No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth


Are your company values understood, or merely memorized?

'Learning by heart' isn't always the answer.

Are your company values understood, or merely memorized?
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

CEO and co-founder, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and pr.co. Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

My daughter is on her way to graduate from high school this spring and is currently busy studying for her exams. I was looking at her planning for the next few weeks and asked her about her strategy.

She told me she was struggling with how to prioritize her work, and I sympathized. It IS challenging to decide what time to invest in what part of the work you have to do — so I tried to help… and failed.

I asked her which parts were still far off and explained it might make sense to delay getting started on some tasks until she was closer to the actual exam. She looked at me and then patiently explained why I was oversimplifying things.

[Read: Chaos isn’t always a bad thing]

She said if you need to understand something, it doesn’t matter when you learn it, because once you understand something, it stays with you. If all you need to do is memorize and recite it, then yes, it makes sense to spend time on it closer to the actual exam.

It was such a simple view on learning — and true — but I had never thought about it like that before. Then I discovered this wasn’t a new revelation at all, but age-old wisdom beautifully worded by Confucius more than 2000 years ago:

“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”

Pure data is something you can be told or even shown. Knowledge and the understanding of physics, math, or systems are something that your brain needs to be involved in to comprehend. And once it does, you’ll be able to apply that wisdom to anything.

You can learn the structure of a formula by heart, or you can understand the formula and why it’s applied. In the short run, the result will be the same, but it’s a world of difference in the long run.

This is also quite apt for company culture, values, and ethics.

We can define a few sentences, write a lofty statement, and design posters with catchy slogans. These will all be the result of the formula that defines your company. And people might even remember them.

But what’s even more powerful is when they’ve got no idea the formula exists, but still apply it and work to realize its goals.

Of course you should always have your values written down somewhere, because when a crisis occurs, or an ethical decision needs to be made, it helps to have something to build on.

But you know you’ve truly succeeded when people fundamentally understand your values, and can come up with the right answer themselves — even if the question varies.

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

Also tagged with