Value Engineering

Illustration of a flowerbox and watering can by Fanny Luor

Over the past few years, designer Ryan Mather developed Harmony Toolbox, a kit that helps people bring clarity to their personal values. We spoke with him about identifying what you value, whether companies have innate characteristics, and the importance of paying close attention.

Frontier: What prompted you to create the toolbox?

RM: I made it for myself, basically. After graduating from college I felt overwhelmed by possibilities. Part of me wanted to get a studio and make art; part of me wanted to quit my job and join a startup; part of me wanted to climb the corporate ladder; part of me asked, “What if I’m a musician?” All these desires would fill the same chunk of time; I felt I needed a tool to help me make decisions about how to spend my time.

I began making grids in my journal, scoring myself in categories I’d invent that were kind of like values, but weren’t values. It wasn’t working well—I’d alternate between being disappointed and fudging the numbers to avoid disappointment.

Somewhere along the way I met Joe Edelman, who teaches courses on values for tech employees interested in making ethical products. Taking his course was the deep dive on values I was missing; it helped me find sources of meaning. 

These two things—the course and the journals—came together during the pandemic. I began to get more clarity about why I was spending my time on certain things. After posting some images to Instagram, friends began to ask about it, so I made a prototype and it progressed from there.

Frontier: In the toolbox, you mention that personal values can be “hard to untangle from social norms and articulate.” Can you elaborate on that?

RM: Your values don’t come from Instagram or TV shows or something else in the culture. They are just as likely to be the opposite of a social norm. At one point I thought “being creative” was a value, but soon I realized that I only felt fulfilled when I was doing odd or experimental projects, so the value is actually something like “embracing my weirdness.”

The first impression people have of values is that we should likely have the same ones: work hard, play hard, be kind, treat others nicely, stop and smell the roses. They’re aphorisms. It feels counterintuitive that something more precise is necessary—precision changes how this very abstract thing works. Aphorisms are useless on a day-to-day level; usefulness derives from being specific about the contexts in which a value applies, about what you pay attention to, about the ways of being it enables.

There is no class in elementary school that teaches you this, that helps you articulate your specific values. It comes instead from a long genealogy of philosophy that most people won’t take the time to learn.

Illustration of a book with a face on its cover by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Frontier: Can you say more about how values should include context and boundaries?

RM: Let’s take creativity as a value, and use an abstract painter and a healthy snack-bar entrepreneur as our examples. Creativity, by itself, is vague. The painter is interested in open-ended expression, in creating something out of nothing. The latter wants to solve problems, chess-like, while working within the constraints of the market and her business. “Open-ended expression” or “solving problems” work better as values because they take into account each person’s realm of action.

Frontier: I’d like to zoom out from the personal to the business context. You discuss how personal values are “most impactful and revealing in moments with a higher degree of choice.” How does choice come into play with regard to our work lives and companies?

RM: There is likely no best answer to this question. One answer is something we might call “radical valueism”: “There are no company values, there are only individual values.” It would suggest that the need to simplify and consolidate, which happens when people are working together, is at odds with the purpose of understanding values, which help us to understand and celebrate what makes us different and unique.

But can that work? What if we took Harvard as an example? It seems to stand on its own, as people come and go. But let’s say that somehow the members of Pussy Riot are now in charge of the university and they expunge the current faculty, staff, and students and replace them with other feminist activists. Does that mean Harvard’s values are now feminism and anti-authoritarianism? Or does Harvard stand for something that derives from its legacy, something where the sum of its history is greater than its current parts?

My intuition is that a company is its people. There is no corporate ghost, flowing through the halls, whispering in your ear that you should be nice during a given meeting because it’s a company value. But I accept that others have a different stance–and that, again, those stances can vary across contexts.

I know Harmony Toolbox has helped me to feel more grounded and motivated. And even if it doesn’t make me happier, it makes me better able to figure out why I’m unhappy.

Frontier: Let’s talk for a moment about cadence …

RM: Well, to continue with companies, there are some contexts where examining values regularly make more sense. If you’re a two-person startup, you’re likely thinking about your values often. “What kind of company do we want to be?” “How are we going to respond to the emergence of a new competitor?” A company with one hundred thousand employees and decades-long history might not be recalibrating so often.

The same is true with personal values. There is the risk of going too deep into exploring your values. You can’t experience your life if you’re journaling all day every day. You need to figure out, to use your word, the appropriate cadence. I use the terms everyday and seasonal: how often are you checking in?

Even if you’re a “seasonal” person, there can be moments when it’s appropriate to revisit them more often. For example, when I was last on the job market, I felt like I had a superpower because I knew, had articulated, and was assessing with each opportunity or interview how my values fit in. Hiring managers would ask what I was looking for and I could say, concretely, “I want to learn, I want to embrace my weirdness, I want to make stuff, I want to do hard things, I want to be strategic with my time.” The response was usually: “OK, I get it. Here’s what would work well for you and here’s what won’t.”

In the end, I don’t know if Harmony Toolbox will make anyone happier or more effective. But I know it has helped me to feel more grounded and motivated. And even if it doesn’t make me happier, it makes me better able to figure out why I’m unhappy. When I’m not paying any attention to values, I can easily fall into doing whatever the universe is trying to get me to pay attention to. I could play video games every night for two months.

There’s a saying in the machine-learning community: all you need is attention. The same thing applies to life: all you need is life. Harmony Toolbox, or whatever strategy you use, is nothing more than a way to make you pay attention to what you value.