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Learning your core values

Your core values are foundational. They are the concepts that you live by on a daily basis. They generally drive your everyday decisions in how you live your life. If you can’t lie for any reason – you have honesty buried deep in your soul. If you would drop anything to serve your fellow man you are an overwhelmingly caring person. If you seek money over anything else you might be greedy.

You will see a lot of overlap from other personality discussions we have here. Leadership is a common thread brought up several times. Leadership, the drive to take charge, is a core value that may guide you daily. Be aware that core values are ingrained in you and not likely to change over time. But that you can actively target some new core values through training. You may want to be a leader and you can take classes to become a better one. However, being creative is a hard thing to learn if you don’t already have the knack for it.

Understanding your top 5 most consistent core values that you don’t waver on will help you choose the industry you choose to work in, the type of people you would be most successful working with, and the type of work environment you might consider seeking. Let’s quickly explore some common personal core values that you might align with. This of course is in no way an exhaustive list of potential core values. And these core values don’t necessarily align with what you might see a company profess its core values are – we will see in a bit how those are a totally different animal in some cases and often used for marketing speak.

Personal Core Values

Here are some core value statements that may apply to you.  Read carefully as all of these can be read in positive and negative light.  It is up to you to identify with your core value in an appropriate manner while at work.

Creativity:You are always thinking out of the box.  It is in your fabric to tackle solved problems in new ways.  You might be a visual thinker.  Or enjoy working with your hands.

Curiosity: You need to understand how everything works.  Or you might have a driving need to know everything that is going on at work.

Honesty: You can’t stand telling any form of lies.  Holding secrets close to your chest pains you.  Criticism comes easy to you.

Simplicity: You prefer the path of least resistance when providing solutions. Hearing complexity of any form rubs you the wrong way.

Respectful: You look to your manager as someone to listen too.  It is hard for you to solve problems around your boss.

Transparency: You are full disclosure in all situations.  When asked for an answer, you are totally up front with every detail.

Integrity: You are bound by your morals and ethics. To you there are never any grey areas in the conversation.  Being above board is most important to you.

Humility: You are content with letting someone else share their opinion. You don’t need to be center stage.

Excellence: You are on top of your game at all times.  No one can beat your mastery.

Communicator: You are an avid sharer of your thoughts, opinions, and what is going on in general. If I need someone to be in the know, I can start by telling you.  You are able to get the information out there.

Proactive: You are involved and up front in all situations.  If it needs attention, you have likely already been involved.

Humor: You see every opportunity to make people laugh, regardless of the situation.

Leader: You prefer to give orders rather than take them.  Leading the bull by its horns is where you are most comfortable.

A Company’s Core Values

A company’s core values will likely be a bit different from your personal identifiers.  You might describe facets of your person as always striving to achieve absolute excellence and perfection.  Be aware that a company proclaiming to embrace those values may have a different definition for the word you think you agree on.  Excellence to a programmer means all the code looks great, the build builds, the deployment is fully automated, the environment is elastic and scales as it needs too, the monitoring system will let me know if I need to worry – until then I will be standing on my chair sword fighting with fellow developers.  But to the business, excellence might mean “striving to make the most money while also keeping the customer happy with our product”.  Both are valid and positive definitions of the word.  But sometimes what’s important to you about a given value couldn’t be further from the company’s definition.  Never assume anything!


Core values can serve two very distinct purposes. The first most important is to guide you or your company. Stating “these are my core values that I want to live by” gives you something very concrete to sail the ship by. A company that weighs its employee’s performance against their core values will usually have a great company culture (assuming the values are good ones of course). A company that either doesn’t define its core values or holds its employees to something other than their core values, won’t have a company culture – just a work force. Pretty simple.

The other use for core values are not always a positive one. Sometimes people and companies alike try to fly the flag of core values as a marketing statement to the world. A line in the sand to their peers or customers expressing how their core values always have the customer held in highest regard. But purely from a lens of “look how awesome we are, we care about you, we will do right by you”. With no meat behind the statement when it really comes down to it these statements are just markitecture for profitability.

Be wary of a company that doesn’t live by it’s core values.

Most company’s mean well with their core values. There are many companies out there, technical and otherwise, that like to post their core values up on the wall. Having core values displayed in the open is a statement that the company has at least spent time defining the direction they intend to drive their culture. Whether they live by their core values or not will need to be determined through questions during the interview process. Asking “can I see your core values?” or “can you tell me about your core values?” is totally acceptable to the employer you want to work with. The one that declines has failed your interview straight away.

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Discover Your Priorities

After you get a good idea of who you are, but before you can set out on a career path, you need to understand what your life’s priorities are.

We all have different ideas of success, differing motivations, and differing constraints in our life. Maybe you had a child at age 18 and are a single parent. Maybe you are a double-income no kids couple in your late 30s whose only real financial worry is how many vacations you can go on this year. Those circumstances will influence–and possibly even dictate–the career direction you choose.


