Values, opted for and stood by.
September 4, 2013 4:01 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to develop my personal values and become a better person, and would appreciate any advice on that age old question - how to live well.

Some things I am not happy with

- My actions are often driven by profit. I find it difficult to value things in a non financial way
- I often catch myself bigging myself up and belittling others. In small niggly ways, but I notice it.
- I am very insecure and focus my energies on areas of life I have some competency, but these often are selfish and related to money or selfish achievements that don't help anybody else.

Volunteering is an option of course, but initially I want to work on this in an academic way so I'm particular interested in anecdotes and book recommendations.
posted by molloy to Human Relations (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The pastor at my church once gave a sermon about living well. The takeaway: when you die and everyone makes those photo collages to display in the funeral home, no one's going to print out a photo of your car and say, "Look how expensive!" No one's going to bring a copy of a business deal you negotiated or talk about how big your house was. People are going to remember you. It's a tad morbid, but when I'm tempted to spend money on an object versus an experience, I ask myself, "What will my funeral collage look like?"

I once asked a close friend how she maintained composure and grace in situations where I was sure I'd go ballistic. She said in every interaction she has with someone, she asks herself, "If this is the only time this person met me and I died tomorrow and the news interviewed that person about me, what would they say?"
posted by thank you silence at 4:43 AM on September 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

probably the best reading material to combat selfish tendencies & develop your values is the bible. start with the gospel of john and then read the other 3 gospels. the golden rule is a great maxim to live by: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
posted by wildflower at 4:49 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Volunteering is an option of course, but initially I want to work on this in an academic way

I urge you to reconsider. Modern Western culture can be quite inward-oriented and looking, and I believe that it can be detrimental. Self-analysis can be paralysing, and also can change nothing. The world needs your help right now - why wait?

"Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life."
posted by smoke at 5:00 AM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Keep your own version of a Best Answers book. Every time you come across a piece of advice that speaks to you, jot it down. Read it when you're in a reflective frame of mind, and see what speaks to you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:02 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not quite the same, but I used to be a terrible gossip and would often speak unkindly of others behind their back. So, sort of close to your second point. I finding acting as though I'm always being recorded helps. I always act as though someone is recording everything I say and do, and that the recording is going to be reviewed by others in some way. I also always work under the assumption that the person I am talking about is going to know exactly what I have said about them, and in most cases that is true.

Remember that it is extremely easy to develop a bad reputation. If you are in the habit of bragging about yourself and belittling others to make yourself seem better, people notice. Even if you only do it in small ways, people notice and people remember and I pretty much guarantee that there are people who think less of you for it. That habit in particular is extremely counter productive. Think about it - who do people respect and admire the most? It isn't the person who walks around telling people all the ways they are awsome and better than everyone else. It is the person who allows their ACTIONS to show how awesome they are. It is the person who helps and supports the people around them. Who is quietly confident and capable. The truly admirable person is the one whose actions demonstrate their quality, not their words. If you have belittle others in order to inform people how great you are then you probably aren't all that great after all. People pretty much universally don't like braggers, especially braggers who brag AND bring others down. Even if you are really skilled and great that behaviour is undermining it. So stop that. Immediately. Let your actions speak to your quality. When you are truly great others will usually spread the word for you.

As for being financially driven, this is hard, but I think thank you silence is on the right path. People's legacy is never what they owned or how expensive their watch was or how flashy the vacations they went on were. I don't think it is even necessary to take it as far as "how will people remember me when I die?". Just focus on how people think of you NOW. In the same way people see through bragging and think less of the person for doing it, people also see through showing off and think less of the person who advertises how much money they spend. Bragging and selfishness are traits that are pretty much universally panned.

You say you have trouble finding value in things that aren't financially beneficial. What you need to learn and understand that people's good will towards and respect are currencies in of themselves. You get ahead in your career not only by how you do your job, but also how you are viewed by the people you work with. This is slightly round about, but if you want to get ahead financially you would be doing yourself a HUGE favour by acting in such a way to be respected by others. Life isn't just a money game, it is also a social game. Think about the show "Survivor". It isn't often the most powerful, or the strongest person that gets the furthest and wins. It is usually the person who plays the SOCIAL aspect of the game the best. People vote out their competition, not their friends. Granted, Survivor is a bit of a toxic game, and they often are complete assholes, but I hope you can sort of see my point. Getting ahead in life requires effort not just in your work skills, but also your social skills. You clearly care what people think about you. If you didn't you wouldn't be working to brag yourself and bring others down so that you look better. You're just doing it totally the wrong way.

