Sell your principles (not your values)

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Not that anyone’s offering, but I want you to know that my principles are available for sale or trade, if the right offer should come along.

It’s important to note that there’s a big difference, in my mind, between principles and values. This difference is subject to no small amount of interpretation, and you may not agree with my definitions, but let’s assume the following to illustrate a point.

Can we call for a definition?

Principles are beliefs based on observation. They are learned. They direct my actions.

Values are core philosophical understandings. They are discovered. They form my identity.

How we get them

Principles are based on experience, and mine seem to evolve at an accelerating pace as I age. I adhere the best I can to the principles I have at the time, but I’ve learned not to get attached to them. Several months ago, I had strong opinions on principles of good software development, but I now find myself taking the opposite position in many areas.

And that’s better than okay, it’s great. Evidence comes across, and your precious principle starts causing you pain, and you start refining your principle. For newer software developers indoctrinated with the idea of TATFT (test all the f****** time), the principle quickly evolves into something that a person can actually live with.

Currently, painful experience has taught me that I don’t want to be caught with any significant functionality in my code that isn’t covered by tests. So I test my code. Most of the f****** time.

That’s a principle. It’s not me, it’s just something I try to do.

Values are different. I’ve discovered my values when I read, hear, or see something that hits my natural frequency. It bangs my psyche like a gong.

When I first truly heard the George Harrison song “Within You Without You”:

“With our love, with our love, we could save the world… If they only knew!”

I pulled over in my car because I couldn’t see. I’d just spontaneously started crying. I still tear up when I hear it. That hit my exact natural frequency. Love can change the world. We can change the world. With love.

That’s a value. That’s me. That’s who I strive to be.

Dying on Principle Hill

There’s a hero fantasy that many of us share about dying for our principles. To use a contrived example: “Did you hear that when Bob was asked to spend Saturday working instead of with his family, he quit? He’s so principled!”

This would be much less likely gossip: “Did you hear that when Sandy was asked to work on a Saturday, she said she would, but needed an extra day next week to spend with her family? She’s so reasonable!”

When we pick a “hill to die on”, it’s often because we’ve mixed up our principles with our values. We can attach so completely to a principle that we wrap it into our identity, which shuts down our ability to reason about that thing.

How can you tell values from principles?

Separating values from principles comes largely with experience. But I don’t think a person gets to carry around very many values. So if you need two (or more) hands to count them, that may be a sign you’re mixing up the two.

It would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, for someone else to bribe, pressure, or convince you to violate your values. Could someone else coerce you into violating it? If so, it’s probably a principle, not a value.

And if you can cite specific examples of how your outlook or your life changed as a result of a realization or discovery, you very well could be talking about a value, and you want to hold fast to those when you find them (again, they’re few and precious).

Sell ’em, trade ’em, just trade up

Someone wants to give you a reward (or a paycheck) to do something that contradicts your principles? Sorry to tell you, it’s not black and white. It may very well be the right thing for you, in that moment, to exchange that principle for the reward you’ll receive.

If you feel a strong sense of conflict between your principles and your work, you’re not selling the principles themselves, you’re selling the right to violate them. This cedes control of them to someone else and breeds resentment.

The good news is that as soon as you assume ownership of your principles, you have the ability to trade or sell them, rather than just selling others the right to violate them. There’s no resentment for treading upon them, and no smug satisfaction for adhering to them, because it’s not you, it’s just something you try your best to do.

I think it’s healthy to learn to happily trade in principles, as long as you’re trading up. It complicates some decision making, as you’re always considering tradeoffs, rather than setting up hard and fast rules in your life and always coloring inside the lines.

Shifting to value-based decisions

Principles, to me, are something like training wheels for decision making. Perhaps the path to enlightenment is to graduate from principles entirely and understand your own values so well that you rely solely on your values as the basis for your decisions.

The first step on this path is to understand that your principles are subject to change, and that when they start causing you pain or conflict, it may be time to consider whether that principle still holds true for that situation. Remember: the principle is not you, it’s just something you try to do.

Lastly, take some time every once in a while to meditate on your values. What hits you like a bolt of lighting? What do you want the totality of your life to amount to? Once you find these, hang on to them, they’re not for sale.