Ask yourself a simple question: What is your primary measure of success at your work?

Do you want to be wealthy? Do you want to make the highest salary or consulting rate possible? if this describes you then you want to go where the money is and level yourself up rapidly to get more and more money at each new job.

Or maybe you want to work on projects that make a difference, locally or globally. You want to change the world and do something that matters. If so, then where you work will be vitally important. You may be willing to get paid half of your possible salary but work for a non-profit that helps underprivileged children, or that helps police find women being trafficked. The bottom line is that you want to make a big impact on humanity and that is your driving purpose.

startup1I’ve also met people who want to work on interesting problems. They don’t care much what it is as long as it is complex and satisfying. They salivate at debugging a multi-threaded deadlock involving semaphores, mutexes, and thread-local storage. They want to work at one of the few companies that still make compilers because implementing new optimizations sends them into a titter.

Other people desire to become famous or well-known in the industry. They want to speak at conferences and have popular blogs. They want to be known as the guy who implemented the awesome thing that everyone uses. They want to write the definitive work on X programming language or Y library. This desire will guide you to find a company or project–even open-source–where you can do something big and make a name for yourself. Nerd adulation calls to you.

A final measure of success is freedom. You want to work so that you have the freedom to live your life as you want. Freedom means different things to different people. My brother-in-law is a hotshot fire fighter in New Mexico and California in the summer, then collects unemployment checks and skis all winter. Your idea of freedom may mean not having to clock into a job everyday, or it may mean being able to go on nice vacations whenever you want, or do mission trips to orphanages in Africa. Whatever freedom looks like to you, you want to work to enable you not to work in some significant way.

Priorities and Constraints

Related to your measure of success are the priorities you decide for your life, and the constraints you operate under.

For me, spending time with my family is a high priority. I made an unspoken promise to myself that I would spend several hours everyday with my children. That promise, while I have not kept it everyday, is a driving force behind my career decisions and even daily work hours. If I have to choose between working for an extra three hours and spending that time with my children, I will spend it with my children (barring some work deadline that is actually meaningful and attainable).

You see how this priority also becomes a constraint. And constraints can hinder our careers. It is a balancing act that we must learn to accept and optimize. How can we meet our career goals for success while also being true to ourselves and the other priorities we have made in our lives?

Maybe family is not your priority, but recreation is. You love to dirt bike or play board games. Maybe you have a hobby that is your true love–you want to play music and hit it big with your band. Your band practices three times per week for four hours and it’s a long drive there and back, so you have to balance that with your work hours.

For some people, their career is their priority. They want to hit it big at a startup and have it all: freedom, fame, technical greatness, and a big impact (though from what I’ve seen, usually such people will take two out of the four). Or they want to hit their one primary success goal (e.g. fame or big money) and that drives them. In this case their priority aligns with their success goal and is not a constraint for them at all.

A word of caution here. I have seen people work their tail off for years and years at one startup after another, the pot of gold always just being slightly out of reach. They end up with the worst of all worlds: they work all the time, don’t pay attention to their families, and their children grow up without them. They were so busy working to live that they never lived and discovered that, even if they did find success, it was empty because there was no one to share it with. This is not intended to be a sermon, but we would not be honest if we acted as if all priorities are equally valid (relativism). While in these introspection steps, it is worth examining the nobility of your motivations and reflecting on whether they will truly make you happy at the end of the day.

Accept and Transcend

Whatever your measure of success and life priorities, decide what they are and accept the constraints that they and your life circumstances entail. It is of no use to always be saying to yourself: “If only I didn’t have X children or such-and-such a spouse, I could be successful.” I have a herniated disc in my back that makes doing my day-to-day job painful. Oh well, that is life. I do what I can to solve it, but I refuse to let it defeat me.

Accept your circumstances and then transcend them. Wake up an hour early everyday. Cut out television or other time wasters. Cut expenses and save enough to make a go at creating your own business that you’ve dreamed about. Realize your limitations but then find ways to work around and through them.

With your priorities and success metrics set, you are ready to discover which technical path most fits you as a programmer.

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Three Steps to Discovering Who You Are

“This above all: to thine own self be true”
— Polonius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Shakespeare gives good advice, but how can you be true to yourself if you don’t know yourself?

You would think it would be easy to know ourselves; after all, we are around ourselves all the time. Yet paradoxically, nothing is more difficult. We are too close to ourselves to see objectively

Fortunately we can get help in discovering who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, our talents and tendencies. We can look to our own experiences first, then to various inventories and tests, and finally to what others have told us about ourselves (good and bad). These three directions of input will help us know ourselves better.

1. Experience

Look back at your life from childhood to now. Have you been someone who others are naturally attracted to? Did you always rise to be the team captain or leader? Did you enjoy doing that?

