Follow Your Values, Not Your Passions

My wife loves Dax Shepard’s podcast “Armchair Expert”. Recently, she listened to an episode where Dax interviews Adam Grant—a psychologist, author, and professor who specializes in organizational psychology—and recommended I listen to it.

I’ve actually listened to a few Armchair Expert podcasts in the past and, while I usually enjoy them, they are really long. Sometimes over two hours! Who has time for that? This is actually my one beef with podcasts: I feel like everyone is always talking about all these podcasts they listen to and I just think to myself, “where do you find the time?!?” I suppose people must listen to them as background noise to life’s daily tasks, but generally if I listen to a podcast I have to give it my undivided attention or I just don’t get anything out of it. But I digress. This isn’t a post where I talk about trying to “keep up with the Joneses” of podcasting. What I want to say is: the episode is long. Over 2 hours. I did find time to listen to the whole thing (over the course of probably two weeks) and I really liked Adam’s insights. I wanted to make note of a couple of them as an attempt to remember and solidify the concepts in my brain.

At one point in the podcast, they begin discussing points around the age-old debate of “nature vs. nurture”, i.e. are you born the way you are, or does your environment shape you? Adam makes the point that you don’t get to choose your inherent personality or traits, but you do get to choose your values. And sometimes you have to disown “who you are” in order to serve your values.

To illustrate his point, Adam talks about how believes himself to be an introverted person. The last thing he wants to do is get up in front of a class of students and give a lecture. He tells a story of how, when he was beginning as a teacher, he passed out a survey to get feedback on his teaching and one of the overwhelming responses he got from his students was that he was too nervous and awkward during his lectures. He was so nervous, the students said he was making them nervous! So giving lectures is something he’s had to work on. His point, I believe, is that the advice “follow your passions” would have deterred him from doing anything that made him uncomfortable or revolted his interests—like lecturing a room full of people. However, his values are about connecting with people through the sharing of knowledge, so he has realized that doing the thing which made him uncomfortable was really just a subservient tool to doing the thing he really valued.

[Adam ~17:00] I didn't choose my personality. So, whether it's the dopamine response in my neocortex that makes me an introvert or some other constellation of factors, that wasn't up to me. But I did choose my values and I feel like sometimes I have to be false to my personality in order to be true to my values. I love sharing knowledge. I’m really passionate about connecting with students and trying to help them the way my teachers did me, and so [teaching to a room full of students] just feels like it has become second nature.

The idea of doing something that makes you uncomfortable in order to serve some larger purpose that fits your values resonated with me. This sounds a lot like the idea of “the reluctant leader”. Have you ever found yourself in such a position? For example, I don’t always relish the idea of “being a leader”. But sometimes I’m working on something and, damnit, it’s gotta be good! So I’m going to step into the role of leading because I care about the quality of the thing and I want the people I’m working with to realize that I care about it and that I’m going to make sure it gets delivered at a certain standard.

Adam, Dax, and Monica (another host on the show) talk about this idea more in depth later in the podcast:

[Dax ~1:25:00]: What do you think about this...[when I have to manage people] I feel like I’ll give [them] a lot of rope, because I want a lot of autonomy and ownership over what I’m doing. So I’m trying to give other people that same autonomy and ownership, which means I’m not really a task-master. And I get fucking pissed when they force me to be one. Actually, it makes me angry at them like ”Damnit, now you’re gonna make me be the person I don't want to be!” Which, is probably codependence at some level, like it’s important to me that they like me, but now you’ve forced me to do something that I [hate].

[Monica]: I think that's your discomfort with sometimes having to go into a boss mode. I don’t think you like doing that, but sometimes you have to: you’re the boss! So there is a little bit of “shouldn’t you guys just figure this out without me? Cause I don’t want to be the person that has to come step in” but sometimes you have to when you’re the boss man!

[Adam]: When these kinds of situations crop up, I think part of the problem’re too focused on your own preference. My job as a leader is to do whatever is going to get the job done effectively. So I’ve got to be a little bit flexible and adaptable and sometimes, in order to be effective, I have to let go of my identity or my values or my preferred way of working...I will be the more demanding boss because I care about the quality of the work. I think if a lot of bosses would realize that up front, it would bother them less [that they have to “change who they are” to be a boss]...[Danielle Tussing] did her dissertation on this idea of the reluctance to lead. One of the things she found is that reluctant leaders were often the most effective leaders. Think about it: do you want to be managed by someone who wants to have power over other people? No! You want to be managed by the person who has no interest whatsoever in that role. I think in some ways that makes people more effective managers because they say “I’m not in this because I want to be in charge. I’m in this because I have a skillset or I’m able to get people to follow me and we can produce something really great together.”

I think the biggest takeaway from this is that anyone can be a great “leader” if the circumstances call on their particular strengths within a certain dynamic. And you don’t necessarily have to think of it as being a “leader”. But even if it feels exactly like “being a leader” and you feel uncomfortable with that, you don’t have to. Another way to look at is to say, “ok, this isn’t about me. These people I’m with need something, and I’m the most fit to give it to them. And while me doing that looks like being a leader—which makes me really uncomfortable—I’m going to do it anyway because ‘being a leader’ here is not a mantle. It’s a tool. A tool that will help me accomplish what I deem as valuable.”

Sometimes it feels like we are our desires. If we don’t fulfill them, we won’t truly be ourselves. While I believe “being true to yourself” is vitally important, I like Adam’s additional insight which states you can be more than just your desires and passions. You get to choose what you deem valuable and act accordingly.

This phrase from Adam keeps ringing in my head: “sometimes I have to be false to my personality in order to be true to my values.”

Tangentially related:

What about job titles? Am I a designer? Or a developer? Or a manager? Feels like I have to pick one, but if I like to be all of them, maybe I never feel like I’m truly ever just one! “Well, I don’t ‘design’ enough to be a designer like people who do that full-time, and I don’t ‘develop’ enough to be a ‘developer’ like people who do that full-time, so I guess I’m neither!” Welcome to the monologue in my brain.

In the light of Adam’s comments, perhaps I need to let go of trying to concoct an identity. Maybe I’m too focused on myself. “Designer” or “Developer” or “Manager” often feels like an identity—an identity my passions propelled me into. But “Designer” or “Developer” or “Manager” are not values. They’re hats you wear. ”Quality”, “Coherence”, “Consistency”, those are values. So you can wear different hats—Designer, Developer, Manager—not as a representation of your identity but rather to exercise your values. “I am going to design in this situation because I value design and it’s lacking.” Or, “I am going to lead in this situation because leadership is lacking and I value how it turns out.” Values inform identity just as much as passions can.