Be considerate. Think of how your actions affect others. Always have in your head that you're being recorded and that whoever you're speaking about will know what you said. Focus your efforts in doing a great job and let your work and competency do the talking. Remember that life isn't just a numbers game, it is a social game as well, and no one really cares how much money you have. No one thinks that you're a better person because you have more money. Money is not helping you gain the respect of others. Life isn't a race to see who has the most money, and people actually think less of the ones that think that way. Be a person that YOU would respect.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:06 AM on September 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

One other thing - when I say don't brag and let your actions speak to your quality, that doesn't mean that you should reject complements or not accept positive recognition for your accomplishments. False modesty comes off as insincere. If you are doing a good job and someone recognises it, be gracious and say "Thank you. I have worked very hard, I'm glad it is paying off" or something to that effect. It isn't arrogant or bragging to accept a compliment. You should not try to put yourself down or try to downplay your work or your efforts. When someone compliments you, don't make excuses like "Oh, well, I was just really lucky", and don't downplay how hard you worked by saying "Oh, it was easy. No big deal.". If you worked hard you're allowed to acknowledge it. That shows condifidence and competency, which will help you to get ahead and earn others' respect.

Be confident and proud of your work, be proud of your efforts, graciously accept acknowledgement of your work. Achieve and be great, but never allow it to be at the expense of others.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:18 AM on September 4, 2013

The thing is, you can't become a better person just by thinking about it and deciding on your principles. At some point, you have to start acting on those principles, and that is what really matters. This isn't just my opinion; it's Aristotle's too. So you should read The Nicomachean Ethics and the last chapter of Politics (where, in my opinion, he answers the main question of The Nicomachean Ethics more clearly than he does in the N.E.). But at the end of the day, you've got to go out into the world and just start practicing being the sort of person you want to be. You'll get closer to being that person the more you practice.

You should also look at Buddhism, because it is partially about letting go of your ego. Pema Chodron writes all sorts of amazing books, but you should take a look at When Things Fall Apart first.
posted by colfax at 5:20 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Act out of love instead of fear.

Every choice, every word, every action (volunteer) and inaction (postpone volunteering), ask yourself if you're responding to love or to fear - and answer honestly. You've been honest here - insecurity has you in its lying grip and you don't like the way fear is driving your choices. Tell insecurity to take a hike and start acting out of love instead - love for yourself, love for humanity, love for a sunny September day, love for the value of a job (any job) well done. It takes practice but anything worth doing does. Let love rule.
posted by headnsouth at 5:21 AM on September 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

The Buddha had a lot to say about this. And he made a lot of lists. When I first started following his teachings, they were a great roadmap for me. There are a ton of resources and teachings at the Audio Dharma website. Here is a list of lists that you might start with. I'd explore the Ten Paramitas first.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:39 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Reading good fiction will help you to understand what it feels like to be someone else; it also might help you to understand yourself better. Your behavior affects the people around you, imagine how others feel when you belittle them. Even if you only do this belittling in your head imagine how it would affect you if someone did that to you.
posted by mareli at 5:43 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think scody's recommendations over in this comment could be helpful.

The Lost Art of Compassion (on the intersection of Buddhism and psychology), Getting Unstuck (a Buddhist approach to breaking destructive habits), and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (classic Stoic text, highly useful for training yourself to suspend judgment of things and people as automatically "good" or "bad")
posted by skrozidile at 5:53 AM on September 4, 2013

I would start by asking yourself what is prompting you down this road. Why do you want to make this change? What is happening in your life that makes you ask this question?

As for academic resources, I would suggest you read "The Work" by Byron Katie. It's a very academic and analytical (and helpful) way of analyzing your thoughts and behaviors.
posted by jbickers at 6:18 AM on September 4, 2013

First, stop thinking what others think of your financial achievements. No one really cares about your car, or home or designer duds. You may get a compliment on it, but no one really cares.

As an exercise, donate a portion of your income to charity. Don't brag about it, just do it.

Do volunteer, at something you enjoy. My sister holds babies in the NICU, because she loves babies. Find something you enjoy, if it feels like work, you'll resent it, and then it's not helpful.

Do it until its natural. Fake that you're not aware that you wore your dress to another party. Chances are no one will remember, or, they'll think you looked happy and wo t remember the details.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:35 AM on September 4, 2013

I like MonkeyToes' suggestion of keeping a record of things you hear that speak to you - mine is in the form of sticky notes on my wall here in my home office. One of my recent favorites comes from the same commencement address by George Saunders that I believe smoke meant to link to above:

"Err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial."
posted by DingoMutt at 7:56 AM on September 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Read stories about people who were born into wealth but dedicated themselves to helping other people and doing socially good things, which is ultimately for most people the biggest source of happiness in life People like Florence Nightingale.
posted by Dansaman at 7:58 AM on September 4, 2013

Reading good fiction will help you to understand what it feels like to be someone else; it also might help you to understand yourself better.

Seconding this, and adding that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr's fiction and non-fiction might be a good place to look -- he is very clear about his ethics, and whether you find them persuasive or not, I think his work could be a good starting point for an internal dialogue about what a good life looks like for you.

In line with what Puppet McSockerson is suggesting, two search terms that might be of interest are "social capital" and "emotional intelligence."
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:27 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Congratulate yourself for asking. Not many people who are in your position ask and it's good that you did.

