The core value of core values

Why I think core values are important and how I use mine.

Where to apply for a job? Should you buy that new piece of equipment? Decision making is hard and exhausting, especially if we don't have an overall direction to follow. However, if we are explicit about our core values, we can use them to guide many difficult decisions. In this post, I first describe my personal core values and how they evolve, and then I demonstrate how I use them to guide my decision-making.

My core values

I have a picture in my head of my ideal self. This picture shows how I would behave if I had an inexhaustible amount of energy and time. In reality, I am not this person. My ideal self is formed from one set of core values, but my actual self also acts on some set of core values. The core values here result from a conversation between my ideal self and my real self.

I always feel uncomfortable when I have to do something that I am not an expert in. I find it very hard to be content with “Good enough.” I don't have to be the absolute best; I have to be among the best in my local environment. I have to be good, get good, or do something else. For example, I am not good at physical sports, so I avoid them. This can make it seem like I am good at everything I do, but I am cheating by only doing what I am good at.

I don't set a high bar for the people I interact with. Actually, I only have one requirement: that they are respectful to other people. I don’t care if we agree, as long as we are civilized and listen to each other with an open mind.

Quality makes me happy. I love using a product or service where I can feel someone has put in the effort to make my experience better. I always try to think before I say something and reflect on my experiences and how they affect others.

These have been my guiding value set for years. While they describe the world I aspire to live in, I think it is high time for refinement to incorporate all the things I have learned in the process.

I am still ambitious, but lately, I have come to appreciate the value of keeping a sustainable pace. Being among the best should not come at any cost. Specifically, it should not come at the expense of my health. I have seen colleagues succumb to stress and burn out. I have probably been close to my own limit. As I write in my book, I value continuous improvement more than the striving for perfection. “Learn every day” expresses my desire to improve, and it feels more human-friendly, more sustainable than raw ambition.

I also considered using curiosity for this spot as I value that very highly as well. I am curious when talking to other people, when learning about new topics, and when trying new experiences. However, I ultimately went with “learn every day” because it has more direction, more drive, whereas “curiosity” can be aimless.

Respect is important, but I want to take this further. I have realized that what drives me is making people happier. In my work, I try to do this by enabling developers to progress every day, which is the most significant job satisfaction factor. I do this by giving small, thoughtful gifts and designing experiences for the people closest to me in my private life. If some task does not have an element of making at least one human happier, I am likely never going to get around to it.

Thoughtfulness expressed my platonic view that if we think really hard about the past and future, we can avoid bad situations. But as I have matured, I now realize that this is anti-agile. I have entirely accepted that the world is unpredictable, and no planning will remedy this fact. What does remedy this, however, is a Darwinian mindset of adapting to changes.

Reality is like a frozen lake. Theoretically, the fastest way to cross it is to plan the shortest path and run at full speed. However, in practice, I would loosely plan a course, ready to change it as I tread lightly and carefully, giving me the highest chance of reaching the other side dry.

How I use my core values

I spend a lot of time reflecting and refining these values because the better they fit, the better I can use them afterward to guide my decisions. Let’s start with a simple example of how the values above come to fruition in my everyday-life: Between streams, I ask myself the simple question:

Based on what I learned from the previous stream,
what small change can I make
to make the next stream more enjoyable for the viewers?

Most commonly, I use them when I am about to do something that goes against them. When I was about to start streaming, I wanted to make a big dramatic change, but top-tier equipment, set up a real studio, and so forth. But I reminded myself to embrace small steps, which has saved me a lot of money. I know many things now that I did not know at the beginning, and I can make a much better decision.

To make other people happy is also something that seems easily forgotten in the toil of everyday-chores. Derived from my core value, I now have a rule that if there is an easy path to get a “thank you,” I have to take it. Likewise, if I get mad when something goes wrong, I have to be appreciative when something goes right. I make an effort to praise people when something goes smoothly. The less I notice it, the more praise is warranted.

When you do things right,
people wont be sure you've done anything at all.
— God, Futurama

Perhaps the most important decision I use my core values to decide is my place of work. Knowing how I want to live my life, it is much easier to discuss and access a potential employer or collaborator. I know that faced with a choice of helping some company make 20% more profit or making a free tool that can help hundreds of developers, I will choose the latter every single time. If a company has an affinity for making huge company-wide initiatives, then I know I won't thrive in that company. And I also know I work better in a start-up environment with lots of experimentation and learning than in a large company with lots of stability.

Caution: while most companies have core values or mission statements or similar, they are not always practiced in day to day work. Comparing your values with a company’s can be used as a quick and dirty estimation but should not be the sole decider.

This approach also gives me the cadence to refine my core values; whenever I am considering switching jobs. The logic being: if my current values lead me to this job, and I want to change it, my values must be obsolete. By following this principle, I have increased my personal job satisfaction a little with every job switch I have made. It also ensure that I will not accept a position with the same misalignment twice.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this post, and I hope you found something useful in it. If you like my writing, I urge you to check out my technical excellence book: