Defining Your Principles

Yesterday I wrote a Tweet which asked what important lessons schools do not teach that people should still learn. There was no correct answer to this question, but the amount of responses I received on this Tweet reminded me of just how many things traditional education misses in their curricula. The commonality among a lot of the responses to this Tweet was the importance of defining values, being ethical, or working from first principles in some form. Although I did not mention values in my initial Tweet, I believe that defining one’s values — or principles — should be taught at the earliest possible stage in schools.

Right now, students are taught the basics of values in classrooms. They are taught about the importance of being honest, being helpful, and generally being nice to other people. However, there is a greater opportunity which lies in this topic that schools should explore in more depth: teaching students how to develop their own principles. Indeed, being kind, helpful, and honest are important, but there is a lot more that should be taught in this area. After all, in society, people want to work with other people who share the same principles as them. Most founders want to work with people who value integrity because they themselves hold the characteristic, and believe it is a necessary component for success.

Having a defined set of principles makes it easy for us to think from the ground up, and to develop our own opinions on a particular subject. If we held closely the principle that traditional education was not in our best interests, then that should serve as the logical basis for our developing a reasoned argument to support our stance. If, however, we were not to define this as a principle, it would be easier for other people to sway us in the other direction and discourage us from pursuing the path we think is best, in favor of the path they think is best for us. Values and principles are important among people who are going to subvert the norm — the non-conformists — as having an internal compass can help them stay on track, even when the world thinks they are wrong.

Having your own values reduces your dependency on politics, gossip, and society — three unreliable sources of information — to help you develop your own thoughts on a particular subject. Politics is divisive; gossip is incomplete and biased; society will always only give you half of the story, or less. Principles help us think from the ground up, using our first principles, rather than forcing us to depend on the opinions of others to validate our views. Principles help us develop a clearer view of the world based on our deeply-rooted beliefs about the world — the things that other people may not see, but make up our identity — and ultimately helps us stay on track toward our goals. If we are dependent on politics and society to help us achieve our goals, then we will always be doing what someone else thinks we are doing, rather than what we believe we should be doing.

With that in mind, I believe one of — if not the most — important principles that people should develop is a sense of integrity. Although this is taught in schools in some form, many people would not be able to define the word integrity at a young age, and students lack real-world experience about how they should practice integrity. Having a sense of integrity ensures that we will always guard our beliefs, even if someone else disputes them. Those who instill the value of integrity are less likely to compromise or give up when times get tough, because their internal compass does not agree with that notion. One way to tell if someone has integrity is by analyzing their interactions with other people in their life. Do they treat the waiter or waitress in a nice way, or are they mean and hostile? Do they treat their friends like family, or do they only develop relationships to advance their own best interests? People who hold integrity as a value are generally long-term thinkers, because they have a firm — almost irrational — belief in the work they are doing. This does not mean they are arrogant — indeed, most people with integrity are often open to hearing new perspectives — but rather than they don’t believe that the opinions of others should dictate the nature of their work.

Integrity is one of the most difficult values to cultivate, yet it is immensely valuable in one’s career. Warren Buffett, for example, has held on to certain companies for longer than some other people have said he should, because he believed in the work those companies were doing. Buffett was not interested in gaining a few additional percentage points for his portfolio — he valued being principled and ethical over short-term gains. Those with integrity will often find it easier to find great people to work with, because people with integrity naturally group together. They want to work with other people who are not willing to compromise on their values at the expense of others. This effect is particularly apparent among startup founders, who have an irrational — almost egomaniacal — belief that the work they are doing is important. People want to work with those who are willing to defend their own principles — in the long-run, they are better business partners.

Conversely, if you work with someone who has low integrity, then they will find it very difficult to contribute meaningfully to a project — no matter how smart or interesting they are — when they come under scrutiny from an external party. Also, those with low integrity typically value short-term gains over long-term wealth — because they don’t value the principle of long-term thinking — and so are often willing to cash in at the earliest possible stage, even if they are doing meaningful work that could have a larger impact on society in the future. In sum, you should always work with people who have cultivated the value of integrity.

Defining your principles gives you a guide as to how you should act in any given situation. If you value family, then perhaps you will say no to the extra hours your business is offering because you want to spend more time with them. If you value your time, then perhaps you will work to get yourself assigned to a more meaningful project within your job that would allow you to have a greater impact on the business, and society as a whole. If you don’t define your values, then you have to think about how to act in each situation, which not only consumes more mental energy, but also makes you appear more inconsistent among those who spend more time with you.

One principle that I value is being honest and direct. I value working with people who communicate clearly and are value the truth above all else. I value honest because those who are honest are able to provide me with better, and more actionable feedback about my work. The people who are willing to tell me when I done a great job and tell me when I need to improve are the people I want to work with. People who are honest have a belief that the best thing for someone else is knowing the whole truth, which allows them to make more informed decisions about their life and their work. I find that the ability to be direct and honest — especially in tough situations — is a rarity, but that only makes it even more refreshing when I encounter someone who does indeed possess the value of honesty.

The best way to define your principles is to think about the type of person you want to be, rather than the goal you want to achieve in the future. If you want to become a reader, then you should define that as a value. If you value reading, then you are more likely to carve out time in your day to read a few pages. If you want to be a nicer person, then you should cultivate helpfulness as a value. Each day, try to do something uniquely helpful for someone else, and work your way toward making that value part of your identity. Every decision you make is a vote for the type of person you want to be. Developing a set of internal principles will help you navigate the important decisions in your life and ensure that the final decision you make is in line with the person you want to be. Internal principles also assist you in being ethical in all of your actions, which will allow you to cultivate better connections with your friends and family, and attract more people who want to work with you.

Another way to develop your own principles is to surround yourself with people who hold that principle closely. Working in close proximity to principled people can help you gain a firmer understanding of how to implement a certain value in your life. Further, these principled people will only want to work with people who value principles as much as they do, and so you have an additional source of motivation and accountability that will help you stay on track.

Define your principles. Use those principles to make better decisions about your life. Work with ethical people.

  • Reason yourself