If you do go the route of volunteering or giving, still be sure to give yourself breaks and rewards. If you do it enough and with gracious enough people they will celebrate you too, but always reserve some time, some money, some rewards, some gifts for yourself, because volunteering and giving are often thankless. Not for bad reasons but because those in need often don't have the time or resources to devote back to you in kind. And after all is said and done, even if you are a tireless giver, you and everyone around you want you to be around next year to be tireless again. Don't use yourself or your resources up.

But yes, altruism is altruism and no one can tell you how best to do it. Philosophy suggests that moving in a unified fashion toward simple, achievable goals is probably best, and not spreading yourself too thin to do anything effectively. While volunteering is one way to do good, it's not the only way, and you may find, like some of the TED people did, that joining forces with a carefully selected cause and champion is more effective and does the most measurable good to you than going to a soup kitchen every weekend and volunteering your time. You may have more networking opportunities than that. You may not need to go into a new situation cold to make a difference.

Regarding having values that are altruistic, I recommend, if you can't stomach or don't have a religion to hang your hat on, an altruistic or practical philosophy. After a lot of searching I chose Taoism. Not because it has all the answers but because it has a collection of good suggestions. Taoism encourages altruism and other work for "the people" because it recognizes that a civilization and all those benefits is only really possible in a situation where "the people" are in a good enough position to contribute to it. And the best way to ensure that civilization remains strong is to reinvest in its foundations, in the people, in education, health, welfare and the like. It helps folks develop an awareness of and compassion for the broader society at large and helps not keep the focus down to one ledger, one individual person's accounts, and helps bring both altruism and pragmatism together toward what we hope is a successful end.

But by no means should you feel like you should adopt any one philosophy or any one meaning. I think by asking the question you've started to do a lot of good. See it through with courage and don't let external setbacks (because there will be as you explore this new way of being) actually discourage you. Look deeper and find a way forward.

I think you'll have a good time. Do commit to enjoying whatever you encounter if you can. But thank you for having the courage to ask the question.
posted by kalessin at 8:27 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like this!
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:06 AM on September 4, 2013

Whether or not you are religious in any way, I would give some thought to reading chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. It's the part of the Bible commonly referred to as "The Sermon on the Mount". It is one of the more clear and concise guidelines to a style of life that can be summed up as "don't be a dick."

If you're not religious in a Christian sort of way, you can easily step around those specific points, but the spirit of the passages still hold water from a "how to be a decent person" point of view.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:38 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You sound a lot like me. I recognize parts of myself in this question. I almost posted this answer anonymously, but you aren't anonymous (good for you) so I won't be either.

It's interesting to me that people are consistently equating being financially driven and profit-oriented with having big houses or expensive cars and other traditional status symbols of wealth. I am EXTREMELY financially driven but I have none of that stuff and zero interest in acquiring it (my preference is to let it pile ever higher in my savings and investments). Even small amounts of money have high value to me and so I rarely willingly part with any of it unless it benefits me in some way, even to throw a buck in a Salvation Army bell ringer’s bucket or picking up the tab at lunch with a friend or whatever. Far more of my decisions than probably should be are driven by a cost/basis analysis. I am not proud of this and am working on overcoming it.

Volunteering is an option of course, but initially I want to work on this in an academic way

I get this, too. I know I "should" donate and volunteer, that it is what good people do, but merely knowing that is not going to force me out the door and make me do it cheerfully or willingly. However, I recently read this book, which is a research-based examination on spending your money in ways that have been demonstrated to make people happier (as opposed to what they THINK will make them happier, which is often not the same thing). The last chapter is about investing in other people, both in money and time.

The authors talked a lot about how we all feel so damn busy all the time, we assume we work so many more hours than we used to 20, 30, 40 year ago, but studies generally don't actually bear this out. One possible reason we feel this way is that wages and salaries have gone up, and thus we value our time more, which makes it feel like it is more scarce (since scarcity increases value). Anyway, they discussed charity and philanthropy in conjunction with that, and they found that people who donate either money or time or both always end up feeling like they have FAR MORE of it than people who didn't give any away and thus actually had more. It tends to generate feelings like "Wow, I manage my money and/or time SO WELL that I have a bunch left over to give away to others who need it! I am a rock star!" As someone who generally donates neither for a whole host of reasons I'm not particularly proud of (and am working on changing, as mentioned above), that chapter was extremely eye-opening to me. One might argue that you shouldn't volunteer for reasons like what I just described because, again, they are self-serving, but my feeling is, does it really matter? As long as you're coming at it with a glad heart, no matter what it is that's making it glad, the end result is the same.

Finally, the authors also cited quite a few studies that showed that people who have been primed to think about money often act in less honorable or charitable ways than people who haven’t. I know I spend a lot of time thinking about money, tinkering with my accounts, reading personal finance books and blogs and message boards, and this book made me consider that I should probably back off that hobby quite a bit if I want to change my ways, and find ways to expend that energy that are more valuable, fulfilling, and in accordance with the values I want to live by and promote.
posted by anderjen at 10:13 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

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