I am currently enrolled in a non-profit leadership training program. Last week we had an amazing speaker: an elementary school principal who was able to turn a failing school into a model one in Philadelphia. He stated that the key to professional and personal success is having a set of non-negotiables; your core values/set of beliefs that guide you in whatever you do.

Although I am 22 discovering these non negotiables wasnt as difficult as some would assume they would be for someone my age. We already know our values we just dont always have a way of articulating them. What behaviors or ideas do more than annoy you–they seem to strike a nerve in a way that throws you off balance? When are you your happiest and feel as though you are at an optimal point for sharing and receiving? Take these themes and get at the root of them–therein lie your non-negotiables.

I constantly struggle with my list of non-negotiables. They guide me in my job search and in the friendships I choose to cultivate. In times of confusion they offer me sanity. However, I find myself surrounded by people who do not share these non-negotiables. While I certainly believe that you should be able to justify your actions, your life should not be defined by constantly having to defend yourself. In the end you will never be able to enjoy your limited time on this earth. So I sat and reflected on key themes in my life that define my treatment of others and how I approach living.

1. I do not do work that insults my dignity or threatens my integrity. Those of us who are considering a career in the non profit field often find ourselves taking on more than we should in order to “support the cause.” Therefore we put up with A LOT. I have heard stories of people being threatened by their students; being overworked and not listened to; having to lie or support things that do not sit well with them–all for the sake of some noble endeavor.

While we obviously need money to support ourselves, turning a blind eye to behaviors that clearly are damaging to your self worth is unnecessary. Leaving a job or turning down an offer is easier said than done. In the end, however, you are better off for it.

2. I do not entertain any idea or theory that suggests that people cannot think for themselves. Agency is what makes people human; only bears and birds live and die a methodical clockwork fashion. A sense of control over one’s life is what separates the depressed from the optimistic; the ones who make it out of poverty and the ones who resign to stay in it; the ones who go forward with a new idea and the ones who acquiesce to challenge.

It is naive, obviously, to not pay attention to those who are born into circumstances that challenge their ability to use their agency to the fullest. I am aware of the debilitating impact of the myriad of “-isms.” However I am also aware of the various movements that have been brought to eradicate them by the oppressed themselves who believed that they deserved more and that it was up to them to make change happen. In the end, change only comes to those who want it.

I am also aware that agency manifests itself in different ways. Going to college was my way of exercising my agency–I took control of my education and consider myself an eternal learner. However, desiring to be a good role model for your children, for example, not only acts as a buffer to many of the problematic messages being sent to children but also gives you a greater sense of purpose and control over your own life. You are forced to live your life in a way that optimizes the happiness of your children and sends them positive messages. In the end, everyone benefits from positive living.

This approach also allows me to be critical. Criticism is key to progress; once you establish that people have no agency you eliminate their ability to make mistakes and thus remove them from criticism. We cant move forward with that mentality.

3. Our treatment of others should encourage their sense of ownership of their lives. This is obviously the educator in me. I work with “inner city youth” and too often it is expected that I pat them on the back for mediocre work and turn a blind eye to their transgressions because they are oh so oppressed. But I always ask: how does this help them become healthy competent adults? It doesnt. So I expect the best of them and I provide them with opportunities to not only reflect and think about their lives but also to contribute to their communities; key behaviors that encourage a sense of agency. Doing this requires me to also believe that everyone has potential to live wonderful lives in their own right that also supports the happiness of others.

4. Be nice! Simple. But what people always remember about me is my kindness–I treat people with love and respect. I do this not only because it is easier– anger and bitchiness are time and energy consuming and produce harsh environments–but also because it fosters positive relationships. People are more willing to talk to me and work with me. It has nothing to do with wanting everyone to be my friend but wanting to create spaces where people thrive emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. In my short time on this earth, I have found that pessimistic and bitchy people are, quite simply, stunted.

5. Aside from these core values everything else is subject to change. Information is everywhere and Id like to think that my political and social views from when I was 17 are different now that I am 22. I find myself becoming more curious everyday and while my non-negotiables guide my inquiries, I have yet to learn all that I can learn. It is important to live your life with conviction but also realize that no one has a monopoly on knowledge. I find myself surrounded by people who either shrug at learning or who growl at anyone who disagrees with them. So by age 30 you are “set in your ways?” Damn. If you are lucky youll have 40+ years left on this earth and yet you have no desire to learn more? No thanks. I pass. The more open you are the more youll grow and I am excited about all that I know.