Amidst the flurry of recent disclosures about people and companies in our little northern hemisphere who are doing things they say they’re not doing (I’m typing this from south of the Equator, so I get to be sanctimonious for another week!), I thought it appropriate to share something one of the most inspiring executives I ever hired used to say a lot:

“A value isn’t a value unless it costs you something.”

Legendary ad-man Bill Bernbach coined it slightly different—but I like my exec’s version better, so I’m gonna go ahead and call it The Kelly Principle (no shade on Bill.) Kelly’s aphorism is powerful because it reminds us that if we truly value something, then we’ll be willing to give up something else we value in order to get it.

Giving up our money is one ouch! we’ll endure to get something we care about. Or we might give up our time, our prerogatives—even our ego. Regardless of what we say, it’s what we sacrifice that reveals what our values truly are.

Most “values” we talk about (and neglect) are actually virtues

I know that’s a bit abstract, but when we talk about values we’re generally talking about “behavior showing high moral standards,” which is how Google Dictionary defines the word “virtue.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. After all, we can “value” items, or money, or certain people (e.g. your tribe; your party; your investors) more than we “value,” say, honesty, or kindness, or—ahem—privacy.

I’ll illustrate what I mean by sharing the personal characteristics that top the list of virtues I’m willing to make sacrifices for in my own life. I don’t always succeed, but I try to use these “values” as guides for the tradeoffs that come at me. I’ve recorded these in a living document I edit regularly and call the Tao of Shane. I keep the Tao Te Shane in an urn inside a Shaolin monastery 7,000 steps high in the Himalayas (which makes it really hard to edit).

My top virtues at present are:

  1. Courage,
  2. Humility (specifically: Intellectual Humility)
  3. Impact, and
  4. Curiosity

These are honest-to-gods values for me, because there are specific instances where choosing them has cost me (or will cost me) something else I care about.

To be real values, and not just a wishlist, I have to be able to describe specific instances when I’ll choose them over something else. 

For example: What if I find myself in an argument with someone? (It happens. *Sigh*) Valuing Curiosity means that I’ll have to sacrifice my sense of being “Right” and actually consider the other viewpoint. Shane the Smartest Guy In The Room? Sacrificed! Shane the Unwavering? Dead, on the altar of Curiosity. That’s the price I have to pay if I’m sincere about wanting to learn something new.

Valuing your values

I don’t mean to sound like the Punctuation Panda, but a lot of organizations are using the word value wrong. “We value collaboration”; “We value treating customers like they’re always right.” Sound familiar?

Those aren’t values per se—again, they’re virtuous behaviors. If your company indeed “values” customer service, does that mean you’d actually pay someone (with a heartbeat) to answer a tech support line? As opposed to, say, just plugging in the far cheaper Comcast-style merry phone chase?

You say you’re keen on collaboration? Wonderful! But what happens when a wider range of input comes at the cost of quick turnaround? If the price tag makes you blink, then, well, maybe ‘value’ is too strong a word.

Truth hurts (and it should)

Just as our personal values come at a cost, so, too, must an organization sacrifice something of worth before a mere trade practice turns into a bona fide value. Once that sacrifice has been made, an organization might be surprised to discover, as we did at Contently, that their hard-won value reaches far beyond the bottom line.

As an example of corporate sacrifice: back when I was up to my eyes in day-to-day operations at Contently there was a mantra we posted on all the walls:

“Tell Great Stories”

Right? I mean, Contently is a content platform, for crying out loud. Delivering great stories through a myriad of media had to be our #1 value. Right???

Wrong. At Contently, as with any decent organization (or person, I’d dare say!) telling the truth trumps spinning a good yarn, even if that yarn might have garnered a million clicks (or, say, swung an election.) The fact that Contently is willing to sacrifice those clicks in the interest of something as old-fashioned as Truth means that Truth is a bona fide Contently value, while Tell Great Stories…eh…it’s more on the order of motivational décor. (Putting “be honest” on the walls is as motivating as “no duh.” That said, I wonder if a “be honest” wrist tattoo might do some of our world’s leaders some good these days…)

So what do you value?

To find out what you really value, ask yourself: What cost am I—or what cost is my organization—willing to pay for this?

If you can’t answer that with the words “just about anything,” then you may as well mail your “values” to Santa Claus.

Til next time, amigas e amigos!