Revisiting Core Values

So, I’m at a point in my life where I’m turning a page (forgive the metaphor). What I mean is, I’ve just finished a five-year career in a small town in central Washington as high school English teacher. The decision to resign my position and relocate back to my hometown – Spokane, WA – was inevitable, as I never desired to, nor planned on living in a small town. I spent those five years driving five hours home and back on most weekends to see my friends and family, and to play shows with my band. I was isolated, and the distance made everything more difficult.

I moved to Bridgeport because it was an opportunity to gain experience and hone my skills while teaching an underserved population in one of the top 2% of high schools in both the state and the nation,* and I am incredibly proud of the work I did there. I am also supremely thankful for the opportunities I had to grow, and to share that growth with colleagues and the community. Teaching in Bridgeport taught me so much – not only about teaching, but about myself, and about my own potential.

So here I am, back in Spokane for a few days now. I have a lot of opportunities ahead of me. I still don’t know where I’ll be teaching in a few months, but there are some great prospects there. In the meantime, the reconnection with my home geography has inspired me to really use my time this summer to build up a writing career alongside the teaching career. I love to tell stories about this place, and its time to get serious about doing it.

In that spirit, I’ve become much more active here on the ol’ inter webs with my attempts to build a brand and provide consistent, quality content. I want to give my readers great stories as often as possible.

Another thing I’ve started doing to further the writing career is freelance work. I primarily use UpWork, and their job success rating is very important to me. I know that if I don’t keep that number as high as possible, I’m never going to be as successful as I want with it.

Are you still with me? What I’m saying is… That’s where my gumption’s at these days! I’m super full of gumption, and those of you who’ve been reading my stuff since the old days will remember that to me, gumption is one of the few sacred things in this universe. New readers, read about that here. (That blog is now defunct, but I’m keeping it up for… je ne sais quoi.)

So, in the shower the other day (#showerthoughts) I started wondering, “How can I make sure that my gumption can be combined with discipline to make me an unstoppable force of nature – the true wizard that I am?” – that’s totally how I talk to myself in the shower; don’t hate. Well, the discipline part had my mind racing back to March of 2002, when I became Airman First Class Humphreys, 323rd TRS, Air Education and Training Command, United States Air Force. For you civilians, that means when I went to boot camp. On the day I graduated, I, along with each of my compatriots, was given a coin to symbolize our admission into that brotherhood of Airmen. Around the outer rim of that coin are the Air Force’s core values: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do.

Now, those are the organization’s core values, and the organization has their own definition of what each of those values means. It’s understood that each Airman will uphold those values according to those meanings while they serve. But what about after our service is ended? When we’ve been honorably discharged, how do we still hold to those values – assuming we still value them?

I do still value them. That much was clear from the beginning of this rabbit hole expedition. The real question for me, though, was do they still mean the same things to me now that they did back then?

Of course the answer is no. I’m nearly twenty years older. If the meanings of those core values haven’t evolved for me by now, then I have completely failed at life (by my standards anyway).

With all of that in mind, I’d like to write about what those values mean to me these days.

INTEGRITY FIRST: This was defined to me by my TIs as “Doing what is right even when nobody else is looking.” Well, I still think that’s important, but I’ve expanded my view of it a little bit in the intervening years. The definition of integrity is varied, but at its root, it comes from the same meaning as integrate and integral – in other words built in, or a part of. In that sense, my expanded definition of “Integrity First” is that first and foremost, we must be consistent in our beliefs, speech, and actions. I think of Scout’s memory of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird – the same in the streets as he is at home. Of course, I don’t always live up to this ideal – nobody really can – but I strive for it. And if I can keep it in mind, and don’t try to say I’m something other than what I am, I have faith that good things will result.

SERVICE BEFORE SELF: This, of course, to the Air Force, means, “If we need to extend your tour of duty by a few months or more, or ship you to Minot, ND for four years, we’re going to do it, and you’re going to like it because SERVICE BEFORE SELF!” And, ya know, to them, that’s a really important feature to have in your troops. For me, personally, though, it needs to mean something different – especially if “Integrity First” is going to be a reality.

So to me, “Service Before Self” is a statement of purpose. I have chosen to invest heavily in education and training that positions me to serve whatever community I am in as a teacher and leader. I did not invest years of my life and thousands of dollars to get an MBA, or learn how to become a tech billionaire, or any other self-serving career path with the sole objective of making as much money as possible. Instead, I chose to pursue a career in which the time I spend serving is intrinsically rewarding, in addition to the modest financial compensation I receive (although the recent raises for Washington teachers are most appreciated, and a HUGE step in the right direction). Regardless of where my writing goes, my personal commitment to public service will not wane.

EXCELLENCE IN ALL I DO: This one really hasn’t changed all that much for me, really. If you read the post I linked to above, my reverence for quality becomes clear. I guess the only way in which my definition of this value has grown is the recognition that I can’t sacrifice my own health (physical nor mental) in pursuit of perfection. One of the pitfalls that can lead a person – especially a perfectionist – into an unhealthy obsession is the idea that we can do it all. What I’ve had to realize, is that sometimes I am not the best person for the job. Sometimes my version of perfect is not the one that needs to be achieved. In this way, I can focus on making the things I truly care about as good as they can be.

* 2017-18 U.S. News and World Report Rankings

Ps. So there isn’t any kind of Brian Williams situation here: I served in the 256th Combat Communications Squadron, 141st Air Refueling Wing, Washington Air National Guard. I went through 8 months of initial active duty training under the full command of the United States Air Force, and the unit listed in the text above was my unit for basic training. The rest of my career was as a traditional National Guardsman. I was never deployed, and was honorably discharged in 2007 as a Staff Sergeant. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.