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Leading from Your Values

Within the walls of Chuck. E Cheese my kid’s reusable, purple, plastic wristband might as well be a Rolex and is valued by peers and staff thusly. But once back in the parking lot that same band has little to no value.

Value is the worth, importance, or usefulness of something as determined by individual preferences, needs, or context. Value comes in two basic varieties:

  • Intrinsic value is when something has value, but only to you. When the purple band is in the drawer it only holds intrinsic value to my kid, as it holds the promise of a sticky, loud, pizza-fueled adventure in the future.
  • Extrinsic value is when something has value that is agreed to by other people. When we walk through those Chuck E Cheese doors, we are now golden gods with that band. And everyone in the building knows what we have and what it (might be) worth.

What is *a* value?

A value is a principle or belief that individuals use to guide their behavior and decision-making. Your values can be expressed as words, phrases, actions and ideas. Ideally they represent what about your approach to life keeps you feeling like you.

While our values might only be mainly of intrinsic value, they also have a profound impact on our extrinsic value, and how we relate to the world around us.

Here are five areas of our lives that are impacted by our values, whether stated or unstated:

  • Introspection: How we think about ourselves and our life story
  • Intention: How we aim to impact the world
  • Interpersonal Relationships: How we interact with and treat other people
  • Investment: How we invest our time, money, energy and skills
  • Infrastructure: How we use (or don’t use) systems and resources

What is the value of defining your values?

Since values are reflected in everything we do, when values are undefined we lack a clear way to make an informed decision when a critical juncture comes up.

This often leads to two not-so-great paths:

  • We make a decision based on other people’s opinions (which are based on their values)
  • We make a decision based on our gut

While making decisions based on other people’s values may seem like an obvious problem to avoid, I can imagine that you might be surprised to see your own gut called into question as an inadequate decision partner.

The problem with making decisions from our gut is that before our values are well defined our gut is influenced, and easily swayed by things like content, audience, context, patience, and hunger … just to name a few.

The value of defining your values is to have something to check your gut against.

As an information architect I encourage people to externalize taxonomies so that things can be pointed at, moved around, and iterated on. Our personal values are just like any other taxonomy driving our life and the world around us. It exists without being documented, but documenting it can help us see it — sometimes for the first time — clearly. And seeing something clearly is the first step to making a change.

I had a student a few years back who was struggling because (while in a design program) they really wanted to make art.

Critique after critique they kept receiving feedback that felt inauthentic and in-actionable to the art they wanted to make. The feedback was often focused on design-driven areas like the efficiency of the user experience or the clarity of the marketing proposition, both of which were counter to the artistic work this student was after.

Luckily before it was too late in the semester we both realized they needed to tell their critique partners how their work was meant to value artistic expression over serving an audience. Until their values were stated clearly they would keep getting design feedback on the art being presented.

Living by vs. Leading from Values

I think there is a difference between living with and leading from your values. The core of that difference is the role of other people in holding us accountable to our values. When we are merely living by our values but not leading from them we can squander good opportunities to use the collective wisdom of others to our benefit.

Living by ValuesLeading From Values
Defining your valuesCommunicating your values to others in your life
Making decisions based on those valuesSharing how your decisions are impacted by your values
Using values to determine a missionStating a values-driven mission to others you collaborate with

In my prior example, my student was wasting the opportunity for their classmates to build on their ideas with their actual values in mind. I was able to see first hand how the communication of values changed the nature of critique and this student’s trajectory as an artist.

My Latest Evolution of Valuing Values

Three years ago I put aside practicing information architecture for corporations as a way to make money. It was a year-long experiment that turned into a lifestyle choice that is now emerging as a sustainable model.

Confidence by year graph

When I left my last corporate role in the fall of 2020 I had no clue I would make it three years without “getting a job” or “taking on a consulting project” since practicing IA was at that point a defining part of my identity and my most lucrative skill. I knew I was choosing myself, and trusted that I could figure out what’s next if given the time and space to do so.  

I knew I wanted to write another book, and after a few months noodling on ideas I did just that. Stuck? Diagrams Help. took eighteen months to bring into the world and was finally published in July of 2022. While working on that project I started to identify passive income streams that might support me as I was writing. I started my Etsy shop and published some of my most popular blog and presentation content as a set of workbooks and posters.

Those Etsy sales, existing book royalties, a residency teaching diagramming and a handful of speaking engagements supported me through the writing, editing and production process and the book project was a huge success, allowing me to look ahead to 2023 as what looked like it could be my third full year as a full-time writer.

At the start of 2023 my creative juices were at an all time high and I had what I would call in hindsight a writer’s spoil of riches for the first half of this year. I wrote some of the things I am now most proud of in my whole career during those six months. 

But by early Fall, 2023 turned out to be one of the hardest personal years yet.

Our family faced grief at a magnitude we hadn’t known possible with the sudden, tragic loss of my beloved father-in-law. And in the midst of our grief storm I also finally identified the source of an ongoing health issue that had really started to impact my quality of life and my ability to work — it turned out there was toxic mold growing under the floorboards of the studio above our garage where I work.

