How My Core Values Are Giving My Career an Unfair Advantage

For the past four to five years I have been obsessing over the idea of having my own core values; values that I distinctly choose for myself, separate from any group that I belong to. These values would be core values because they would act as guiding principles to dictate my behavior and actions in any circumstance. My obsession really emerged from of a number of experiences that occurred around the same time. The first was that I started to read more books that spoke about personal philosophy, business philosophy, and self-awareness. Books like Creativity Inc., The Slight Edge, and Good to Great. The second was that one of my mentors had asked me what my self-worth was. I had no answer and was baffled by the fact that I did not know. The third was my involvement in starting the TEDx program at my campus. My TEDx experience was certainly the tipping point because our team focused on creating the best culture that we could, which included identifying some core values that represented our program.

Through all these experiences, there was one burning question that kept coming back: was it possible for me to create a set of personal core values that would guide my actions as I ventured into a wide range of environments? Most importantly, I was thinking of the venture from college into my career. My vision was that these core values would provide me with a North Star that I could constantly look towards for a sense of direction. This North Star would help guide me through tough or tempting situations, forcing me to ask, Does what I am about to do align with my core values?[bctt tweet="My vision was that my #corevalues would be a #NorthStar directing my actions + behaviors @ramosjl10"]

Thankfully, I'd developed a habit of keeping Moleskine journals with entries beginning in my second year of college. At the end of my time at UC Irvine, I decided to dig through all of these to see if I could find evidence of these long-sought core values. I wasn’t sure how to go about this, but I knew I was going to have to do it on my own. Since an office space was too expensive, I decided to rent out a storage unit for $97 a month. Over the course of eight months I spent weekends and vacation days in my storage unit, #1281, where I had decided I’d store my ideas and journal entries. I had a small 20 x 48” table, a chair, a whiteboard, tape, pens, highlighters, and an excessive amount of 2 x 3’ poster paper.

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After learning a lot about myself in the eight month period, I arrived at four core values that I now use to help guide my life, and to develop my career in sales. You might notice that these values are metaphors of much simpler concepts. I chose to enrich the simple concepts with clear images that connected me to a great network of ideas:

  • Think Like a Grandmaster
  • Be a Lemon Tree
  • Live Like a Scientist
  • Know When to Be a Dog

#1 Think Like a Grandmaster

In chess, a grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can achieve and, once achieved, it remains for life. The title itself is achieved through an intricate scoring system. To me, being a grandmaster represents a particular, methodological way of thinking. This core value represents a way of thinking that requires intent behind every action. It also means not just thinking about one chess piece, but constantly having the whole board in mind.

At work, this means taking interest in not just what my specific role is, but how those around me are affected by my work. It is especially important in the world of SaaS sales where roles have become very specialized. You have your business development representative (me!) who passes a qualified lead to an inside sales consultant and then, when they close the deal, they pass it along to an account executive. It is very tempting to focus on your particular role and nothing else, but I find it very beneficial to at least have a conceptual understanding of how every step works so that I can perform my responsibilities in a way that will set others up for success. I think it is this mentality that allowed me to successfully move from inbound sales to outbound sales in two and a half months, instead of the six my company had anticipated.[bctt tweet="Think like a #grandmaster —look beyond your role at the big picture, says @ramosjl10"]

#2 Be a Lemon Tree

Let me start by saying that I could have chosen any fruit tree; I chose lemon because I love lemons (Beyoncé does as well), and will put it on all the food that I can.

This core value is all about providing abundantly for others. If you consider a fruit tree, it is incredible how much fruit one single tree can produce. At my home in California, we have one lemon tree that provides us with all the lemons we could ever need.

Really, this is beyond just being helpful. It’s about understanding how to take nutrients from my surroundings and give back fruits to my community and those around me. This value is about abundantly giving back, without ever expecting something in return. I’m very fortunate to have an abundance of co-workers at Buildium who are always sharing their fruits of wisdom with me, and this motivates me to strive to do the same.[bctt tweet="Be a lemon tree. Take in nutrients, then give abundantly to the community, says @ramosjl10"]

#3 Live Like a Scientist

Nobel Prize winner and famed scientist Richard Feynman once said,

The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it—those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me.

Far-fetched though this may seem, I aim to take this perspective in every single sales call that I make with a prospect. There is a certain sense of adventure and a journey that I must embark on with them to get us to a point of discovery where we both realize, “Yes! This would actually be a good mutual fit, let’s move to the next step."

