Feel exhausted or overtaken with busyness or stress?
Feel like you’re not in charge of yourself?
Feel like you’d rather be doing something else?
If you said “yes” to two or more of the above questions, then it’s time for a change. You’re probably not living in a way that honors your core values.
In the book Start with Why, Simon Sinek encourages business people to think with their gut, to use their intuition to answer important questions like “Why am I here? What’s my core purpose? What is, truly, most meaningful to me in my life?” Most people spend little time thinking about their core values. Instead, they steer the ship of their life without a map—or, worse, they simply ride the ship without being their own captain.
Identifying core values is a personal process that can save your life. It takes time upfront, but going through the process can massively simplify your life. It can provide much needed direction you may have been seeking for a while. Bill Douglas describes how most of us don't take the time to identify our core values. But once we do, life becomes much easier. One day, Douglas says, you’ll wake up and find there's less to do. Decisions such as “Should I commit to this exciting new project?” or “Should I go out tonight to reconnect with an old friend?” or “Should I volunteer as a chaperone for my kids’ field trip?” suddenly become much easier to make.
For every productive hour you spend on uncovering your values now, you will gain back many more hours of your life by ditching commitments you don’t actually care about. Starting this work doesn’t require an expensive, week-long retreat to an exotic location. It doesn’t require hundreds of hours of your life. But it does call for dedicating a solid block of time for quiet, private reflection: writing your thoughts down and exercising patience and courage along the way. Here are 5 actions you can take to discover and clarify your core values.
1. Start with a Values Assessment
There are many free values assessments available. Those I prefer include Shalom H. Schwartz’s Dominant Values Testand Rokeach’s Value Survey. Most tests like these ask you to rank-order a list of values, comparing and contrasting values to one another until you arrive at a short list of core values. Other values assessments may require a fee. EthicsGame offers a range of exercises, ranging from personal ethics inventories to team-based values simulations. The key to maximizing your results from any values assessment involves obtaining your results from a handful of exercises, reflecting on them, and then finding their holistic meaning. Don’t stop at your first short list of core values. Instead, read that list and challenge yourself by asking questions like:
I am representing this value with a certain phrase, but is there a better phrase or additional word I could use to clarify the core of this value for me?
In a few sentences or less, what does this value really mean to me?
When is this value most present in my life?
When has following this value gotten me into trouble, if ever?
Is this value a means or an end?
Am I truly happiest when I’m living in accordance with this value?
2. Explore Your Peak Experiences
Grab a pen and paper and do some journaling on your peak experiences. Think of a few critical moments in your life when you felt that you were truly yourself, when you were completely happy, or when you faced a crisis or challenge that triggered something very real for you. Take some time to describe these incidents on paper. A few paragraphs for each peak experience should work. Recall those moments in detail. Try to put yourself back in time and see if you can richly recall those experiences.
Then, for each peak experience write down a list of emotions you previously felt during that incident. This matters because what triggers you emotionally is linked to the core values you hold. Once you’ve named the emotions, consider which core values were present for you in each experience. Write responses to each of the following:
Which core value was I operating by? Was there more than one?
What values should I have honored that I might not have honored at the time?
At the time, what did these values mean to me on a deeper level?
What do these values mean to me more broadly in my life today?
Why was this peak experience personally important to me?
What was most meaningful to me at the time?
If my ideal future self could have talked to me then, what advice would he or she have given?
Stepping back, what repeating themes do I notice across all of these peak experiences?
3. Feeling daring? Ask Trusted Others.
This is one for the bold and courageous few who are willing to tolerate vulnerability in an effort to get to the heart of the matter quickly. I wouldn’t recommend this step unless you’re doing it in conjunction with the above two exercises, as it’s best to engage this step when you already feel like you’re pretty far down the path of discovering and naming your values.
Consider asking trusted others to review the core values you’ve named for yourself, and then ask them to speak to any (perhaps surprising) contradictions they see in your daily behavior. If you can be vulnerable enough to open yourself up to that degree of conversation, you may be able to benefit hugely from other pairs of eyes to learn where your values-behavior misalignments lurk.
Marc Alan Schelske refers to a similar process as getting the "unvarnished outside view" from others. He challenges readers to send an email to trusted others, asking them to comment candidly on the top five things they think motivate you. Marc provides example email text for people to use. The catch here is you need to promise others that you will not become defensive, and you need to do your best to not become overly sensitive if you read comments from others that are potentially offensive or simply inaccurate. Only ask for honest feedback if you’re willing to stomach it like a champ (e.g., simply say “thank you” and then give yourself space to process what’s been said). Then, see if you can take a step back, and ask yourself what specific feedback you may be most resistant to hearing; reflect on why that feedback may be triggering you.
As you’re engaging in the above steps, see if you can narrow your values down so you can write them in a short list. Ensure this list encompasses key themes you’ve been noticing. You may expand by adding to the list. Then you may cross out other values that used to be on the list. Give yourself time to trust the iterative nature of identifying your values. See if you can end with five to seven solid words or phrases that represent the core of what you value. For some people, choosing your top values by admitting that other values are less important may be the most difficult part of the process, but that’s also where the beauty in all of this lies. Once you have your list of five to seven values, challenge yourself to put them into sentences totaling no longer than a short paragraph. This becomes your personal creed. Congratulations! Now, as you face future decisions or challenges throughout your life, remember that you have your values list and personal creed as a foundation for reflection and action.
5. Test and Repeat
Mindset and Leadership Coach Colin Hiles and other coaches encourage people to road test their identified core values. Here I also encourage you to measure behavior against your core values as you move forward in your day. Carry a small notepad so you can record actions/decisions that uphold or violate your core values. Review it at the end of the week. Consider hanging your core values around your house so you see them every day. And don't be surprised if, by committing to this process, you gain clarity that may later involve big life changes.
Remember that discovering personal values should, ideally, be serious work you engage with at regular intervals throughout your life. If you do this kind of work only once, perhaps half-heartedly, or quickly forget about it, then you’re not going to gain the maximum results possible. So keep pushing through! Values work is one of the keys to living a happy and fulfilling life.
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