Choose Wisely, Grasshopper

In every moment, you have a choice. How mindful are you about the goals and decisions you make?

Do you recognise the following quotation, I wonder? On first pass it wouldn’t look out of place on the dust jacket of America’s best selling self-help book.

‘It’s not hard to make decisions, when you know what your values are.’*

I have nothing against them, but I don’t read self help books. That’s probably down to my no-nonsense upbringing, where frustrated childhood outbursts were usually met with a sharp, “Catch yourself on,” “You don’t know how lucky you are,” and my personal favourite, “There are children in Africa who would give anything for that piece of liver.”  My parents were, of course, quite correct on all counts. But at the time, it felt like they held all the cards and, more importantly, the power.

Getting the things you want

As a child, I learned quickly that doing things my way required a more subtle approach. Demanding the things I wanted was not an effective way to make them happen.  Convincing my parents that a new Raleigh Racing bike was really their idea was a prime example. Cycling was healthy, it was competitive and in the family genes. All of it true, and all of it proffered by me on a regular basis right up to the moment when that glacier white, dropped handlebar beauty arrived in the boot of my dad’s car. I had learned the power of suggestion and it was a revelation.

As a young adult I was introduced to the mystical powers of positive thinking and it always left me vaguely sceptical. Imagine yourself getting a promotion, it’s more likely to become yours. Visualise your perfect soulmate, and boom, you’ll recognise them when they walk round the next corner. I’m not knocking that kind of self-affirmation in theory, but that stuff can be really dangerous when taken too far. Look at the professional celebrity circuit.

Clearly, it is possible to love yourself too much. Following your dreams can lead to penury, or worse, prison. And I have it on personal authority that yes, there is absolutely such a thing as a bad idea. And should be avoided at all costs.

On its own, desire isn’t enough

Life is always better with an optimistic and positive attitude, but negativity, frustration and thwarted ambition are part of everyday life. They are a reality and we need to figure out ways to deal with them, not run in the opposite direction.

Now as a parent to my own children, I’m continually looking at ways that I can help them become more resilient – giving them tools that lead to self-reliance – finding the confidence to make good decisions every day?

If nothing changed, there’d be no butterflies

As someone who takes companies through brand insight workshops, usually when the organisation is facing real change, I always begin with cultural values – encouraging senior teams to discuss the values, principles and belief systems that are important to them. Quite often there will be the usual abstract concepts like ‘customer service’, or ‘quality products’. They list, then prioritise them. I then ask them to expand on these principles – are they focusing on the right values or for that matter do they really and truly believe in them. If so, can they prove it? Next, they are asked to apply my version of the value eliminator test from Simon Middleton’s book, Build a brand in 30 days.

  • Is this value genuine?
    Do you actually, honestly, believe that this is important to you? If the answer is YES keep it in.
  • Is this value liveable?
    Do you really, truly think that you can actually live by this value? If the answer is no, dump it.
  • Is this value compelling internally?
    Does it have emotional as well as intellectual power: the power to engage and motivate you or your team? Has it got the potential to affect positively the way you work, behave and think?
  • Does this value mean anything to anyone other than you?
    Will anybody care?
  • Does this value contribute to you being distinctive in your lane?
    It doesn’t have to be unique, just unusual.
  • Does this value have longevity/sustainability?
  • Can you communicate this value to people?
    Can you explain it, justify it, enthuse about it? Does it make sense? Is it clear enough to grasp? Can you instantly recall and explain it to your mum, a journalist or yourself?
  • Can this value be brought to life in behaviour?
    A value that doesn’t result in behaviour change isn’t worth its salt. Can this value be made real by what you do in terms of product design, service or customer experience?
  • Would you fight to preserve this value?
    To put it bluntly, is this a value in which you believe so strongly that you simply will not compromise it, even if it cost you money.

If any of the starting values survive this rigorous line of questioning then it’s likely they are on their way to articulating the foundations of a strong brand. There may be five or just one. Either way they inform every decision from here on in – recruitment, training, communication, identity, design – everything.

Anything that changes your values changes your behaviour

It’s always an insightful and surprising journey that leads to unexpected places for those who take part. Could it be just as helpful to individuals in deciding what’s really important to the way we live and work? What are the personal values that influence our priorities, and, more than likely, tell us if our lives are making us happy or not?

Here’s an example. If family is the number one priority and you are working a 50+ hour week, then guilt and resentment are bound to follow. Taking the time to understand what’s personally fulfilling can have a profound and positive effect on the decisions we take along the way.

The great thing is those values don't have limits or boundaries. As we move through life they can evolve and change. Personal values often come from life experiences and major influencers such as family, friends and peers, education, reading. They help us make decisions in ambiguous situations.

Don’t underestimate the impact of your choices — positive and negative, big and small

When I started my career, I was 100% focused on establishing my authority and expertise in a competitive sector. But after I had a family, I valued the work life balance so much more, it influenced all of the career decisions I’ve made ever since.

Now at another career crossroads, things are not so cut and dried. My children, though still young, are growing up fast and I’m more open to tackling new challenges in my work life.  So, I’ve decided to take some of my own medicine, try to figure out my own personal values so that I can see where I should be channelling my efforts. If the choice doesn’t align, I’ll be more likely to head off remorse and recrimination in the long run.

Why not give it a go?

For balance, look to your career and personal life and list all the things that really matter to you as an individual. Then apply my take on Simon Middleton’s values test, crossing out the ones that don’t quite make the grade. Are you left with a set of four, five or six meaningful personal values? I wonder if they’ll come in handy the next time you’re faced with a tricky dilemma.


Pros and cons graphic