See What Sticks: Declare Your Principles

Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin:

(1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile.

(2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.

As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life.

I’m a wildly infrequent fiction reader, but Lisa Genova’s Still Alice has been on my list for months. My interest was piqued when Julianne Moore got rave reviews for her portrayal of the titular college professor struggling in the throes of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease...but ever a loyalist to the written word, I continued to wait until I could read the book before seeing the performance.

The book was gripping, and Genova’s expressive description of how the mind starts to drift and struggle as Alzheimer’s takes hold left me glued to my copy (even as other tasks beckoned). But the element that caught my attention most, is what is referred to in the book as the Butterfly test.

Once Alice realizes that bits of information she holds dearly will eventually slip away, she creates a set of questions for herself to answer, saving them in her BlackBerry. The questions were routine, such as the location of her campus office and her oldest daughter’s birthday, but they were also items that could leave her at any time. As a professor of cognitive psychology, Alice is all too aware of the seemingly random nature with which her memories will soon be taken away; by setting her BlackBerry to administer this “butterfly” test to her each day, she’d be able to gauge her progression (or, more appropriately, regression) by her ability to answer these questions.

Something about the questions that Alice selected, reminded me of a scene in one of my most-often watched movies, Citizen Kane. At a key point in the film, after Charles Foster Kane decides to expand his publishing empire, he stands in a partially lit room and drafts a “declaration of principles.” His friend Jed Leland looks on and witnesses the act, a promise to report the news honestly and look out for the people who trusted the reporting of his team.

Both Alice’s electronic list, and Kane’s painstakingly scrawled treatise, have some important similarities that should stand out for anyone wishing to go their own way.

Decide What’s Important. Alice could have picked any set of questions to test her knowledge, but she picked items with meaning, things that there was sentimental incentive to remember. Similarly, Kane selected the items on his list based on what he valued (Spoiler alert: at the time!). The things that you value most- not your idols, your industry, or your family- should be the ones that you hold closely. Do you hold integrity highly as a value? Find a way to remind yourself of that often. Commitment to family? Make them the centerpiece of the life you’re creating. When these values are centered in your life and chosen pursuits, it changes the way you work AND the way you live.

Give Yourself “Boosters” Often. Alice’s “butterfly” test was set to go off at 8am each day, and she faithfully recorded her responses as a means to verify her mental acuity. Similarly, when Kane first drafted his Declaration, he wrote it on a large sheet to ensure he’d see and remember the principles. However, each ended up not being able to continue honoring their lists- Alice’s was irretrievably lost after a mishap with her BlackBerry, while Kane let ego and wealth eclipse his desires for integrity. Without a means to be constantly reminded of the important things, each disappeared down a rabbit hole, unable to return to the things they once cared about the most.

Just as it is encouraged for people working toward goals to post them in visible places, it’s important to do this when you’re building something values-based. A picture of those who you’re working to serve, a memento from an inspiring moment or event, or even a Post-It with a word or phrase written on it can do the trick. Make sure that you “boost” your idea, venture, or lifestyle change often; the prompts will keep you consistent and productive.

Let Others Hold You to It. We all live busy lives, and it’s easy to be isolated when you’re buried in work or your own ideas. But incorporating others into the process can ease the burden that upholding these values and principles can create. Alice, sadly, had a great deal of trouble doing this. She was reluctant to tell her husband John of her diagnosis, and was even more shy about telling her children. Convinced early on that her years as a professor would protect her from quick degeneration, she allowed her pride to get in the way. The result? She had few ways of gauging her decline once water damage (caused by leaving her BlackBerry in the freezer) took her self-created tool from here. Jed Leland was supposed to do this for Kane, but the two drifted as their ideals diverged. Kane saw the list once more, when Jed returned it in the mail, alongside a resignation letter.

Let your seemingly singular dedication to a cause, idea, or pursuit, strengthen your relationships as well as your resolve. Hold the people that support you in these adventures as tightly as you do the ideas themselves- the best ones will want to do what it takes to help you succeed.

As you might expect, the relationships started to fall away for Alice, as did many of the other things she held dear- places, dates, and the feeling of being knowledgeable and trusted. But in her earlier days, she knew that cataloguing her most important memories would help serve as a barometer for who she was becoming. Even those of us fully in their right minds could benefit from such an exercise- so pull out your own phone, and start asking the questions that will keep you on the right track.

Have you defined your own principles? Who will help hold you to them? And how do you plan to keep them at the forefront of your mind?