🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GEmfVbVL2A.
There’s nothing quite like a car accident to help you identify your values.
Thirty years ago, Hyrum Smith became well-known for his “Productivity Pyramid” and popularized the practice of value-setting in his Franklin Planner system:
- How can you identify things to do if you haven’t identified your goals?
- How can you identify goals if you haven’t taken the time to identify your values?
While I was trained in the Franklin Planner, and appreciated the fact that what I do each day should have its roots in goals and values, Hyrum Smith’s approach always felt a little bit soulless. Why should values focus on productivity? Life is not all about productivity. It’s about floating through space on an earth-sized boat with trillions of other creatures, supporting one another while we try to make sense of what we are doing here together. While I had developed some values that underpinned what I did back then, all I can recall about them is that they were unremarkable and unmemorable.
I don’t think I’m alone. Most people I know — leaders included — have not taken the time to write out and articulate their personal values in a way that brings them personal clarity and vision. It’s a worthwhile exercise, as I hope you come to see.
In my first winter in Rochester, NY, my daily commute to Webster, NY involved driving over the infamous Irondequoit Bay Bridge. Traveling eastbound in the highly-cambered left lane one chilly January morning at 55 miles per hour, my car slid on black ice into the central barrier, ricocheting across all three lanes of traffic, straight toward the water side of the bridge.
In that moment, I closed my eyes.
I was sure that I was going to fly right off the bridge and into the cold bay below. It’s hard to describe what the human brain can conjure in the course of one or two seconds, but I can tell you that this is what came into mine:
“I am going to die. But at least I’ve settled every issue and shared my key life lessons with others, with no lasting regrets.”
Then, I bounced from barrier on the water side of the bridge, ricocheting back into the middle lane of the highway, where my car came to rest. No other cars hit me. I opened my eyes, yet I was fairly confident that I was dead. Airbag smoke filled the cabin, my glasses were blown off my face, and I could not see very well. I took a minute to think about whether or not I was dead, and thought, “Well, if I am alive, I should at least be able to get out of this car.”
Getting out of a car on a busy highway is a bad idea, but adrenaline and cortisol have a way of making you do dumb things. I wound up being perfectly OK, with only a seat-belt bruise across my chest (which I didn’t discover until taking my shirt off later that evening.) My car was totaled, but I walked away with the greatest epiphany of my life:
“Whenever I confront my mortality the next time, I want to have the very same feeling that I did this morning.”
My values didn’t change in that moment; they merely became clear. Over the following years, as I went back to articulate my values, they developed into this:
- To love my partner Charles all day, every day. To be with him as often as I can, and to help him with whatever he needs. To learn from him, to listen to him, to make my life better. To do the same for him as he does for me.
- To be ready to pass away at any time, and to get others to understand why this is a valuable way of going about life. This involves sharing — never hoarding — my experiences and everything I know, ensuring that others are able to use what I share. This requires persistent teaching skills, and a dedication to knowing that this is an utmost priority.
- To do something rather than nothing. To take small steps toward an uncertain future. A partially complete plan with a spirit of commitment toward that uncertain future is more likely to survive the loss of a key person than a plan that never took root at all.
I would never wish you a car accident, but moments like this have a way of bringing all sorts of clarity.
Can I help you articulate your own core values without such a scare? Allow me to try.
Start by trying to identify your top three values:
- The first should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It should involve your devotion to a person, or being, or people who are closest to you. It might help you to amplify the earthly actions that drive your relationship with this person, or being, or people.
- The second should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve things that inform your daily behaviors and that ensure a sense of assuredness when you pass away.
- The third should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve the approach you take to do the things associated with your second value.
The values I value — and that are of value to us all — are the values that involve our soul, and not our work. I hope you can sense, as I do, that well-articulated values can have a huge impact on how you carry about your work. If your find that your work is at odds with your values, however…what you have, dear reader, is a bad job.
If the culture of your workplace allows it — and I hope that it does — I recommend that you and your leadership peers work on your individual values, and share them with one another. It can be especially valuable to do if your team is working on defining your company’s values; it’s almost impossible to do this well if the group of people doing it don’t have an appreciation for each other’s personal values. Although it requires a great deal of vulnerability, when done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and openly, this sort of exercise will enhance team understanding better than any Meyers Briggs test series can.
Are you willing to give this a start, today?