Cozy office space

We are now finally in the remediation process, and I will hopefully be back in a mold-free office by the new year, armed with a regime of potions and pills to help demold me. 

While this year has been one of the hardest on my heart, my family and my home life — I have (somehow) never felt more comfortable and confident in the value of what I spend my time on and what I bring into this world. 

My business and my responsibilities were able to flex when our family needed me, and my creative work was able to support (and even nourish) me through the chaos. My sense of myself has never been more solid, and my creative mind has never felt more determined to make things that help people to make the unclear, clear.

When I look back on what kept me stable when things got bleak, especially this year, it was having developed, started living by and leading from my own personal values.

Identifying Values (2021)

In 2021 while working on STUCK I also went (back) to therapy and started working through issues of my own mindset about myself. During that time I became a bit of a mantra hoarder and tried on values like they were twinsets. I confronted relationships in my life that were no longer good for me and faced my own shadow. I also invested in starting to heal in community with others through participating in a cohort with Humanity Centered (which I highly recommend). 

Living By Values (2022)

By 2022 I had experienced a few temptations of the consulting variety and had written a few proposals for projects — none of which ever felt like they were worth putting my values on hold for. I found myself writing proposals I knew no one would buy just so I could make them make the decision for me to stay on track with my own goals. 

Mid-year I wrote my first “Hell Yes, Hell No” list in which I described things I would focus on and opportunities that, no matter how juicy or lucrative, I would not engage with. Making that list was a life changing activity, and one I recommend to anyone taking on a major leap in focus.

Leading from Values (2023)

2023 has been an experiment in trusting my values to truly support my self care, my family and my creative work. 

Early this year I started to meet weekly with Alfi Oloo. His focus on performance coaching and self-directed learning had piqued my interest when he spoke about the Zone of Proximal Development at Makesensemess in 2022 so I was eager to collaborate on a community offering for the Sensemakers Club together. 

As we started to work on our ideas about what we might make together, we also started to use introspection exercises to get to know ourselves enough to get to know one another. Which led us to ultimately combine our interests and our values into a course teaching other people how to make sense of themselves. 

After a few years of trying values on for just the right fit, and with Alfi’s help, I have most recently reflected on and developed the following set of personal values that I am running my decisions through these days, and into 2024. 

  • Playful Home: I help create a relaxed, safe, and supportive home environment for my kid and my family to be playful and creative as we learn and grow up together
  • Community-based Education: I weave education and community together in meaningful ways that connect students across diverse backgrounds
  • Authentic Storytelling: I collect and use real stories (mine and others) to teach others about their own sensemaking potential
  • Kind over Nice: I try to always be kind, and not to skirt issue or confusion in the form of people-pleasing and codependency (even when it’s super freaking hard)
  • Curious over Consistent: I am following what I am interested in, while providing myself with the appropriate boundaries and routines to be happily productive and financially stable

Stating a value is one thing (and can be the first step) but living by your values is another, harder effort. While I can’t say I am fully living by my own values 100 percent of the time, below are a few of the values-led tactical experiments I have underway. 

I consider these the changes that have had the most impact on my ability to stick to my values even in the face of the personal chaos of this year:

  • Learn to Delegate: To protect my time and reserve it for creative work I hired a production assistant to take my work through the last mile of production, which often involves a lot of copy/paste and formatting. That wonderful person copy/pasted and formatted this paragraph so I could write another that you will see someday soon. 
  • Timebox to avoid Analysis Paralysis: Rather than letting myself noodle on an email or a social media post for an hour, I time-box and batch process everything that isn’t creative work so I can be flexible and expansive with everything that is creative. I am now a person with a visual timer in every room of my house.
  • Be Present: To protect myself from the suck and drama of social media (which wildly impacts my ability to be present with my family OR my work) I planned a cross-channel social media content strategy for my business at the start of each quarter, which my production assistant executes using scheduled posts.
  • Stay Connected: As a writer and small business owner, I mostly work alone. To be more vulnerable and open with others about my wins and struggles I have a weekly 1:1 peership schedule. I regularly meet with the same five peers at the same time each week, one per week day. Each provides peership in a different part of my life and work. This is 5 hours of my calendar that when things are humming along keeps me reflective and grateful and when things are crashing around me keeps me honest about what I need to start to heal back towards functional.

We are currently making sense of values!

If you are struggling to define your values or are seeking a framework to get you more aligned with your existing values, I have great news to share about what’s to come. This article is the first of a few you will be seeing from me on this topic in the new year.Alfi Oloo and I are currently teaching our first cohort of Making Sense of Yourself, and as part of that course we will be releasing a few of the tools we have developed for those students. We are currently putting the finishing touches on a Step-by-Step guide to developing your own values. So stay tuned (and if you have any interesting resources on value setting we would love to hear about them)