Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Man's Gotta Have a Code

A man's gotta have a code.
Omar Little, The Wire
Let's get back to having a code (see Decoding Goldman). In the HBO series The Wire (critics have called it the greatest show in the history of television), my favorite character was Omar Little, a shot-gun-toting, bad-ass thief who robbed drug dealers, but who never harmed "citizens". He was the baddest of bad guys and simultaneously the most ethical of all.

By ethical, I don't mean that he would be canonized (or even asked to speak at a church dinner). However, among a set of characters whose moral compasses were more attuned to the wind than they were to the magnetic poles, he had a set of ethics from which he never wavered. Right or wrong, Omar had an unwavering commitment to his code, regardless of the costs, even his beliefs.

Beliefs Versus Code
One of the things that occurred to me since Decoding Goldman is that adhering to one's code is fundamentally different than the conviction of one's beliefs. The conviction of one's beliefs is somewhat variable (dependent upon the beliefs of the moment) and situational (beliefs that recur within a context), whereas adhering to a code is more transcendent; it doesn't vary from day to day or from situation to situation.

One's code is something like a meta-belief or a belief superstructure. It's the set of bedrock beliefs on which all others rest. It doesn't vary from situation to situation. It may vary over time, but not haphazardly; it evolves. One's code is the set of beliefs that determines how he deals with all other beliefs.

Coding Relationships

For example, an element of one's code might be: I never say anything negative about anyone who is not present; I always take an issue to the person with whom I'm having the issue.

Let's call this code: Taking It to the Source.

I like Taking It to the Source for several reasons. First, it's fundamental; it's something that can be used to govern action in a diverse set of circumstances. Second, it's practical; although it may require discipline to take issues to the source, it's not difficult to do so. Third, it's measurable; it's something that you either do or you don't do with no gray areas. Fourth, it's actionable; it involves doing something with a challenge.

This code element is fundamentally different from: I never say anything negative about anyone, or, It's best to take an issue directly to the person with whom you're having the issue, the former being a bit impractical and a non-action, and the latter being more an intention or sentiment than a code.

Applied Code
The difference between code and sentiment lies not in the words, but in whether or not you abide by them. The word used most often to transform code into platitude is except. How often have you said something that begins with I always, followed by, except when. Or, I never, followed by, except if. What makes a code a code is it resistance to exception.

So, if you always take it to the source, then you never take it to anyone else. Pretty straightforward.

Except when...
  • the other person is not reasonable and wouldn't listen anyway.
  • the offense is so egregious that I wouldn't know where to start.
  • I'm too angry to talk about it civilly.
  • it's just my issue and I don't want to bother them with it.
You get the point. A code defies exception. A sentiment doesn't.

Code Theory
In my experience, what most people consider to be their code is more theoretical than practical. For example, I know many people who purport to abide by a code of authenticity. More often than not, they appreciate authenticity in theory, but they practice applied inauthenticity. Their authenticity is subject to exceptions.

I'm 100% authentic with everyone, except when my authenticity might...
  • hurt their feelings.
  • result in my not getting the job.
  • get me fired.
  • be misunderstood.
  • be used against me.
  • put me at a disadvantage.
Nothing wrong with theory. It's just not the same as having a code.

What's Your Code
I would suggest that few of us actually have or abide by a code, opting instead for what would be called situational ethics. We may speak in platitudes or express sentiment, but it's likely that there is very little of what we believe is bedrock withstanding the crashing waves of exception.

So, how does one go about defining his code?

First, you want to ask yourself whether or not you want to have a code. While most of us prefer to deal with people who adhere to a clearly defined code of ethics, it's not clear that many of us consider it to be a good idea for ourselves. Consider the benefits of having a code. Consider the downside.

Second, if you decide that having a code is a good idea, then you might want to start with five beliefs that you would consider code-worthy. What are your bedrock beliefs? What beliefs could you use to whip all the others in to shape?

As you do this, remember that we're not talking about morals or platitudes. Right and wrong have no place in building a code. It's about who you want to be and the core beliefs that will help you be that person. One person's code might be: I never take more than I need. The next person's code might be: I always take as much as I can.

With each belief, ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Do I really believe it?
  2. Why do I believe it?
  3. How does this belief help me be who I want to be?
  4. What are the exceptions?
  5. If there are exceptions, am I going to toss the belief or the exceptions?
  6. Is this belief core belief, or is there something more fundamental that would serve me better?
  7. How would I articulate this belief as a code that is practical, actionable and measurable?
Then, write it down and try it on for a few days. You might want to do this exercise with someone else and challenge each other to really work through the questions. You might want to start with just one element of a code and see how it goes.

If you do pursue a coding effort, I'd love to hear about what you come up with.
A man's gotta to have a code, unless he doesn't.


  1. Teflon: it just occurred to me that we may not yet have addressed the fundamental question - why One Code? What benefit does it offer over a flexible/variable code, other than simplicity?

  2. So, how does a code differentiate itself from a principle? Are you recanting your previous stand on principles? Plz. Clarify.

  3. I don't see that there is any practical diffencies between code and principles. In both cases if I think that if I can't implement it as a one code - then there are some beliefs that I might want to look at:
    If I want to authentic in my private relationships and not in my work relationships then what are my reasons: do I believe that some people can not handle the truth? what are the implications of holding different beliefs in different situations?

  4. Joy, if you're someone who acts on your principles (fundamentals, not moral mandates), then I would say that your principles ARE your code. If your principles are more theoretical or disjointed from your actions, then I'd say they are quite different.

    I love the idea of looking at where our code seems to shift, e.g., one way at work and another way with friends. We could say that we have different codes in different situations; however, I think it's more useful to say, "What I thought was my code really isn't my code. There must be more to this than I'm seeing."


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