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Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Value

While thinking about this topic, I realized that although I had a pretty good implicit understanding of what the word “value” meant, I couldn’t clearly express it in words… so I went looking. According to “Lord Google”, the word value can be defined as the “regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”.

We all have a list of things we value in life. This list may vary depending on the current stage of our life’s journey, and the personal preferences that each of us have. For example, a young boy might value his video game console a lot more in his youth than he will once he enters manhood. Also, the perceived value of an item or entity may rise and fall with a shift in society’s prevalent popular opinion. As an example of this, tulips got to be super expensive during the dutch golden age because there was an intense desire for them back then for some odd reason. Today however, you can walk into most grocery stores in the western world and pick up a bouquet of tulips for relatively cheap. You know what the funny thing is? Tulips are pretty much the exact same now as they were in 17th century Holland… the major reason for the drastic difference in the price of tulips is simply how much people valued them then versus now.

It is often the case that the desire or demand for an item is correlated with its value. That is to say that the demand for a good or service generally increases as its value increases. Wait… so who determines what is valuable and what isn’t? Well I think that the answer to that last question is usually “us”, as in members of society. The logic behind that answer is simple… manufacturers of goods and services put things up for sale and we all collectively vote “yes” or “no” with our hard earned cash. If the demand for that good or service outstrips its supply, it will tend to get more expensive over time. This type of value is what we can refer to as “extrinsic value” or the type of value that is determined by the outside world.

There is however another type of value called intrinsic value. This is the value that something is said to have in itself or due to its own essential nature. In case anyone thinks we are splitting hairs here by establishing a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value let’s use some tangible examples to break it down. Consider a pint glass full of diamonds and another identical pint glass full of water. Which one is more expensive? The obvious answer to that question is the pint glass full of diamonds and to the purely logical mind, this would imply that the diamonds are more valuable than water but is this really true? Well I think it depends on the current state of society to be honest. As I type this in 2017, our world dictates that the diamonds are far more valuable than water but if we consider an imaginary post apocalyptic dystopia in which the entire earth is scorched, the pint glass of water is far far more valuable. Following this train of logic, one could argue that although diamonds have more extrinsic value, water has more intrinsic value.

The concepts of intrinsic value and extrinsic value applies to human beings as well. Each of us has an extrinsic value that society places on us based on our accomplishments, outward appearances, social status, and so on. For example, society may place a much higher extrinsic value on a cardiothoracic surgeon than on a grade school math teacher even if both of them are the exact same age, gender, height, and race. I would argue that although society has this rather nasty habit of assigning value to each of us, we should each take time to understand that no matter our current status in life, all of us have high levels of intrinsic value by virtue of the simple fact that we are human beings. We may not all be Leonardo Da Vinci in terms of sheer depth and breadth of wisdom, but each of us has something special inside that can be shared with the outside world for the benefit of all. As Albert Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

The promises of this world are, for the most part, vain phantoms; and to confide in one’s self, and become something of worth and value is the best and safest course.

– Michelangelo

Alright so assuming I have convinced you that cultivating a sense of your own intrinsic value is of critical importance, there is something else you should know about doing that… it is exceedingly difficult. The reason why keeping a sense of your own intrinsic value is so hard is because the outside world is pretty relentless at trying to force you to believe certain things about yourself. Women are constantly challenged to maintain a healthy self esteem in spite of the unrealistic ideals of body shape and size that we all see on seemingly every magazine cover. White working class males are constantly challenged to maintain a healthy self esteem in spite of the constant subliminal messages on TV that surreptitiously and consistently try to prod them into becoming weak willed and clueless men who become the laughing stock of all around them. Black males also have the challenge of showing that they can also be intelligent and accomplished in spite of the plethora of stories that depict them as nothing but thoughtless individuals who are prone to rash acts of violence. Regardless of all the challenges inherent to maintaining a sense of intrinsic value, it is a state of mind that is in each person’s best interest to maintain because the consequences for losing that internal compass or sense of inner value are far too great. You and you alone should decide how awesome you think you are… hard as hell to do, but it’s hard to think of anything more necessary. From all of us here at, please take care of yourselves and each other.

Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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4 thoughts on “Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Value

  1. Great article!

  2. Very well written with meaningful content. If people are willing to take the time to think about these concepts, it can have a profound impact on their lives. Well done!

    1. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

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