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The Tyranny of Values


Though universally lauded, values can become strait jackets.


For years, Intel was the 800-pound gorilla of the microprocessor industry. It was fantastically profitable, while continuously — many would say, miraculously — navigating the “make or break” decisions that typified multi-generational processor investment.

In 2005, Steve Jobs asked Intel to create a processor for the upcoming iPhone, using the competing ARM architecture. Intel declined.

Later, Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini, reflected on his terrible decision (bold added) 2:

I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t one of these things you can make up on volume. And in hindsight, the forecasted cost was wrong and the volume was 100x what anyone thought.

The lesson I took away from that was, while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I’ve ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut.

In organizations with strong engineering cultures, there is outsize weight placed on data-based decision making. In making the choice of whether to enter a new market, Otellini chose to focus on the data in front of him.

His mistake exemplifies the tyranny of values.

The Flip Side of Values

In any tribe — a profession, a company, a family, an ethnic group, or a country — values are set based on what’s worked in the past, what training the tribe has, and what values are held by those at the top.

These values form when certain attitudes are critical for the job at hand, and they help us quickly determine the appropriate course of action. But when we see them as the only course of action, they can go wrong.

Data is king in Silicon Valley company debates, a function of the vast data available and the early training received by the top engineers who run these companies. This doesn’t always make sense.

When someone has “compelling” data, it can shut down the debate even when the data should be considered suspect. When data is missing — such as when entering a brand new market at Intel — you may unfairly dismiss that opportunity relative to an opportunity that has data. Or you may consciously want to ignore data, as it optimizes a local outcome at the cost of the broader experience (compare how Steve Jobs might determine a shade of blue using design intuition vs how Google would use data to pick a shade of blue in its earliest years; see also Netflix).

We generally think of values as overwhelmingly positive. Instead, values are designed to encourage an outcome in a certain context. To make the best decisions, we need to understand the environments when these values are counterproductive.

Values surround us

In Japan, one value about fitting in can be expressed by a saying: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In many contexts, this value makes consensus easier to reach, encouraging a more harmonious and unified society. But for many Americans, individuality is what makes America great — and likely underlies America’s entrepreneurialism.

More often than not, we don’t see the challenges of a given value. What parent wouldn’t want a child that “plays well with others” or have children that “respect their elders”? The flip side of these values is that their child may be too willing to subsume their perspectives to that of others, even when there may be tremendous value to loud dissent.

Values in professions

Professions also imprint a series of values on its disciples.

For scientists, novelty and first to discovery are critical goals. Discoveries — finding something never found before — are prized amongst the tribe of scientists. This is the easiest way to get published in prestigious publications and receive more research funding. Crucially, following these values is the way to fit in and be acknowledged by your peers.

This same value is often counterproductive in other contexts. In Silicon Valley, scientists often want to be entrepreneurs where this value makes much less sense. So many business ideas that succeed are derivative, with better execution or fortuitous timing. A number of scientists I know, attempting to build companies, dismiss certain ideas as not interesting or not innovative.

Every profession/industry holds values that are commonly shared amongst the group. In what environments might these values be counterproductive?

Values in our personal lives

Each of us deals with values even more regularly in our families and communities.

Both my parents hail from entrepreneurially-minded families in the famous Indian Gujarati community. As the Economist would bemusedly remark, “Asked how many Gujaratis attend [an elite business school], one dog-tired student replies, ‘They don’t need to. It’s in their blood.’” The Gujaratis exemplify entrepreneurial thinking and compare to the best entrepreneurs I see in Silicon Valley.

But this zeal for entrepreneurship has a darker side. Growing up, all careers in our community were judged relative to successful entrepreneurs. If you worked for someone else, that was bad. If you didn’t make money to the best of your capacity — say as an artist or a scientist — you were less interesting than someone who did. The values of the business owner was a lens through which to see if any career or choice was good or bad.

Imagine how powerful this mindset is in encouraging future entrepreneurs. And how poorly these values might encourage other professions, like being an artist.

When approaching a value, you should always consider its tradeoffs.

Values leak

Values that we learn in one context often have a way of appearing in another context where they don't make much sense.

For example, behavior that is encouraged at work (where it makes perfect sense) often has a way of appearing in our personal lives (where it may not).

A good friend, a DevOps engineer, spent his days protecting the U.S. Federal Reserve’s computer systems from hackers using techniques from sophisticated encryption to advanced logging.

He then applied the same mindset to his parents’ computer network, even though the threat vectors are entirely different. This made his network difficult for his parents to use. For them, there might be value to simpler usability at the cost of rock solid security.

Notably, my friend gets anxious when his friends use a network that’s not as secure as what he’s used to. In short, he’s been trained to see a certain value (security at all costs) as “good,” and has a hard time functioning in environments where this value is counterproductive.

Values are contagious

Very few of us list out our values and generally can’t imagine a world with a competing value. Values are largely shared through osmosis.

Thus, the values of the people we spend time with become ours. We especially adopt the values of the most successful around us.

We also want to fit in and model the behavior of those at the top. At work, fitting in lets us rise through the ranks. We therefore adopt the values that are held by senior management and rewarded.

In the 1980s, my father researched the culture at NASA that led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and remarked on the outsize respect at NASA accorded to rocket scientists versus other functions. These scientists were the ones widely feted for America’s rapid success in space exploration.

As a result, the values that were seen as good by rocket scientists were held sacrosanct, such as launching rockets quickly. This function held the most esteem, and their success meant many of them were promoted to the top of the organization, concurrently setting the values to be followed for those beneath them.

In his view, this was debilitating when disputes arose between the rocket scientists and other functions, such as the test engineers who were responsible for the safety of the Challenger.

Interrogating your values

There’s tremendous benefits to interrogating your values and changing them when necessary. This approach is especially powerful for those hell bent on making the best decisions in changing environments.

It starts with determining the values you hold. Few people actually know the values that dictate their professional and personal lives.

The only surefire way to see them is to assess your actions, and work backwards to see what values underlie them.

This approach is especially powerful for those leading teams — from business to politics to religious groups — where understanding your values will help you determine the default ways you might approach problems.

Second, understand the downsides of your values, rather than seeing them as simply good.

For your core personal values and those of your employer, list out the downsides of these values. Brainstorm environments and decisions where these values are counterproductive.

It’s especially critical to interrogate your values when you find yourself in a new environment (a new job, a change in the market). You may believe in your values strongly, but this belief should be weakly held.

Every profession has values that make it successful, but then make it blind in other contexts. I’ve always felt that every profession should have a list of common values and the downsides of these values.

In short, ask a simple question to the values you see rewarded: why?


All opinions expressed are solely my own. feedback? drop a note to nemil at this domain



  1. This title is a riff on Jo Freeman’s well known essay on the early women’s liberation movement, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. ↩︎
  2. As Jean-Louis Gassee recounts. ↩︎

Footnotes