This is the third in a series of posts about travel, work, and living on your own terms. You might want to start here: A Radically Different Life, You Are A Product: Defining Your Vision.

A few years ago, I came to terms with the fact that I suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome, especially when it comes to work and projects. I’ve struck out on my own a few times — planning to build my own business and not work for someone else in an office job. Inevitably, when things got stressful financially, or I reached some sort of plateau, instead of pushing through, I would start to entertain job offers. I would convince myself that it was definitely the right move and the practical thing to do. It was, for a time, but it was never in-line with my vision and that always grew into frustration, which left me right back where I started: striking out on my own to try to build the business again. After a few loops on that roller coaster, I knew I needed to try something different to help myself stay focused on my goals and keep my Shiny Object Syndrome in check.

One thing I’ve learned works well is to minimize my decision points and the effort needed to make each decision. Whether it’s “Should I take this job?” or “Should I buy or do this Thing?,” I’ve put systems in place that help me quickly evaluate the options, make the decision, and move on. When something shiny gets put in front of me, I’m more likely to make the right decision if I’ve set the criteria ahead of time. And I’m less likely be to worn down by saying “no” over and over because I have a good (to me) reason behind my choice. I don’t like to dwell.

The inspiration for figuring out my own set of values was actually Buffer. They’re one of many companies that engrain a strong set of values into their business and seeing them use those values to such success inspired me to try it on my own experiment of Me: The Product.

Vision and values go hand-in-hand in good products. While the vision sets out what the product should be, values guide the the business in decisions that have to be made along the way. Should they have ads? Should they partner with this company? Should they give away all of their users’ email addresses to the highest bidder? (The answer to that last one should always be no, obviously.)

Nearly every company has a defined set of values. Some use them internally to guide their employees, like the card with the company’s core values that was attached to my ID badge my first day of work at Yahoo in 2009. Others publish them externally as a proclamation of what the company stands for. In either case, values are there to guide the company in its path toward achieving its vision. And, let’s be honest, for a good dose of PR.

As individuals, we rely on our own values for the same reason. Most of us learn the “golden rule” early on. There are other values that come with whatever religion you may subscribe to. Then there are the “just be a good person” values of — hopefully — don’t lie, cheat, steal, or kill.

But what about our own personal values? While I’m busy working toward my vision, what’s important for me to remember? How do I know if I’m making the right choice? How do I set my priorities and keep them in check?

We need to set values for ourselves so we have guideposts along the way.

One of my good friends tried to be vegetarian recently. When I asked her why, she said, “I just want to see how long I can go for.” Incidentally, that’s how I started as a vegetarian a few years back. When I decided I wanted to do for the long term, I incorporated it into my values. I suggested she figure out why she wanted to do it beyond the challenge so that it would be easier for her to keep to it when someone put a juicy steak in front of her. She didn’t have any particular reason.

When there’s something to remind you which choice to make, it’s a lot easier to stay on track. When temptations (well-paying jobs, ice cream sundaes) present themselves, will-power isn’t always enough, at least not for me. Logic and reason prevail. Having these in place before you need them is key.

My friend lasted 5 days as a vegetarian. It was bacon. The exact thing I said would be her downfall. It’s always the bacon.

I decided to define my own set of values a few years ago while I was backpacking in Southeast Asia. I realized that there were aspects of other cultures that I really appreciated, but weren’t super common at home. I wanted to somehow incorporate these ideas into my everyday life. And also not be tempted by a cushy office job when I got back home.

I sat down with my trusty notebook again and started writing. What matters to me? What are the things I feel strongly about? What are the things I believe to be right and true? What are the character traits I want to amplify?

Using that list as a starting point, I whittled it down to the core. In the Product world: I picked out the “must haves” versus the “nice to haves.” Now there are 5.

My values, pulled straight from my notes:

  • Experiences Over Things — Focus on having amazing experiences instead of accumulating “stuff.” Buy things that are built to last and don’t create waste. Keep it simple and minimal and use that simplicity to enable flexibility. (This was my first value and has been my guiding value for the last ~4–5 years.)
  • Always Be Learning — Continue to learn from books, classes, experiences, the people and world around you. Always reflect. Always improve.
  • Choose Health First — If you’re not healthy, what’s the point of it all? Choose fitness. Choose good food. Choose the thing that leads to long-term health over short-term gain. This applies to mental and physical health.
  • Quality Over Quantity — In life and relationships. Cultivate meaningful relationships that endure time and distance. Develop depth over breadth. Two good friends is better than a million acquaintances.
  • Meaningful Work — Work on the things that provide the most satisfaction and fulfillment. Work on things that are in-line with the other values. You have to work anyway, so why not make it for the greater good. I’m not perfect at following them, but it’s a work-in-progress.

Just as when you’re defining your vision, this is a time to shed the “shoulds” and the opinions of others. This is about you. Here is a list of values to help spark your imagination. Pick the ones that stand out to you about who you are (and a bit of who you want to be). Be honest with yourself. We all want to be “good” and “happy,” but be specific! It also helps for your values to be positive over negative (“Do this!” instead of “Don’t do this!”), but that’s not a requirement.

Your values should be something you can easily remember, not a document you need to pull out every time you have a decision to make. Once you’ve identified the values that matter most to you, cut the list in half, and then in half again until you reach ~5 values. Get to the values that truly matter.

For a business, success is an ongoing game of chess. It requires making the best decision or move with the information you have available to you at the time. Sometimes the decisions need to be made quickly, sometimes these decisions are big risks that could pay off greatly or crash and burn. A company’s values aren’t about what it’s going to build or how it’s going to make money, they’re about the foundation they’d like to stand their business on. Are they willing to sell their user data to the highest bidder? Are they going to risk every user’s future privacy for one exception? Companies put their values in place early on so when these tough decisions come along, they already know where they stand and can make the decision more quickly knowing it’s rooted in logic and reason over passion or fear.

The same is true for us. Thinking about yourself as a product means knowing where you’re going (your vision), knowing what matters most to you (your values), and knowing what you have to work with (your resources). With that information, no matter what decision is put in front of you, you can make the next best move toward turning your vision into reality.

When we’re dreaming big, it helps to ground those dreams with a solid foundation. It also helps us to remember who we are and what we stand for when that shiny opportunity comes along that, were we thinking more clearly, we might never have entertained.

Future You, sitting on the beach and sipping a cocktail (or whatever it is that’s in your Vision), will be pretty thankful that Past You took the time to figure all of this out.

What are your values? Share it with me on Twitter @jennjenn. If you liked this post, please 💚 it and share it with one of your favorite people. I’ll be posting the next installment soon, so follow along!