Put simply, our values guide how we live and work. As author and speaker Ken Blanchard says, “The most important thing in life is to decide what’s most important.” It’s true: we all aspire to figure out what’s most important to us and to live our lives accordingly. Our values are an articulation of what’s important to us. Whether we are consciously aware of them, they shape our every day. As Louise Altman of Intentional Communication Consultants eloquently puts it, “Our values are one of the most potent forces in our lives. These intangibles motivate and drive us in our work. They inform all of our decisions. Along with our beliefs and feelings, values form our internal map of reality. Our values are powerful because they supply our work (and everything else in our lives) with meaning. Real meaning. Meaning that has purpose and depth that reflects who we are in the world.”
Our values and our purpose are closely aligned. Think of values as providing the “how” for the “why” of your purpose. In their own way, both values and purpose provide us with an internal compass to guide our work and lives. We know – even if we’re not sure about the specifics – when our thoughts and actions are aligned with our values and purpose. We feel happy, energized, fulfilled, and inspired. Our lives have meaning. We also know when our thoughts and actions are not aligned – we feel unhappy, deflated, unfulfilled, tired, burned out, lost or rudderless.
While most of us are acutely aware of when we’re happy and fulfilled and when we’re unhappy and deflated, not enough of us explore what’s behind those feelings. By conducting that exploration, and determining what’s most important to us, we open up a whole new world of meaning. As Altman describes, “When we become consciously aware of our values – when we make the connections to the feelings that they generate – and understand what behaviors reinforce them, we can experience that Eureka moment of striking gold.”
It’s important to understand that your values – and your purpose – are unique to you. They’re what fuel your ability to be your authentic self and to share your uniqueness with those around you. To paraphrase Altman, without a knowledge of your values and how they’re unique to you, you risk getting attached to external motivators and rewards and living your life on a form of auto-pilot. You also risk being swept up in the values of others, such as family, friends, or colleagues. When this happens, it’s possible – even likely – that you’ll lose sight of yourself and end up working / living too much in support of someone else’s purpose and values.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have a strong sense of our values without having to work at discovering them. Most of us, however, need to work at identifying them. One approach for doing so is to start with a long list of potential values (Brene Brown and others have published lists that will get you started). Another approach would have you develop your own list, writing down as many words as come to mind but also thinking specifically – perhaps over a matter of days or weeks – about what inspires you and makes you happy. As Karen Kimsey-House, co-founder of the Coaches Training Institute (CTI, now Coactive), says, “To really dig deep into what’s most important to you, look out into the world at large, and ask what’s missing in the conduct of someone who challenges you the most, or what’s present in someone who’s inspires you. It’s these values, which are likely to be those you’ll be most willing to take a stand for.”
Whether you start with your own list or someone else’s, iteratively narrow it down to five or fewer values. It’s harder than it seems, because in all likelihood a number of values will resonate with you. Still, as writer and speaker Patrick Lencioni says, “If everything is important, nothing is.” The more you boil down the list of values to just a few – maybe even just one or two – the more you sharpen your understanding of what is truly most important to you.
Once you’ve identified your core values, write them down. Doing so is a form of commitment to them. It makes them more real. It elevates them above the many other thoughts passing through your brain. Then conduct a follow-on exercise, suggested by career coach and writer Jessica Dowches-Wheeler, by describing:
- What it will mean to you to be living by each value
- What will lead you to, or what it will feel like, to not be living by each value
- How you will think and behave with intent to give yourself the best chance of living by each value as much of the time
Identifying your values is a critical first step, but living your values is lifelong work. As Dowches-Wheeler says, “Living your values means to be the most authentic version of yourself in all aspects of your life. Not just at work, or with your family, but in all areas that matter to you…Just as your purpose is a compass leading you back into alignment with who you’re meant to be, your values guide you back to who you truly are.” Several approaches will help you stay true to your values:
- Most importantly, understand that you are the one accountable for living your values, in a similar spirit to the notion of owning your career. Others won’t defend your values for you, though hopefully you will have people in your life who will help.
- Regularly re-read the descriptions you developed above. Use this practice to recommit to your values and refine them as appropriate. Understand as well that your values may very well evolve over the course of your life as your work and life situations change – when you get married, have kids, have an accident or a serious illness, or have a family member with the same. Hence, it’s important that you come back to your values every so often to make sure they still reflect how you want to live your personal life and manage your work life
- Keep a journal to document how you lived (and didn’t live) your values that day or that week. Use these writings to sharpen your understanding of what triggers lead you to be on or off course.
- Share your values with others, maybe not overtly, but find ways to let them know what’s important to you. Make clear to them that you are willing to accept feedback when you’re not “walking the walk” or honoring what’s most important.
- Build in systems and practices that reinforce your values. For example, if gratitude is important to you, make it a habit to thank at least one person each day for what they are positively contributing to your life.
- Accept that you won’t always live your values, nor will others always live theirs. It’s possible you might do so without even realizing it. Not living them doesn’t make you (or the other person) “bad” or a hypocrite. It makes you human. What’s important in these situations, particularly as it relates to yourself, is to understand why you fell short and to consider how you will avoid doing so the next time. Just don’t accept not living by your values on a regular basis. Once you start accepting exceptions, you head down a slippery slope
- Acknowledge that living your values may require trade-offs. For example, if family is important to you, and you want to see your children off to school in the morning, you’ll need to find a role that gives you the flexibility to start later in the morning or work from home. However, if you’ve honed your list of values well, these trade-offs should feel “right” and shouldn’t leave you with regret.
Having a strong sense of self requires having a solid understanding of your values. Do the work to understand what’s most important to you and how you’ll live your life in alignment with these values. Doing so will put you in a much better position toward happiness and fulfillment, whether at work or in your personal life.
Sources and recommended further reading: