define these values for yourself, in your own words. Don’t just choose values from a list.
Ask others. Seek feedback from others about how your values manifest to them.
Define your practice(s). Define measurable working practices that allow others to experience you as a truly values-based individual.
Using this process, which wasn’t easy, I gained a lot of insights about myself and narrowed my values down to five succinct principles.
All that I write about, think about, and strive to achieve is inspired by one or more of the following principles. I hope they offer some clarity about what I believe, and perhaps some direction as you carve your own path.
My Big Five
1. Be Deliberate
One of the most important lessons I learned over the years is the importance of being deliberate. The research I did with master craftsmen and women deepened my understanding of how values contribute to guiding principles and just how much they can direct and focus our lives if we pay attention.
Many of us settle into habits and succumb to inertia of back-to-back meetings, the din of evening television, or the constant chatter of social media. Too often, we wait for some future event to occur before we make a choice or really start living. I hear “after the kids graduate, I can…” or “after I get that promotion or title, I can….” –these are classic examples of living in the future. While we wait for that raise or career opportunity or ideal relationship, we tend to forget that life is happening now.
Thoreau went “to the woods to live deliberately,” not at all to be off-the-grid but to find space to cultivate a life with meaning and purpose. Since the first campfire, people have always struggled to define themselves as individuals away from the influence and dictates of the group. The motivation behind his experiment, a fear many of us share, was that when he came to the end of his life, he would “discover that [he] had not lived.”
Living deliberately is about being present, remaining aware, and committing to purposeful action. If we take the necessary steps to craft each day deliberately, in the end we’ll be able to look back at a rich life, one that enabled fulfillment and satisfaction.
It is crucial for everyone to find time to contemplate hard ideas and reflect on what was and what should be.
Set time aside today to pursue your vision.
Start today to learn the things you’ve always wanted to learn.
Connect today to repair a relationship where you experience tension or anxiety.
Today, let go of the people, the work, and the environments that are holding you down.
2. Maintain Tension
Doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s important to hold my certainty loosely. Craftsmen know that the energy that goes into creating something new is not the same energy that goes into maintaining knowledge. In order to learn something new, they know they have to hold their knowledge with an open mind.
Consider how you react when you’re faced with opposition to long-held beliefs? Strong facts that counter your worldview about yourself, or topics you hold dear?
Do you update your knowledge database with the new facts, or do you resist, rationalize, or refute new information to maintain the status quo?
If we’re honest, we’re not all as open-minded as we would like to think we are. We are not always eager to learn of someone’s opinion of us, so we seldom ask. We are not always open to learning a new way to do things if the way we have been doing things has served us to this point.
The reason, we don’t like cognitive dissonance. We prefer routine, not inconsistency. It takes a significant amount of inconsistency and effort to be firm enough in our convictions that we can be bold in our actions, yet humble enough to leave room to be wrong.
As our understanding of the world we live in, the systems and ecosystems that drive it, and the mysteries of human behavior increase, we must be willing to adapt to new knowledge. To learn and grow as an individual, an organization, and society, we need to position ourselves to lead the life we want to live by solving the problems that fascinate us.
When we resist that growth or feel threatened by new information, we intentionally or unintentionally filter out people, evidence, and experiences that may conflict with our current world view, keeping us in a bubble and ignorant of a wider perspective. We sacrifice being correct for being “right.”
And for personal and professional mastery, that is the kiss of death.
3. Journey Over Destination; Direction Over Speed
If you’re pointed in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re traveling. Inversely, if you’re locked on to your desired destination, all progress is positive, no matter how slow you’re going. You’ll reach your goal eventually.
As someone who is motivated by results, this is an idea with which I have much intimacy in understanding as I continue to integrate it into my life. For me, it’s like being on a fast train holding certainty of when my stop is coming. With that comes the knowledge that there will be stops along the way. I’ll learn from these and move on, once again certain in the knowledge that they won’t last long and are predictable. There is also the knowledge that I’ll get to my destination “on schedule.” I explore the tension of certainty and uncertainty in daily reflections tagged #NotesFromMyYogaJournal.
However, when it came to the goals most important to me in life, times when I wasn’t getting the kind of fulfillment or momentum I was looking for, I learned I needed to jump tracks entirely. Sometimes that worked because I was thoughtful and committed. There were other times it didn’t work because being busy isn’t necessarily moving forward. Progress can be an illusion. I explore deeper, more critical thinking in articles about human behavior in the Mental Models section.
All of us have a map and are the cartographers of our Life Path, whether we are aware of it or not. And once you’ve charted a route that will get you where you want to be, stay the course. You’ll learn that your Path is not always about moving forward. In fact, there might be long periods where you must learn a completely different set of skills in order to bloom where you are planted. But if you trust in the process, you’ll look back and be inspired by your life and astonished at how far you’ve come.
4. Principles Survive Tactics
In any sport, there are endless combinations of plays. The plays we experience the most success with go in our playbook as we continue to add to and hone those skills. A good coach will develop a play based on their teams’ strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses. Plays are based on principles that are fully understood by the entire team. A play can be stolen when an opposing team spots tactics that have been effective and plugs them directly into their own programs.
In a game, both the coach and the play-stealer will call successful and unsuccessful plays. The difference between the two is that only the coach can determine why a play was successful or unsuccessful. It is the coach that can determine the best adjustments to the play. And only the coach understands what the play was designed to accomplish and where it went wrong and can easily course-correct. Only the coach as the complete perspective of the game.
The play-stealer is reacting. The play-stealer is playing their opponent’s game, not their own. The play-stealer doesn’t understand the difference between something that didn’t work and something that played into the other team’s strengths.
Tactics provide the “what” and the “how.” Sometimes that can be enough to get a result. But if you want results no matter how the landscape changes, you must also understand the “why.” By understanding the principles that shape your reality, your “why” will more accurately guide your thoughts and actions.
5. Take Responsibility. Own Your Actions
Owning our actions can be incredibly difficult to do. No one likes to expose their egos or make ourselves vulnerable when we make mistakes. We don’t like a lot of attention to the decisions and actions in our lives of which we are least proud. But one of the most powerful ways to take big strides forward is to not only accept that we’ll mess up but to actively seek out a correction when we do.
When we blame others for how we feel, ghost people who make us uncomfortable, or refuse to accept ownership of our mistakes, we’ve warped the feedback loop we rely on to make better decisions in the future. We are the common denominators in all the problems that irk and upset us. When we fail to understand that, nothing will ever change.
Steven Covey says that proactive people “do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior.” When we take ownership of our decisions, we leave less to chance. We can connect with our inner compass and chart our destinations with greater purpose.
Then the question is, “Where to?”
Photo by Pablo García Saldaña
What do you think?
If the CHC Principles resonate with you, there are several ways to engage with me. Come share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and coming soon is a private learning forum. I’d love to hear your voice and learn what world problems you are trying to solve!
 Thoreau, H. (1854). Walden, or Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.
 Covey, S. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon & Schuster.