How to Find Your Values

house rules

At my house in San Francisco we have a set of “house rules” that go by the acronym ABCDEF.

By Ryan Allis

The most important person a leader leads is himself or herself. Without values, it is hard to know what you stand for, where you want to go, and the type of change you wish to make in the world. Without values, a leader will find it hard to find followers who are intrinsically motivated and inspired by the direction the leader is bringing the team.

Some of our values are inherited—from our families, our schools, our cultures, and the people who have shaped and influenced our thinking. As we mature, we have the opportunity to consciously choose our values, rather than blindly accepting those that have been given to us. Often, as part of our transition to adulthood, we reject the values we have been given in order to seek out our own. To some degree, our values change throughout our lifetime, but there may be certain core principles that remain constant. Values you have consciously chosen, as a result of deep thought and consideration, are the most powerful. They can help you to stay on course through life’s challenges and guide you in making difficult decisions.

When it comes to values, originality is not always a virtue. My core value, the one I hold above all others, is one that has been expressed for thousands of years in most of the great wisdom traditions—from ancient Greece, India, Egypt, China, and Babylon, to all of the major Axial Age religions. It’s so universal that it has come to be known as the Golden Rule (also called the “ethic of reciprocity”):

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Treat other people as you would want to be treated. “Love they neighbor as thyself,” as the Bible puts it. What could be a more fundamental value that that? It draws on our human capacity for empathy—for understanding and feeling another person’s perspective and experience. It also demands that we recognize the selfhood and intrinsic value of the other person. This, I believe, is the most important value to strive to live by. As they say in Silicon Valley, all else is hackable.

The ability to live the Golden Rule is something that, like good wine, tends to improve with age. While children begin to develop basic empathetic capacities in their first few years, it is not until the early to mid-twenties that most people develop the full neurological capacity. And some never do. As you mature through life, you may notice that you become better able to put yourself mentally in the shoes of other people. And you can consciously cultivate this capacity. If you can walk in the shoes of another and understand what he or she is experiencing, you can find ways to authentically care about the experiences of other people in your life.

From Me to We

The way I understand the Golden Rule most deeply is through the recognition of our interconnectedness, as a human species and as a planetary system of life. When we realize that everything we do affects others, and that we are inextricably connected to those others—“caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny” as Martin Luther King, Jr., so beautifully put it—we begin to care in a deeper way about the choices we make and the actions we take. We start thinking more about everyone else and the greater life-systems we are part of, rather than simply trying to improve our own lives and perhaps those of a few loved ones.

Justin Rosenstein, inventor of the Facebook “like” button and now co-founder of Asana, expressed this succinctly as “the shift from ME to WE” in a powerful talk he gave at the 2013 Wisdom 2.0 conference. I highly recommend watching the video. Rosenstein talks about “the shift from identifying with our individual minds and bodies to identifying with the needs and interests of humanity as a whole.” He points out that this shift is already underway, but we can accelerate it by, among other things, spreading an understanding of the idea of interconnectedness.

This core value—caring about our impact on others and seeing their interests as being as valid and significant as our own—is the essence of the Golden Rule. I believe that simply embracing this one value would dramatically change the way we do business, the way we steward our environment, the way we think about other nations and cultures and religions.

A Thought Experiment: “The Original Position”

One interesting way to contemplate values and the Golden Rule is to perform a little thought experiment. This is based on a hypothetical scenario known as “the Original Position,” which was developed by American philosopher John Rawls in the 1970s. Imagine that before your birth you were a soul, in a cave, with ten other souls. You didn’t know where, to whom, or as which gender you would end up being born.

Together with these other ten souls, your task is to agree on the way that the world should be. Once you agree, then you can be placed in your bodies and go ahead with your lives.

What would you decide? If you didn’t know where you would end up or who you would be, would you create a world where there were huge disparities of opportunity between people of different races, nationalities, genders, or classes? Or would you create a world of equal opportunity for all?

This simple thought experiment can quickly illuminate a rational and unbiased sense of what a just and fair world would look like—and therefore, what just and fair values would be.


Fifty Values I Do My Best To Follow

In addition to the Golden Rule, I have found fifty values I do my best to live by. I’ve drawn these from reading the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, some Greek philosophers, Benjamin Franklin’s 13 values (below), and other writers and thinkers I respect, as well as thinking about my life purpose. I’m far from perfect, but I try to follow these values as often as possible.

