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What are your Non-negotiables?

Understanding the non-negotiables in your life is a critical step in uncovering who you are and what is most important to you. Non-negotiables provide clarity when it comes to decision-making; they can both guide and explain the choices we make. Non-negotiables are at the core of who you are and what you stand for.

So what is a “non-negotiable”? A non-negotiable is a core value, principle, or conviction that you believe in above all others. The primacy of this conviction is so strong that other values, when in direct conflict with it, must yield to it. For instance, if you value perseverance above all other things, you may be less prone to quit once something becomes difficult in your life. This is why some people call it a “non-negotiable”: it is something so important to you that it drives your decision-making more than other facets of your life.

As I reflect on my life and why and how I’ve made decisions, I come back to the following non-negotiables that are core to who I am:

  1. Family
  2. Integrity
  3. Time Freedom
  4. Health & Fitness
  5. Continuous Learning

Family has always been at the forefront of my non-negotiables. It’s easily the most important thing in my life.

As I’ve looked back on my work career, I’m sometimes disappointed with myself. Why didn’t I push harder to climb the corporate ladder? Why didn’t I spend more hours at the office and take on more responsibility and power? Why didn’t I stay at the same company to have a bigger impact?

When I look back I can see the pattern emerge. I sought jobs with flexible schedules so that I could be available for the myriad of parental activities like picking up kids from school, caring for them when they’re sick and spending time with them during the summer. I realize that each successive company I’ve worked for was geographically closer to home. This wasn’t by accident. I purposefully did this to reduce my commute time so I could more reliably take my kids to their extracurriculars and take part in school activities. The decision might have limited my work options, but it opened up the options vis a vis my family. I know that I could have outsourced these tasks, but the fact is I enjoyed the time I spent with my kids. I know some might scoff at the notion that walking your kids to school or taking them to their extracurriculars is “quality time”. But on reflection, I find the mundane moments were just as precious as the more “special” moments like family vacations.

There’s a great moment the Pixar movie Up! where Russell, the young Wilderness Explorer is talking to the older Mr. Fredrickson. Russell tells him:

My Dad made it sound so easy. He’s really good at camping, and how to make fire from rocks and stuff. He used to come to all my Sweat-lodge meetings. And afterwards we’d go get ice cream at Fentons. I always get chocolate and he gets butterbrickle. Then we’d sit on this one curb, right outside, and I’ll count all the blue cars and he counts all the red ones, and whoever gets the most, wins. I like that curb.

That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.

My most important goal is to be present for my family and to direct my greatest energies towards their well-being. This is my foremost non-negotiable against which every decision must be weighed.

Integrity is a core principle in my life. I’ve tried to live as honestly as possible (though I have my own missteps like everyone else). I believe that our words have meaning. When I say I will do something, I will do it. I like to speak the truth, even when it’s detrimental to me.

In graduate school, I took a series of oral exams while enrolled in a Ph.D. program. These were comprehensive exams meant to test a broad range of knowledge in my field. I’d sit alone while a group of five Harvard professors sat opposite on a long oak table peppering me question after question. Their line of inquiry would start broadly and then move to increasingly pointed questions. The questions felt interminable, but every time I would reach the limits of my knowledge I would respond with a simple “I don’t know.” That became my go-to answer and, by the end of the exam, it felt as if all I have for these distinguished professors was “I don’t know” (often followed by the rejoinder that I’d have to further research that topic).

I left that exam thinking I had failed. Yet, when I received my results, I passed with the highest marks. This was a surprise to me. My professors told me they were particularly impressed with how well I understood the limits of my knowledge. They said that many doctoral candidates make up facts and keep talking well past the boundaries of their knowledge. My ability to admit “I don’t know” was refreshing. In retrospect, I understand now that my ability to say these three words was a manifestation of my commitment to integrity. My adherence to this principle may not always have a happy result like the story above, but I know I will always stay true to this value.

Time Freedom is another non-negotiable in my life. I’ve always valued having a lot of time for the things that are most important to me. As a result, I’ve eschewed the standard 9-5 Monday-Friday work schedule that most of us are groomed for. Early in my career, I pushed for a 32-hour work schedule at my job while maintaining the same pay rate. This allowed me to have Fridays off along with the weekend. I didn’t start with this schedule, but I made sure that my output was solid enough that I could ask for this arrangement (and get it). I was fortunate enough to be in a role my hours worked could be decoupled the results I generated. When my 4-day schedule was no longer sufficient, I added more telecommuting which gave me more time-freedom. I was lucky enough to work in Silicon Valley where decentralized work arrangements aren’t out of the ordinary (I realize this is not possible for all careers) and managers care more about results than the hours logged.

Later in my career, I gave myself even greater time freedom by becoming my own boss, first as an independent contractor and then as the founder of two different companies. Starting a business can be all-consuming, but you also get to call the shots. Need to leave early for a personal reason? No problem, you’re the boss. I’ve since freed even more time by taking extended hiatuses and sabbaticals. I’ve been fortunate to do thee things but I also deliberately planned my life to incorporate these events into my schedule.

Health & Fitness is not something that I valued early in my life. This non-negotiable took many years to cultivate and strengthen. I credit my wife with helping me on this path. When I was younger I didn’t think much about the food I ate or whether getting regular exercise was important. I didn’t spend time or energy on these things. I ate whatever I wanted, gained weight and wasn’t in good physical shape.

Eventually I made the connection between mind, body and spirit. Maintaining health and balance in all aspects of our being is critical for peak performance and to have the energy to accomplish our goals. I started exercising regularly and got hooked on the post-workout high. I now do a mix of cardio and strength training most days of the week. It’s important enough that I always list exercise on my daily plan and it’s the first thing I attend to every morning when I wake up (after I have my morning coffee).

Food is another important part of this equation. I do most of my the cooking in my family and spend more time cooking than ever before. Yet, I don’t see it as a burden or waste of time. I enjoy the act of cooking and it stands as a peaceful interlude from the rest of my daily schedule. Moreover, providing delicious, wholesome meals for my family gives me great satisfaction. The best part of making food an important part of everyday life is spending time with others. I enjoy the nightly dinner conversations with my wife and children and those short moments of calm we have together before everyone gets back to their busy schedules.

Continuous Learning is the last non-negotiable on my list. My oldest child is a senior in high school and is knee-deep in preparing her college applications. One of the college essay questions she was given asked her what it means to be educated. She asked me my thoughts on the topic and I told her I took issue with the question. The notion that one can be “educated” suggests a possible end-point. I believe learning is a process and that rather than being “educated” one should always strive for a state of constant education. I carve out time every day to read and to learn new skills and explore new ideas. Learning doesn’t stop after high school or college. I refuse to believe the old adage that “you can’t keep an old dog new tricks.”

Reflecting on my non-negotiables, I am struck by how intertwined they are. Each reinforces the others in some way. For instance, I know that by living a healthier lifestyle I will be able to help my family for the longest possible time. I know that the principle of time freedom gives me the ability to engage in a life of continuous learning, healthy living and time to spend with my family. I know that living a life of integrity will help me to be true to others and true to myself. The non-negotiables are the essential compass-points in our lives.

If you haven’t considered writing out your non-negotiables, I’d encourage you to go through the exercise. It doesn’t take long and it’s a great opportunity to reflect on who you are and what you value. Yours might be very different from mine and that’s 100% ok. Everyone has a different set of values by which they define their lives. The key is understanding what yours are. Take inventory. This will help you understand your past decisions and how to navigate your future.

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