Tightrope performers do their thing at a fair in Kansas in 1939. Photo from the Library of Congress.

On values

What we care about costs us.

One crisp spring morning in May 1969, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered 41-year-old sat down in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications and quietly took on the Nixon administration.

Nixon wanted to gut funding for public television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In his eyes, and in the eyes of many conservatives at the time, public TV was an expensive government overreach, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and a hotbed of liberal and progressive indoctrination.

Against that backdrop, this subdued man spoke to the US Senate, delivering an impassioned and heartfelt case for the importance of television programming that nurtured, that led with empathy, and created smarter, more well-rounded people.

This was not a winning pitch for the Senate Subcommittee on Communications. The  heartfelt plea was met with skepticism, the passion with derision. Arguments were skewered. Entreaties ignored.

This quiet man did not waver, though, and eventually enough of the committee — and enough of the public — saw things as he saw them. The votes were there, and no matter what Nixon wanted, public television funding would stay.

That is, of course, the story of how Fred Rogers took on the President of the United States, stood by his convictions, and saved public television — and “Mr Rogers Neighborhood” — for the next three decades.

Later the same year Rogers again stood up with quiet conviction against powerful forces when he invited Officer Clemmons — a black man — to soak his feet in a wading pool on a hot day. TV itself was almost completely segregated in 1969 —  outside of comedy/variety shows, about the only diverse cast you’d find was on Rogers’ PBS neighbors on Sesame Street — and swimming pools across the country were still segregated. Racial tensions in general were running high. Yet here was Fred Rogers, dipping his toes in a pool with a Black man. His critics said it was inappropriate and divisive. Rogers did not care, and he did not falter.


The point here is not to extol the virtues of Fred Rogers. There were many, and plenty of folks have done a great job of talking about them. They’re right. No, the point here is to talk about what Rogers knowingly gave up in his unflinching commitment to his values.

He gave up a fortune in lucrative merchandising and merchandising deals in order to preserve the integrity and authenticity of his program over making a fortune in licensing and merchandising deals.

He weathered a lifetime of whisper campaigns full of baseless accusations and character assassinations, turning the other cheek to his detractors and leaving their foul rumors unaddressed. He acted as he believed, guided by the power of kindness, forgiveness and grace.

He struggled through his life with his own mental health, depression, and anxiety. He grappled with the weight of his work and buckled under the load of constant emotional labor, caring for so many others.

Fred Rogers understood this well: for everything we value — for anything we value — there is something else we are choosing not to value, whether we’re aware of it or not. There are trade-offs and compromises. So it is for all of us.

What we care about costs us.

If we value a quiet, simple life, we’re not optimizing for material possessions, or a rich and busy social schedule. We may be de-prioritizing connection and community, or wealth we could have pursued.

And if we optimize for connections and relationships or success and achievement, we may have a life full of cocktail mixers and lively conversation, but our personal lives are likely to be anything but quiet and simple.

These things aren’t binary. Most of us fumble along somewhere in the middle, without truly optimizing for any one particular thing, or we flip-flop between valuing one thing and then another.

Still, as we consider what we truly believe in and truly care about, there is also value in considering what we don’t, and why.

Which brings us to corporate values

Corporate values. Oh boy. Every company has them, and most of them are terrible.  Superficial. Hypocritical. Hollow. You know it, I know it, most likely the corporation knows it, too.

Most corporations, just like most people, don’t really think through the choices they’re deprioritizing when they choose their values, which is how we get hollow and meaningless values.

There are endless empty lists of corporate values you can pick and choose from and have ready-made corporate values, without all the messy reflection, introspection, or thinking about the tradeoffs inherent in optimizing for any given value.

“Integrity,” for example, consistently tops the list of most common corporate core values. Companies tout their honesty, transparency, and desire to do the right thing, even when it's difficult or inconvenient. But integrity is inherently at odds with the true number one goal of nearly every corporation over the past 40 years or more: maximizing shareholder value.