It also makes my job a lot more fun because I am constantly poking around the company with questions like Hmm... What is Marketing doing with that new campaign? How does Customer Care deal with our customers? What does my manager hope will happen as a result of our new floor plan? By approaching my work as a scientist, it keeps me curious and on the edge of discovery.[bctt tweet="By approaching my work like a scientist, I stay curious + on the edge of discovery— @ramosjl10"]

#4 Know When to Be a Dog

During my freshmen year of college, I had the opportunity to meet the CEO of Polk Audio, who shared a key piece of wisdom. He told me, “José, persistence and determination are omnipotent.”  This insight has stuck with me to this day, and it has helped me in every single one of my ventures. Still, I specifically chose to prefix this metaphor with “know when to,” because at times it is just as important to know when to let go.

In sales, chasing down a prospect as long as you need to sounds like great advice, but you soon realize it is not possible to close every deal. You have to learn to quickly identify which paths are worth pursuing and which ones are not. Like a dog chasing his toy, once you set your eyes on the prize, you’ll do everything in your power to get it. There is a boundless sense of enthusiasm that dogs have when they are fetching toys, but it is very important to remember when to keep this enthusiasm at bay. [bctt tweet="Persistence + determination are omnipotent, but you need to know when to let go, says @ramosjl10"]

Building An Unfair Advantage

In tech communities, there is always the talk of finding your “unfair advantage.” I’ve been pondering mine for some time and am willing to bet that mine lies in the experience I’ve had in creating my core values. Through some very fortunate circumstance, I’ve been able to surround myself with the right mentors and the right ideas to help drive the creation of my core values.

Personal values are something we all already have access to from our day-to-day interactions; it’s just a matter of focusing our attention to the mindsets that help us do better at work. At the end of the day, my core values really boil down to very simple concepts: having intent, helping others, being curious, and hustling. By enriching these with metaphors and making them my own, I’ve been able to adapt them more easily into my day-to-day.

For what it is worth, the way I ended up at Startup Institute was purely by following these values. My enrollment in Startup Institute was a strategic move to get into the tech community. It was driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure to discover something different. And, by a focus on making sure I did everything I could to make sure it happened. Like a dog, I enthusiastically sought out as many opportunities as possible to accumulate enough money to make the switch and to give me runway until I found my ideal work environment. When it came to being a lemon tree, I knew that the program would be my process of absorbing nutrients so that now, by sharing what I’ve learned, these fruits can be picked by others.  

Having defined my core values, I’ve found myself to be more versatile without losing focus. They have also helped me answer a portion of the question regarding my self-worth.[bctt tweet="Having defined my core #values, I'm more versatile without losing focus, says @ramosjl10"]

If you’re wondering how you can start identifying your own core values, here are a few suggestions.

How to Define Your Core Values:

  1. Get a notebook that you’ll use to jot down ideas that come to you over a set period of time (I recommend journaling for at least three months, but you can of course do an abbreviated version of this exercise). Record your thoughts relevant to the following questions: What do I like? What do I dislike? What energizes me? What drains my energy? What ideas do my actions typically reflect?
  2. At the end of the allotted timeframe, take a week or so to read your ideas over again and highlight things that represent the sort of person you want to be, versus the sort of person you don’t want to be. This second piece is equally important to the first—the same mentor who asked me about my self-worth told me that I would get closer to knowing who I was by first knowing who I was not.
  3. Highlight words that you tend to repeat a lot.
  4. Identify things that you can easily visualize or connect with and create metaphors that reflect the things you have highlighted. Try to select a metaphor that clearly defines the relationship between you and the simpler value you want to enact.

Example: For me “helping,” “being helpful,”“contributing,” and “giving back” where words that kept coming up again and again. I then visualized the concept of how abundant fruit trees were and identified my favorite type of fruit (lemons). I then identified that an image that represented being helpful to me was like that of a lemon tree giving out its fruits abundantly and thus “Be a Lemon Tree” was born.  

All of us have values that are core to who we are, whether we’ve chosen to deliberately reflect on these or not. Defining your core values is simply a choice you make to help direct the intent of your actions, and describing these through metaphors helps you to define the relationship between you and the values you want to enact. Once defined, they’re not set in stone—as with anything else, they'll need some routine maintenance. So long as you continue to grow, your core values will be ever-changing.


A huge thank you to Brian McCollow and Christine Zimmermann for providing a sounding board as well as a number of edit recommendations for this article. 

Photo-credit: Unsplash