Daniel Zhao
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A few principles and values for 2021 and beyond

The past two months have seen me make two decisions that feel rather consequential in terms of how they will shape the start of my career: choosing not to work at Facebook full-time, and deciding to graduate this coming Spring, rather than take a full gap-year. Both of these took far more energy and thought than did past decisions, and yet, in retrospect, my decision on Facebook felt reasoned and deliberate, whereas I lacked a sound framework with which to think about graduation.

Now, as I enter the next chapter of my life, making decisions more intentionally will become increasingly important. I wanted to articulate the the priorities that are most important to me — the outcomes I should optimize for at each critical juncture.

Decisionmaking principles

I start with eight principles that I believe should guide the decisions I make. They’re not intended to serve as a checklist or hard rubric for making decisions, although it may be useful in some scenarios to use these as guidelines to compare two given alternatives. More importantly, the principles below are meant to serve as a framework , a starting point, for evaluating the options in front of me.

These principles are very roughly presented in order of importance. (Generally speaking: adjacent bullet points are probably roughly equally important; when two bullet points are separated by more than one item, one item is probably roughly more important than the other.)

  1. Follow my gut instinct. Thinking too much about the pros and cons of a decision will cause me to doubt myself, leading me to lose confidence and conviction in what I previously thought to be the right decision.
  2. Make decisions that are based on my values. See below.
  3. Make decisions that are based on what I want, not what others want or what I think they want At the end of the day, only I fully understand grasp my own goals and motivations, and only I am responsible for my own success or failure. (Plus, I shouldn’t assume how others will react to a decision: they may end up much more favorable to it than I expect.)
  4. Make decisions that maximize my ability to strengthen personal relationships and improve those around me. A comment on a New York Times story (unfortunately, I can’t find the article right now) puts it best: there’s a difference “between your career resume and your obituary resume. Because they never talk about your big deals, long hours, awards, or recognition. They talk about who you were as a person, what you contributed to your family, friends and community, how you may have made a difference in someone’s life or what a great friend you were.”
  5. Make decisions that maximize my impact on people and problems. This means spending time on the things that matter the most, equitably strengthening communities of which I am a part, positively impacting the people in my life, and keeping my eyes set on the most systemic problems.
  6. Make decisions that maximize my personal character growth. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) surrounding myself with people I look up to and aspire to be like, as well as putting myself in new situations and experiences that challenge my skills and character.
  7. Make decisions that maximize my professional success. (Despite being so low in this list, professional goals can tie into some of the criteria above. But pure career advancement, recognition, or prestige by itself should never be the primary driver of a decision.)
  8. Make decisions that maximize the diversity of lived experiences I can have. Don’t do something (or pass up the chance to do something) if I know I’ll live to regret it — particularly if it’s once-in-a-lifetime.

And, once I’ve made a decision using the best available information to me at that time, in accordance with these principles, and aligned with my goals, I don’t have to regret past decisions.

Driving values

I’ve journaled for nearly ten years now, and over winter break, I also decided to sit down to review some of these entries — primarily from those written in the past four years — to reflect on the things I care about the most.

These six ideas underpin my worldview, in turn shaping my actions and beliefs. A few are based on my experiences and training; others are more deep-rooted beliefs I hold, for which I’m still in the process of reflecting on and identifying where they originate.

You can think of the difference of what I’m calling principles and values in terms of navigation (but without access to a map: suppose I’m driving from New York to Los Angeles. Values dictate my destination — the overarching direction in which I should drive, a Polaris to set my eyes on — while principles help me pick which road to take at each interchange, at each critical juncture. (Then, goals are somewhere in between values and principles: they are more short-term than a north star, but more long-term than a single decision.)

In the future, I’ll explore some of these values in more depth individually.