What to do
It was so inefficient. It felt like every side-project or passion was getting put on pause after a few short weeks. I fixed this by taking a step back to learn my values.
While living in San Francisco it seemed like everyone was working on and doing the most extraordinary things. I was so inspired by the entrepreneurial culture that I wanted to be a part of it all: coding, product management, design, venture, and the list goes on.
While I could’ve spread myself thin across the dozens of skills that fascinated me, I kept in mind how important ‘personal moats’ are to having successful careers.
Moats, which in the 1500s was a body of water that surrounded castles, is now coined by Silicon Valley to describe one’s differentiation and career defensibility; ergo personal moats provide professional mobility and optionality.
Typically a college student’s primary moat is their major (e.g. art majors are design experts, computer science majors are coding experts). Although evidently it’s important to build up a variety of moats or else you’re competing against every art or CS major.
Throughout college I’ve contemplated what my moats or ‘specializations’ would be that’d both make me successful and happy. I knew there were plenty of specializations that’d bring me success, but not happiness.
I easily get inspired by my peers when I see their success and happiness with their skills/goals.
This is it, I’d tell myself.
Eventually, that initial excitement would wear off and I’d justify abandoning the passion by pursuing something else. I couldn’t find anything that’d stick.
After failing time and time again I realized I struggled to pursue skills not because I lacked discipline, but rather because I was pursuing the wrong things.
I was inspired by the flare of excitement of my peers as they pursue their professions. I’d look at their definition of success and mold it into my own. I wanted this- I wanted a burning passion for whatever I did.
So what would I do? I’d copy exactly what others are doing in hopes that I could curate this same sense of passion. I didn’t do what I wanted.
Determining the ‘why’
To understand what’s worth pursuing we first need to take a step back and ask what brings us happiness: not our peers. We need to stop pursuing others’ dreams (e.g. social norms) and start thinking for ourselves.
What makes you happy?
Happiness should primarily be distinguished between feel-good and value-based.
Feel-good happiness is a sensation-based pleasure: think of eating candy. It follows a law of diminishing returns; the more we get the less marginal pleasure we receive. Value-based happiness, on the other hand, provides a sense of meaning and fulfilling a larger purpose. Since this form of happiness is not ruled by the law of diminishing returns, there is no limit to how impactful it can be.
Therefore, in order for our goals to be sustainable, they must align with our values.
“Bringing [values] into the forefront of our minds can be powerful, enabling us to shift direction and leading us to live more authentically” — Psychology Today.
What are values and why are they so important?
Values are fundamental beliefs that help guide or motivate our attitude and actions. They help us determine what’s important to us.You’ve probably confronted your values when you had to make a tough decision- this typically means that multiple values of yours are in conflict.
It’s so important to understand your values because it gives clarity when making decisions and allows us to look at the bigger picture. In the moment you might rather go to a party than study for an exam, but your values help you make purposeful decisions rather than only seeking feel-good happiness.
It’s not only important to understand your values but to prioritize them too. The problem with many of our goals is that they do in fact align with our values, but it’s just a much less efficient path to happiness. Our goals should be to optimize for happiness while taking the shortest paths possible. The best way to do this is to pursue goals that satisfy our highest priority values.
How to determine your values?
Since we live through our values subconsciously it’s difficult to articulate them immediately. You’ve probably confronted your values when you had a ‘gut feeling’ something was either right or wrong. If you’re interested in learning your values, here’s a link to the 3–4 week value mapping exercise I aggregated from a few friends and books I read.
While your values may hold true in the short-run, it’s important to understand that your values evolve. As you gain more life experiences and mature what seemed important before (e.g. learning, networking) might be completely different now.
‘You can do anything, but not everything’ — David Allen
Better understanding your values provides much needed mental clarity and the ability to look past feel-good happiness. Knowing the ‘why’ behind each of your actions lets you feel much more purposeful.
Values let you sanity-check your life to ensure that you’re optimizing for your own happiness, not those around you.