In January 2022 I spoke on living an ethical life at an event in Raleigh, NC.
Good afternoon. Today I want to talk about ethics, and what it means to live an ethical life—what it means, why it's important, and how to do so.
First, I should explain what I mean by ethics, because ethics has a lot of different meanings. The dictionary pretty much considers ethics and morality the same thing. I see morality as more of something that's imposed on us—that can be from religion, or society.
Also, within certain communities—like within with science, for example, or within law—ethics can have that same imposed [feeling], like "this is how we behave within the medical field," and so on.
My understanding of ethics comes more from philosophy and ancient philosophy, where it's really not what is good and what is bad, but how can we live a more meaningful life? What does it mean to live a good life? So that's the definition that I'll be moving ahead with.
And again, why is this important? You know, we're all human beings, we all see the problems in the world, we all face problems, we have struggles, there're cases where you might not feel fully heard, either at home or in the office.
There're a lot of reasons why we would want to live more in alignment with who we are. And I've come up with a framework that uses ethics, which breaks down to more internal work—working on yourself, deep self-knowledge and self-awareness, for which I use [the term] authenticity, so the more that you're living as authentically you, the better.
The second stage then goes to more external work. How can we live with more empathy? Once we know ourselves, we can better understand that somebody might just be having a bad day or these kinds of things, because we also have bad days ourselves.
And then, once you've done this internal and external work, the two together lead to a greater wisdom, and, you know, "How should I be in the world?" or "What should I be doing on a daily basis."
So today, I'm going to be mainly in the first area of authenticity. For this internal work, I've come up with what I call the five core elements of the self. Those five elements are our values, our strengths, our personality, our mindset, and then our goals. So today, I'm going to be speaking about values.
Values are tied to our beliefs, our belief system, which in turn comes from our upbringing. Our family, our society, what country we're born in—all these things can affect where our core values come from.
Recently, there was an analysis of worldwide surveys that found that, globally, the top three values are family, relationships, and financial security. The question that I have when I read something like this is, what does that really tell me about me? Or, you know, any one of you? What does that really tell us?
I feel like those are more external values, and they're not really at the core of who we are. And so I think it's important to distinguish between internal values and external values. I'll give you some examples of what I mean.
I think happiness is a great example of this. Our family, of course, brings us happiness. Our relationships, being financially secure—most of us are happy if we're able to pay the bills and not be on the street, for example.
But there's another kind of, one of many different kinds of happiness, which I want to talk about. It comes from psychology. It's the concept of flow. A Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, did some research on this in the last century and into this century, and basically, the idea is that you have intense focus on what you're doing, and what you're doing takes a lot of skill, and you have that skill.
Musicians, athletes, doctors, for example, do the same. Anything working with your hands, so maybe carpentry or gardening, these kinds of things, you get into a state where you just kind of lose track of time. A couple hours can go by and you forgot to eat, you forgot to do a lot of other things, maybe things that are in your calendar, and you were just so in depth working on this. This, to me, is an intrinsic happiness where you're doing something you really love doing.
For most of my career—for about 30 years—I was doing a lot of creative work. I spent over a decade as a music composer, I was doing visual art, and I would just go into my room and lose hours, doing work that I loved.
About seven years ago I was working—doing some creative coaching—helping people to get more in touch with their creativity, and an exercise I put together was, how can we develop a ranking system? Identify our values, and then find out what are the top five values so that we can live those values.
And when I did this exercise, I was pretty astonished that creativity wasn't even in my top five. And it wasn't in my top 10, to be honest. So what I learned from that was that, sure, I had had this great career doing creative work that I loved, but at some point my values had changed in a different direction and I was now living out of alignment with my values.
So I had to really change the direction that I wanted to go in, and I had the realization that I wanted to do things that have much more of a greater impact in the world, of tackling large problems. I've never shied away from tackling large problems.
What I realized is that you have to define your core values, or they'll be defined for you.
If you're just running on autopilot—which is very easy for all of us to do—where you just get into a grind, and this is what you're doing. And then, you know, for some of us it might be a year that goes by, for some of us it might be 20 years, and you're just wondering, "Where did all that time go?"
One of the ways that I've developed to think about this, to reframe this in a certain way, I call it brainwashing. It's a little funny word there. But you know, brainwashing has normally a negative connotation. Obviously, we think of cults or authoritarian governments, these kinds of things, but I think of it more as washing, you know, we just had a snowstorm here in Raleigh. Your car is probably going to be filthy, after all the sludge of the snow and everything, so you need to give it a good power wash.
I feel like we go through our lives, and we don't wash that car. We just have all of this stuff that we think, "Oh, that's just part of me as well." But it's not. It's things that have been assimilated over time, and it can be difficult to recognize that and remove those things, but I think it's important.
Once you've identified those five core values, it's important to live them each day. As an example of happiness—let's say that happiness is one of my top values—what can I do every day, that's something that even if it's, you know, a gray day, I'm really stressed, I have a lot of work, I have back to back zoom calls, I can just put on a five minute song, and that can cheer me up, that can bring me a little bit of happiness, and then I'm ready to go back in.
Another thing I do is I practice meditation. So, give me 20 minutes, and I can reset and refresh myself, and de-stress and be happy.
Today I spoke about ethics and how we can use that to live a meaningful and full life. I spoke about the core elements: values, strengths, personality, mindset, and goals. I want to stress again, if you don't define your core values, they'll be defined for you, so make sure that you're taking an active role in that. And you can do that by thinking of this concept of brainwashing: "What beliefs or values have I accumulated over time that I need to get rid of? "What isn't serving me well?"
And then figure out some ways for each of your top five values: what can you do each day to live those—whether that's five minutes, whether that's an hour, whether it's, you know, going on a hike for half a day. There can be a lot of different things there.
I hope you've gotten something from this talk and that you'll join me. Please visit my website. I have some blog posts there and some other information. And I'd be happy for you to subscribe to my blog posts and my newsletter.
I just want to end by saying that each of you—each of us—is the hero of our own story. So please define your story for yourself. Thank you.