Sunday, November 8, 2015

What are your values? And how do you find them?

What happened to you?

How have you been? So a friend wrote me this week and asked why he hasn't seen any posts from me recently.  We'll call him Evan, even though his real name is Bryan.  So, do you know what I told Bryan?

I basically said: "Well, I like writing and all, but I really want to prioritize my career.  Maybe if I found a way to make some money writing, I'd do more of it."  Something like that.

Pretty uninspiring.  Then, I felt bad I actually replied that way.  A money-grubbing, whiny way.  Well, that made me pause and think about why I do what I do, and why I write?  Certainly, pragmatism goes a long way in life, but have you thought about what motivates your actions?

Why you do certain things in life?  And if you dug into those motivations for your actions, you get into incentives and into beliefs.

You work because you're paid to work.  That's an incentive.  You want to make money.  And maybe if someone offers you a bonus, you work a little harder.  That's incentive.  It makes people do good things and bad things.  The lure of profit incents a drug trafficker to smuggle illegal drugs across the border, even though it's dangerous and could land you in jail (to say nothing of the potential harm to user).

As for beliefs, if you think you're going to die next month, you'll act very differently from you are today (when most you think you'll be alive for many more decades).  People save money for retirement because they think the world will be similar to what we know today, and they want to have the means to live into old age.  You'd stop saving your money if the doctor told you you have malignant cancer that may be fatal.  I don't know.  Maybe you'll live it up more today instead of deferring living life until retirement.

Ancient Story of Values

Most people know who Adam and Eve are; the first couple in the creation story of the Bible.  Their first two children were sons named Cain and Abel.  Cain was a farmer and Abel tended to flocks (livestock).  Both make offerings to God.  While God accepts Abel's offerings, God rejects Cain's offerings.  Cain becomes angry, and out of jealousy, strikes and kills Abel.  First murder is a fraternicide.

Does God seem unfair?

I once read a speculation by the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant.  He mused that perhaps this episode represented the conflict of values between a nomadic society transitioning to to an agrarian one.  Those who tended to livestock moved around and lived in the field.  They were closer to the stars, nature, and to God.  Farming, on the other hand, demanded people settle down and construct infrastructure.  Over time, farming cultures build sophisticated civilizations.  They grow distant from God.

Instead of this analysis, I heard a values-based analysis.  The story is in Bible's Genesis chapter 4.  It makes an interesting qualitative difference between Abel's and Cain's offerings.

verse 3 - "In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord."
verse 4 - "And Abel also brought an offering - fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.  The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering."

The theological reading is that intentions are different from someone who gives the first stock versus someone who brings something in the course of time.  The latter is merely giving a budget line item.  Like a tax.  It's not just that the first fruit is better, as wine connoiseurs would know.  The one who gives the firstborn knows he may not have more, but gives it all the same.  Huge difference.

So that was very interesting.  What are your intentions?  And your intentions really reflect your values - what you fundamentally believe is important in your life.  And it is influenced (guided or misguided) by incentives in your life.

How do you dig deeper?

Finding what's important to you isn't simple.  So, to close the loop on this rant, I told Bryan I wanted to write for money, but that's not true.  Clearly, money was on my mind at the time, but I write for the joy of connecting with ideas and with people.  If the only one person got something out of this piece, then it was a worthwhile activity.  And even if no one read it, it gave me a chance to struggle with an important idea for myself.  That's worthwhile.  Nevermind the dollars and cents.

So, what can you do to connect with your own values and discover them further?  What do you love?

In Hackers and Painters, technologist and writer Paul Graham suggests a heuristic for discovering what you love in life.  He suggests simply: "always be producing."  What he means is that if you are always doing something you think is useful, you'll do so until you get bored and start doing something else.  If you don't get bored and keep doing that thing because you love it, well, you've discovered your passion.  In the process, you'll discover something about yourself and what you treasure.

Science supports this idea.  Contrary to what many believe, there is evidence that what you think and believe is affected by what you do.  As we all know, what we think or believe affects how we live.  Which is to say, what you do changes who you become.

I don't think I helped anyone solve her problems this week, but I hope you'll forgive me for the rant while I get back into the habit of writing more regularly.  See you soon!