This past summer, I had to make some critical choices about my career, my mental health, and the people in my life. These choices came from redefining my ground truth and the value systems that inspire it, as I alluded to in my first essay, “Ground Truth”.
The thoughts, actions, and experiences of the people around me have shaped my own thoughts, actions, and experiences. They have shaped the way I view myself and the things that I think I can accomplish. My confidence, my motivations, and my expectations are a result of the influence they have had on me. If the people I have surrounded myself with have such great power, how did I become so lucky? I have met my closest friends through school, events, clubs, internships, traveling, hobbies, and even mutual friends. But if I think about the total amount of people I have met through those avenues, the number would be significantly larger than the amount of close friends I have. So how did my close friends become my close friends? Was it just serendipity? Was it because of convenience? Was it because of common interests and hobbies? Maybe some combination of all 3 played a part, but mostly important, I think, it was because of shared values.
For most of my life, evaluating someone else came from a “gut feeling”. It represented the way I felt about someone given my first impression, and in a way, indicated our compatibility as friends. This gut feeling has served me well throughout my life, for the most part. Using this inherent sense of intuition from my gut, combined with my personal philosophies about morality and my ground truth, I worked on defining traits I would look for in someone I want to surround myself with. These are my 5 simple, non-negotiable traits.
#1. Someone who makes the people around them feel good about themselves.
When someone makes it a priority to make the people around them feel good about themselves, regardless of who the others are, they convey respect and kindness. Making the people around you feel good about themselves means to assume the positive in an ambiguous situation. It means recognizing that the person you are listening to may know something you don’t already know. It means responding with gratitude and attention. Stress and fatigue can easily make us prone to irritation and annoyance, and as a result, project negative feelings onto others. By being mindful of our own physiological state and regulating our emotions, we can ensure we treat others with fairness. It means being consistent - with loved ones and strangers. When in stress. When in sickness. When in health. No matter what the circumstances are.
#2. Someone who is reliable.
Someone who is reliable places metaphorical weight to their words. To be reliable means to understand the implications of your own statements, actions, as well as lack of statements, and lack of actions. Unspoken words carry meaning, too. To be reliable means to value other people’s time as much as your own. Showing up on time, communicating shortfalls, and keeping promises are all part of reliability. It means setting up expectations for yourself among yourself and others, then following through. It means if the Queen of England invites you over for tea the same day you already promised your friend that you would show up for them, you follow through and show up for them. The Queen of England can wait. Or not. But the weight of your promise, your words, is far more important to you than pleasing a stranger.
#3. Someone who can express feelings of appreciation and gratitude.
Someone who can express feelings of appreciation and gratitude values the efforts people around them make. To be grateful means to recognize your own privilege. And to express this gratitude means that you understand how appreciation can strengthen the emotional bond and commitment in any relationship. Expressing appreciation and gratitude is important for motivation of the people around you. This includes co-workers and acquaintances just as much as close friends and family.
#4. Someone who listens actively.
Someone who listens actively makes the person speaking feel heard. Listening actively means to respect words and experiences that aren’t your own. It means to respect words and experiences that you cannot even remotely relate to. It means to encourage the person talking to share their deeper observations. It means to pay attention as if you expect to learn something you did not know before. It means to limit judgment and personal input until asked to express. It means understanding that anyone’s experiences and emotions are just as valid as your own, even if you disagree with them. Listening is the most important form of communication.
#5. Someone who challenges their own thinking
Someone who challenges their own thinking wants to be aware of biases in their ideas and thought patterns. Challenging your own thinking means to focus on the intention behind the thoughts. It means to be precise in your speech and ask yourself questions as if you might hear yourself give a different answer. It means to be in pursuit of the truth. It means to recognize pressure and then prioritize thinking with calmness and composure. It means to find clarity by bringing light to the fog - where all problems to be avoided remain hidden and out of sight. Someone who challenges their own thinking confronts themselves with the intent to become conscious of problems and patterns. Challenging your own thinking builds the skill of thinking critically. It makes you a better communicator, a more honest communicator. It makes you more resilient to hardships and unmet expectations. It also allows you to challenge other people’s thinking. It can help identify biases when you share your own opinions and experiences. And most importantly, it helps you gain an understanding of what your personal values are.
When I first made this list, I was sitting in a bathtub trying to determine what course of action to take about a close friend. I had received some news about that friend that made me feel uncomfortable. He had hurt the people he loved by acting in a way I believed to be immoral. That friend matched much of the list I made, at a first glance. He was someone who made me feel good about myself. He was reliable. He was expressive about his appreciation and gratitude. He was someone who listened actively. He was someone who challenged his own thinking. Or so it seemed. But as I reasoned further, much of his character seemed to be very inconsistent across different groups of people. I questioned, how could someone who supposedly values making the people around them feel good about themself treat their loved ones with so much disrespect? How could someone who supposedly values reliability betray the people they love and break their promises?
I ultimately concluded that consistency is the most important factor within each trait, just as much as among all the traits. I recognize that there may be times where the people in my life or myself have a lapse in judgement and make mistakes, but I believe someone who is consistent with these list of traits will not sacrifice fairness during those moments. It is non-negotiable to me that the people in my life treat others with fairness that doesn’t falter when they have a lapse in judgment. Fairness includes taking accountability for our actions and making a commitment to improve. Fairness means accepting our mistakes, as well as other’s, and fully owning it.
I have had the above list of my 5 non-negotiable traits on my wall and the background of my phone screen for many months now. I use it to remind myself of my value system and guide my decision making process. I have also had the opportunity to discuss this list with many of my friends and mentors since then. After various discussions, I believe that this list still remains the most comprehensive way to find shared values in the people I surround myself with. This list will always be open to discussion, so let me know your thoughts or criticisms or comments. And if you have a list of values or traits you look for, please share them! I’d love to read it.
Thank you to Thenuka and Kevin for reading drafts of this.
^^ One of the early drafts of my list of 5 Simple Non-negotiable Traits, taken from my journal entry sitting in the bathtub, July 2021.