"A man must have a code"
How I came up with a moral code to live by
There’s a scene in the first season of HBO’s brilliant police drama “The Wire” where detectives investigate the killing of a witness who was poised to testify in a murder trial. They had evidence that a drug dealer’s crew killed the witness, but not enough to prosecute them. Eventually, a rival drug dealer named Omar (played by the late great Michael K. Williams) comes forward to testify against the crew. The detectives are shocked. Snitching is the ultimate sin for a drug dealer in West Baltimore, so why would Omar risk it? During his interview, Omar explains that the crew had crossed a line by killing innocent people. “A man must have a code,” the detective responds.
I watched that scene several times over the years and each time I smiled at the irony of Omar’s moral code. But the joke was on me — I had never really defined my own code, so who was I to judge Omar’s? In a sense, a moral code is to a human what an operating system is to a computer. Just as an operating system provides parameters for applications to function, a moral code provides parameters for humans to make decisions. When Omar faced a moral dilemma, his code prioritized justice over his reputation and personal safety. Given a similar fact pattern, I didn’t think my code would lead me to testify as Omar had. But the only way to know for sure was to define my code and test it.
To start, I had to take stock of what my principles actually were. What sort of person did I want to be? How would my friends and colleagues describe me? I made a Notion document where I wrote out my principles and attached short explanations of what they meant to me. For example, I’m organized, so I wrote “Organization: I build effective structures in my life and the lives of others.” I repeated this exercise until I had 10 different principles written down. Then I asked a handful of my friends and colleagues what they thought my principles were. That gave me several more I hadn’t considered, like loyalty, clarity, and impact. I repeated the process for all of my various roles across my personal and professional life. As with my principles, my roles were broadly defined and exhaustive.
My code was almost done, but it was missing something. I wanted to try to answer the question in the middle of the exercise: what’s the point of this? Why did I need a code? These were deceptively simple questions. I started the exercise because I flashed back to a TV show - not exactly the purpose I had in mind for my life’s most important guiding document. Eventually I landed on “To live an exceptionally positive and successful life”.
I suspect this is normal, but before drafting my code I believed myself to be far more principled than I actually was. My demonstrated value system was a patchwork of behaviors I picked up passively to avoid punishment and reap financial rewards. For example, I learned to be respectful by disrespecting my brothers and getting grounded for it; I learned to be hardworking by getting bonuses for working overtime. My values weren’t innate or self-directed, they were externally-driven. In decisions big and small, I mostly just mirrored the behavior of people I looked up to. So when push came to shove, my decision-making was reactive and inconsistent.
Something interesting happened once I wrapped my mind around all of this: I felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted. Part of my code is self-belief, so I forgave myself for being inconsistent and focused more on how I could live up to my code going forward. The answer was obvious: just use it to make decisions. So I started measuring big looming decisions against my code and murky outcomes became clear as day. Asking the simple question, “does this fit with my code or not” is a powerful tool when you’ve taken the time to articulate what exactly your code is.
To put it mildly, the results have exceeded my expectations. I stopped spending time with people who made it harder for me to follow my code and invested more in relationships that make it easier. I stopped worrying about founding a billion dollar company because it’s not in my code. I resolved a long-standing feud with kindness and integrity. In short, I’ve become much more of the man I’d like to be. A code isn’t just aspirational, it’s a framework for introspection and self-improvement. It creates the kind of conviction that motivated Omar to risk his life and reputation to flip on his rivals. Put to Omar’s standard, my code actually dictated that I testify, just as he did.