It’s not even a matter of illegality or unethical behavior. True integrity means telling customers honestly that maybe your product isn’t the right product for them. It means standing behind a product even when doing so might be very, very costly. It means being transparent about those things that drive down shareholder value.

Fred Rogers made a choice to value integrity over a fortune he could have made. Few corporations would do the same, and many would argue that they shouldn’t, that corporations should optimize for profit over all else.

Google’s “Don’t be Evil” mantra remains one of the most famous corporate core values ever. In their 2004 IPO letter, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin recognized the tradeoff inherent in the value, saying “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains” (Emphasis mine).

Over time, however, it became clear that pursuing and following “Don’t be Evil” would mean giving up wildly profitable surveillance capitalism, anti-competitive behaviors, and discriminatory and retaliatory labor practices, among other problems. Google initially set a high bar, but in 2018 they dropped “Don’t be Evil” from their core values in favor of the more ambiguous and anodyne “Do the right thing”.

Corporate values tend to ring hollow because we can see the company clearly optimizing for something other than their stated value.  Starbucks, for example, says it strives to “[Create]  a Culture of Warmth and Belonging, where Everyone is Welcome” yet it installs hostile architecture, closes restrooms, and even removes or covers electrical outlets, all in an effort  to deter people from staying too long in that warm space where everyone is welcome. And ask any union organizer how welcome they were in Starbucks’ culture of warmth and belonging.

Similarly, Amazon’s stated value of “Customer Obsession” appears increasingly at odds with an ever more frustrating slog through page after page full of junk products, many of which may be actually dangerous and harmful to those same customers Amazon claims to be obsessing over.

Can a profit-driven corporation manage to create values that ring true, understand the trade-offs, and follow them anyway? Sure. Patagonia is one great example. They’ve consistently sacrificed profit in favor of sustainability and fair labor practices. They’ve foregone traditional marketing in favor of authenticity and transparency. They’ve encouraged customers to consider waste and environmental impact, even if it meant fewer sales. Sounds a bit like Fred Rogers.

But most companies fail to live up to their stated values. In many cases, their values never meant much in the first place – they were probably put together by a small team from marketing or HR and never reflect the true organizational culture or interests of leadership.

Other times the company has the best intentions when they post their values, but they fall down when facing financial pressures and managers trying to make their numbers. In other words, the company wasn’t really willing to accept what they would give up for their values.

This I Believe

In 1951, right around the time Rogers was getting his degree in child psychology, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow and the CBS radio network began airing a short, five-minute program called “This I Believe,” in which both famous people and people who weren’t famous at all would write essays about their values and what they believed in. The show became a cultural phenomenon in the 50s and has been revived multiple times since.

One could listen to famed science fiction writer Robert Heinlein talk about his belief in in the virtues of communities and “Our Noble, Essential Decency, Margaret Sanger’s belief that all children should be wanted before they are conceived, or Oscar and Esther Hirschmann, a New York City couple whose biggest claim to fame was being married to one another for 30 years, as they explained how they believed their love for one another was their key to loving and understanding their fellow citizens.

The appeal is clear and perennial: At its best “This I Believe” segments are not stories of people crowing about their beliefs or patting themselves on the back for their own empty platitudes. They are stories of people doing the work of examining what they believe with a sharp and analytical eye, successfully distilling down to the essence of their core beliefs, then showing the world their work.

We could use a bit more of that.

We can’t all be Fred Rogers, as individuals or as companies, unfailingly, forever following our convictions. We have foibles and missteps. Things go wrong.

Even if we recognize we may fall short, we can do better, as individuals and as companies, as we contemplate our values. We can do is think harder about what we truly believe in and what we’re willing to forgo to believe in those things. We can be transparent and honest with both ourselves and others about what those trade-offs look like to us, so that our values do not sound hollow and hypocritical.

Do the work. Show the work. Stand by the work.

This I believe.