  1. Acceptance: I shall recognize the uniqueness in humanity of those who differ from myself.
  2. Action: Though deliberate and careful, I shall have a biased toward action.
  3. Adaptation: I shall maintain in a state able to flow, learn, and modify myself to fit new surroundings or occurrences.
  4. Analysis: I shall analyze what I do and do not do and attempt to define and derive inherent laws, axioms, tenants, and guideposts based on the effects of these actions and inactions.
  5. Best Effort: I shall put forth my full and best effort within the boundaries of proper physical and mental health.
  6. Challenge: I shall often challenge and step outside my comfort zone as to reach worthy goals.
  7. Commitment: I shall uphold my commitments and always under-promise and over-deliver.
  8. Communication: I shall make it a priority to learn and communicate extremely well with others.
  9. Confidence: I shall always be confident and optimistic and set my goals high.
  10. Contentment: I shall only be where I am and savor everything about that moment.
  11. Detail: I shall not dally needlessly in detail, but examine to the full extent needed.
  12. Environmentally Conscious: Though I shall promote the mastery of nature for the betterment of living conditions of humans, I shall never forget that the Earth should be treated as precious and that sustainability must be required if we are to survive as a species. I shall always keep externalities in mind in my business dealings.
  13. Focus: I shall recognize that while I can do anything, I can’t do everything.
  14. Forgiveness: I shall forgive those who have mended ways, including myself.
  15. Generosity: I shall give to others however I am best and most able.
  16. Health: I shall maintain my health and eat, sleep, and exercise in such a manner as to maintain a high level of energy. I shall eliminate negative energy as my body is a temple of God that houses my spirit.
  17. Honesty: I shall be honest and forthright in all representations and deliberations with myself and with others.
  18. Humility: I shall not be afraid to ask for help and not assume myself above another.
  19. Industry: I shall lose no time and always be employed in something useful. Reflection and relaxation shall be included in the definition of useful.
  20. Integrity: I shall act with integrity and in alignment with what I say I will do.
  21. Justice: I shall wrong none.
  22. Kindness: I shall live a life of kindness and compassion. There’s no reason not to.
  23. Learning: I shall be continuously learning and I shall continuously read.
  24. Listening: I shall strive to listen and understand before I speak.
  25. Love: I shall love every one.
  26. Mentorship: I shall give the knowledge I have and will gain to others.
  27. Mistakes: I shall strive to learn from the mistakes I make and not to make the same mistake twice.
  28. Nature: I shall conserve and protect nature and ensure it remains for my grandchildren.
  29. Optimism: I shall always see the glass as half full.
  30. Organization: I shall keep my life and belongings in order while keeping space for exuberance and creativity.
  31. Passion: I shall always fight and strive for that which I believe.
  32. Perseverance: I shall not give up, nor give in too soon, as long as I feel a goal is worthy of the effort.
  33. Planning: I shall plan for my life and upcoming events.
  34. Positivity: I shall be positive during all times and believe in the power of a positive mental attitude.
  35. Preparation: I shall attempt to enter each situation with an intellectual framework primed and ready.
  36. Presence: I shall focus my complete attention on the single individual I am speaking with.
  37. Punctuality: I shall be on time.
  38. Reflection: I shall take moments to review what has been done and examine society and my being, goals, and habits.
  39. Respect: I shall respect all others.
  40. Sacrifice: I shall save and invest for today so as to gain for tomorrow.
  41. Sincerity: I shall be sincere and use no hurtful deceit.
  42. Spirituality: I shall realize I am a very small part of this universe and give thanks to God.
  43. Solitude: I shall have a period of peace and solitude at the beginning of every day.
  44. Spontaneity: I shall perform weekly either an act of kindness or an activity which I have never done before.
  45. Superficiality: I shall not focus on the outer, but on the inner.
  46. Teaching: I shall transfer both knowledge and energy in teaching.
  47. Tranquility: I shall not be disturbed by trifles of that which is truly not important.
  48. Transparency: I shall live a public life and share the contents of my dreams and plans.
  49. Travel: I shall make a priority to see and explore the world.
  50. Work Ethic: I shall work both hard and intelligently and not leave for tomorrow that which can be done today.

Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was an autodidact, who taught himself an extraordinary range of knowledge and skills. He kept a journal from a very young age and by his early twenties had developed a list of 13 values, which he actually graded himself against every day in a notebook. He found that these values were very helpful to him in living his life as a statesman and diplomat and pursuing his career an inventor. While some of these particular values may seem old-fashioned or out of sync with modern life, I find it helpful and interesting to study him as an example of someone who thought deeply and seriously about the principles on which he based his life.

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Order: Let all your things have its places; let each part of your business have its time.
  3. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  4. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself (i.e. waste not).
  5. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  8. Tranquility: Be not distributed by trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  9. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  10. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly. And, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  11. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness or weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (This one was added later in his life.)

Values In Different Cultures

Cultures around the world are built on the foundation of shared values, many of which have “care for others” at their core.

Here are just a few examples…

  • Ubuntu – A spirit of cooperation between people of all colors and creeds, originating from southern Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
  • Tikkun Olam – A Jewish concept meaning “repair of the world.” This foundational teaching of Judaism states that it is the responsibility of each human being to participate in helping to improve or perfect the world through caring for the welfare of their fellow humans.
  • Li – a Confucian set of norms of behavior, based on the principle that every action any individual takes affects another individual elsewhere.
  • Ahimsa – An ancient Sanskrit term meaning “do no harm,” ahimsa is a foundational principle of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It recognizes the unity of all living beings, and therefore states that we should do no violence to any living being. In modern times, this principle was expressed most powerfully in great nonviolent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Ummah – An Arabic term that literally means “the community,” which is used to refer to the unity of all Muslims, regardless of nationality or location.


Tutu, Desmond, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 1999)