Were you someone who sought out the outcasts and loners? Did you prefer to be left alone and do your own thing?

Are you the life of the party or someone who only feels comfortable with people you know really well? Can you learn quickly and solve problems without much difficulty, or do you have to methodically plod along exploring different routes until you understand the concepts? Neither one is better than the other, even if it may feel that way. What’s important here is doing some introspection to think about the big arcs in your personality.

Some foundational part of you is baked into your genetic code and soul, but you have built upon that foundation in unique ways based on your environment and free will. We will call that foundational part your temperament and perhaps your talents in addition. But your personality is the sum total of your experiences and choices, your virtues and your faults as well. While you may tend toward fading into the background because your temperament is introverted, you may have chosen and learned to make yourself step out sometimes.

Keep your experiences in mind as you go through the next two sections; they will help to confirm or filter your discoveries about yourself.

2. Inventories

Lots of people have come up with lots of metrics for trying to help you figure out who you are. That’s a good thing! And it’s fun to take tests and see what they say. For these inventories, consider that one may strike a chord with you more than another. Each measures slightly different things, so each can be valuable.


The Greeks came up with the idea that people had four different humours that affected their personality. These four temperaments are melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. People are usually a mix of two of them. For instance: Sanguine is the extraverted people-person; Choleric is the goal-oriented leader; Melancholic is the principled thinker. Phlegmatic is the intraverted, peace-making friend.

This is the God-given or baked in portion of your personality, the fundamental way that you are disposed to respond to situations and people. It is not something that compels you to act in a certain way. Rather it is the tendency you have to respond to situations in particular ways.

min1Many online tests for the four temperaments exist. For Christians, a good book that weaves theology with the temperaments (and includes a temperament test), is The Temperament God Gave You.

Studying the four temperaments and finding out which ones you are can help improve your relationships. You may see that your spouse’s temperament is introverted–even if they have learned to be quite social–while yours is extroverted. They need to recharge by being alone or quiet, while you thrive on being in social gatherings.


A talent is an ability you are born with. Whether you believe it came from God or from chance, you have talents that you excel at and are better at naturally than others. If you hone those talents, working on them and improving them even more, they become strengths.

Now, Discover Your Strengths is a popular business book that also includes a test to discover your top strengths. For example, are you a Relator who naturally can relate to other people and connect with them? Perhaps you have the strength of Command and gravitate toward leadership positions because of it. Maybe you prefer to hear what others have to say, to learn from them rather than just going with your own decision about how to do something, because you have the strength of Input.

One idea with your strengths is that you focus on making them even stronger rather than trying to bring your non-strengths up to a higher level. The belief is that your weaknesses will never be able to match the level of your strengths, so work on what you can excel at instead of just trying to shore up things you are not talented at in the first place.

DiSC and Myers-Briggs

The DiSC categorization is another attempt to help people understand who they are and how they interact with others. Myers-Briggs is another popular one. These inventories are often used by schools and companies to help people discover what work or studies they might be good at, what roles they fit into, and so on.

Having done all these inventories, I’ve found the temperament test and strengths finder inventory to be the most helpful. However, your mileage may vary, so try them all and see what resonates most with you.

3. Others

Those closest to us usually see us most accurately. Think about times when people have told you what you are good at. Maybe your favorite teacher said something to you in third grade. Maybe your mother or aunt did. Or maybe, and this makes it easier, all of them said the same thing to you.

We have a tendency to disavow compliments, waving them away through modesty, whether real or false. Avoid that temptation and instead honestly listen to what someone says when they compliment you on some aspect of your personality or work. “Wow, you are really good at seeing to the root of problems.” Or, “you build people up and connect them together effortlessly.” These are powerful insights into your personality that you should listen to.

Of course, the flip side also exists: when we are criticized by others we should consider what they say. Perhaps they hate us and are simply trying to hurt us. In that case, even if what they say is true, it is not worth taking as gospel. However, what if the words are said by a friend or trusted associate? In that case, the criticism may very well be constructive, and we should reflect on it.

Everyone has room to grow, makes mistakes, or even does things that are wrong. But those failings do not define us; they are examples of us needing to grow in maturity (virtue) to make use of our gifts, talents, and strengths–the very ones that we are discovering through these various means.

The First Leg on the Journey

No test or inventory can tell you everything about yourself. These ideas merely help you take the first step toward self-discovery. We are complex creatures full of contradictions, facets, and hidden aspects.

Similarly, while others may have valuable insights about you to share, they cannot get inside your heart and truly know what makes you tick. So use all three strategies and triangulate to find the true center point within yourself. As we move forward with launching your career, these things you have discovered about yourself will help inform the choices you make, the jobs and roles you will be best at, and the way you can maximize your strengths in any situation.

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