Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about how to live a “good” life. Passively accepting outside definitions of success was leaving me disappointed, but figuring out my own criteria turned out to be much more complicated than expected. I heard a very simple definition of success that I liked: “Success is living by your values”. “Great! I’ll just do that,” I thought, but I then I realized that I didn’t know what my values were.

I’ve heard about “core values” constantly at work. Most companies I’ve worked for have had a set of values. Every time the values were mentioned to employees, you could almost hear every set of eyes in the room roll. Values should be aspirational, so it’s not fair to expect people or organizations to live up to them 100% of the time, but I often saw a complete disconnect between defined values and day to day behavior.

Even though I viewed corporate values with distain, I tried started with a similar approach to define my personal values. I came up with a list of simplistic terms. Things like creativity, love, and autonomy. They were so abstract that there was no way to put them into practice. The devil is in the details when you’re making decisions for your life, and I needed more specificity to guide my choices. I decided I needed an operator’s manual for myself that contained detailed rules, guidelines, and reminders to live by.

Making your operator’s manual

1. Gather wisdom and rules

The first step is gathering specific guidelines that you want to follow in your life. You probably have unwritten rules you already follow and pieces of wisdom that have resonated with you. Write any that you can think of down on a list. Try to imagine things you want to accomplish in life and how your behavior would have to change to make those things happen. Write concise rules that would change your behavior accordingly.

Example rules from my manual

  • Do what you think is right.
  • Don’t borrow trouble.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others.
  • Be kind, even to the unkind.
  • Hope and positivity smell good. Fear and negativity stink.

2. Organize your manual

OK, you’ve got a list of guidelines that you want to follow. Now it’s time to see which of them fit together into similar categories. This is a great way to discover what your values are.

From my examples above, I grouped “Don’t borrow trouble” and “Avoid comparing yourself to others” into a category called Take care of yourself. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with, so I need my manual to remind me to do it.

Keep organizing your rules until they all fit in a value category.

My Values Categories:

  • Be true to yourself
  • Be alive
  • Take care of yourself
  • Do interesting things
  • Meet new people
  • Spend time with good people
  • Deal with dangerous people
  • Be healthy in the digital world
  • Manage your finances

These are much more actionable values than my initial list (ex: creativity, love, and autonomy). Having this list of values also sparked my mind to create more rules. Once the value was identified, I started figuring out what else I would have to change to live by that value.

3. Put the manual into practice

Now it’s time to live by your values and rules. I do that by reviewing the manual as a whole each month and reading relevant sections when making life decisions.

I have a calendar reminder for the first Saturday of each month to read the manual and reflect on it. Schedule a monthly review

Certain scenarios that come up in my life remind me to go over sections of the manual. If I’m feeling existential dread, I’ll take a look at Be alive and Take care of yourself. If I feel lonely, I read through Spend time with good people and Meet new people. I treat the manual like a trusted friend that can give me an outside perspective from the rut I’m stuck in.

4. Keep the manual up to date

Your manual is never complete. You will constantly be discovering new wisdom to include in it. I keep a backlog of new ideas at the end of my manual document. During my monthly manual review, I read the items I put in the backlog and try to add them to the manual. It’s also helpful to rewrite your old rules to be simpler, removing unnecessary words and honing in on the core concept.

That’s all there is to it. I’ve kept evolving my operator’s manual for the last few years, and its become a more and more helpful tool. My personal definition of success becomes clear, and I’m able to know whether I’m living by my values or not.