Articulating a value in words doesn't necessarily help you live it better. But you still might want to write out a value you have for various reasons, including:
- To tell someone what's important to you.
- To find others who share the value, by circulating a text.
- On a design project, to set a clear objective, or to check if users share the value, and whether your design helps them live by it.
- To inspire strangers. If you phrase your value correctly, people who don't have that value yet might see the wisdom in your value when they read it. They will think to themselves "I should try being that way!".
Each of these has different requirements, in terms of copy. But there are some things to keep in mind that will help with all four.
Before you start, make sure the idea in your mind is a real value.
Values are often discovered by: admiring someone, appreciating something in nature or human life, having difficult emotions (especially doubt, confusion, helplessness, shame, embarrassment, regret, grief) and realizing a new way you wanted to live or something that was newly important to you, or experimenting with how you try to act in a certain kind of situation.
In particular, make sure it's not a feeling or experience, a goal, or an internalized norm.
- Not a feeling or experience. Feelings or experiences are things that happen to you. Unlike experiences and feelings, values always involve (1) a way you are able to be; and (2) a kind of reflective stance, an assessment by yourself that something was meaningful to you and important to your way of living. Usually living by a value feels meaningful in the moment, but it doesn't have to. Sometimes you realize that a way you were able to act was super meaningful only after the fact.
- Not a goal. The meaningfulness of values is about expressing the value in your actions, not about the outcomes that result from acting that way. So "being honest" can be a value but not "making friends by being honest". Whether it's a value depends on which part of it seems meaningful or important. If it's only the outcome that's meaningful, then it's not a value.
- Not an internalized norm. Values aren't images you think you should live up to. Being a good father is not a value, and neither is "killing it as an entrepreneur" or "smashing the patriarchy". This is tricky territory because there are internalized norm versions of almost every value. Sometimes people are honest because it feels meaningful. Other times, because we feel like we're supposed to be. If it's in the second category, it's not a value. (Try playing to get to the value side of things.)On My Own Terms
The 3 Parts of a Value
An articulated value should have three parts. (1) The Context, (2) The Attentional Policy, and (3) The Source of Meaning.
Checklist in writing out a value
Avoid Vagueness and Poetry
The most common error is vagueness. Values are precise enough to guide you in specific concrete situations that you face in life.
- "I value community". Imagine asking a theater director how you should play a friendship scene, and she says "community". Would you feel like you knew how to proceed? I think you see the problem.
- "Be Kind". Again, it's not clear how I could approach the situation, or what potential choices should stand out. I can't design with this formulation of my value.
- "Approaching things with a concrete sense of philosophical equanimity". What does that even mean? Often people will come up with a value that sounds interesting, poetic, or smart, but is actually so abstract that it doesn't matter to them in direct experience.
- "Stand by people figure as they figure things out". That's better, but what does "stand by people" or "figure things out" actually mean for me?
- "See the plank in my own eye when I look at the speck in yours". This might be capturing what inspires me when I reflect on my experience. But how would I act on this Biblical image? It's better to use less poetic language.
1) How could you formulate this phrase so that what you mean is harder to misunderstand?
2) Is it more about THIS or THAT?
- Imagine conflicting interpretations of the value, and ask if it's more about this or that.
- Reminder: it can always be neither or both.
3) Look for opportunities to ZOOM IN / ZOOM OUT
- Zoom in by exporing what a particular word means to your interviewee;
- Zoom out to see how that changes the current way you phrase the value.
Avoid Images to Live Up To
People also tend to confuse values with internalized norms, or self-expectations. But these have a different form. Internalized norms are images to live up to, rather than instructions to follow.
The following are images to live up to. In each case, they don't tell you how to do the thing.
- "Criticize people in a way that doesn't upset them". This is clear, but doesn't show me where I should direct my awareness. (It's about a goal with other people).
- "Stick together through thick and thin". I can imagine what I'm supposed to do, but it's still just an instruction. Like "stay calm", it won't guide me towards what is important when I am making real choices.
- "Stay calm, and don't take things too personally". This is perhaps decent advice, but it's also an instruction, and doesn't help me focus my awareness on relevant choices.
- "Don't feel resigned and isolated in difficult situations". This points in the direction of something important, but also isn't actionable. It doesn't really foreground choices that I could make.
Include the Context
All values have a context. Being 'kind and gracious' might be someone's value when socializing with friends, and being 'ruthless and harsh' might be a good way to live in a martial arts class. Having a clear context helps articulate the other two parts of a value.
Include what you pay attention to
You can always view a value as a bit of advice about what to attend to. It's a kind of instruction that's like, hey, in this kind of situation, pay attention to this.
1) Does your phrase help you remember what to pay attention to?
Your 🌳 Personal Value needs to foreground relevant choices in a social environment.
Where should you direct your attention in order to live by this personal value?
Rephrase the personal value to make those things stand out:
Include what's meaningful
A value should also give at least some readers a sense of why it's meaningful to live that way. Not everyone will get it, but the text should contain clues about why it's important to you to pay attention to that rather than other things in this context.
Something like "not having to worry about how I look" is not a value, because it doesn't name the thing that's meaningful. It might name an important step in creating meaning, but it doesn't name what's meaningful itself. So if you start writing something like this, ask "how is it that I can be when I'm not worrying about how I look?"