Valuing Intangibles


What makes you valuable? It is not your chemical composition, and has very little to do with the physical assets we value in each other. It is those things that are harder to see: knowledge, skills, commitment, loyalty, passion and courage.

For National Chemistry Week, we once had a T-shirt with the phrase, “I’m Worth Millions” followed by a list of elements found in the human body. The implication was that the sum of the commercial value of the elements listed would be in the millions of dollars, but in reality, the physical makeup of the human body is not much different than any other living organism. In reality chipped beef, or chopped liver could be equal in value. Therefore, it must not be our physical constitution that makes us valuable, but the intangibles that give us value in the workplace, community and family.

In Alicia Keys’ song, A Woman’s Worth, she discusses the relative value of trustworthiness, fairness, bravery and passion in comparison to tangible gifts bought with money, and she comes to the conclusion that it is the intangibles that truly determine a person’s worth. It is the intangibles that color a person’s character and values.

Intangibles can also be used to guide us in our decisions. It is sometimes said that passion is contagious, yet it cannot be bottled or synthesized. You can’t drink it nor can you buy it. Passion exists within a person’s core, and it is highly directional. It can only be extended in the direction of an object or concept that is deeply valued.

Passion, or lack thereof, is one of the strongest indications that you are on the right or wrong career path, but people overlook its diagnostic utility. If you are passionate about a project, you can spend extended hours, devote energy and resources, and you can be creative in your approaches to finding solutions. But if you are dispassionate, the world seems to drain you, entropy prevails, thinking becomes difficult and time drags on. Passion is a necessary component of success.

When stressed, people tend to focus on the tangibles: money, titles, parking spaces and office/lab space. But these things don’t really matter, at least not in the long run. Some of the richest and most successful people of our time echo this sentiment. Jack Welch often states that it is your gut instinct that makes the difference between success and failure, and it is Warren Buffet that said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

The next time you are faced with a decision about which path to take along your career path, choose the intangible one, and the tangibles are sure to follow.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.

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