I used to have an allergic reaction to the word “values.” It made me think of disappointed parents or teachers whose expectations I had failed to live up to; it brought to mind buzz-phrases like “family values” that dominate politics and mainstream media. It was always about someone else imposing their values onto me. Then I had a realization: values (personal values, to be specific) are things I get to choose. They can actually be the antidote to that feeling of imposed beliefs.
Instead of thinking of your values as having to fit into existing societal norms (image on the left), think of them as unique profiles we each decide on that intersect in different ways (image on the right):
Without your own set of personal values, it becomes easy to measure your choices by others’ rules. When you opt in to the values that matter to you, you suddenly have an incredibly useful tool to navigate life with.
Kate Bednarski, Transpersonal Coach and Head of Brand and Programming for Live in the Grey, explains that personal values embody what is important to us -what we would take a stand for and what shapes our choices in our lives, relationships and work. They motivate our behaviors, shape our commitments, and affect our courage, honesty and receptivity. Yet many of us aren’t fully in touch with our values.
It starts with knowing yourself.
To lead a purposeful life and career, you have to start by figuring out who you are and want to be. One way of building this self awareness is by defining and choosing values. Yet values can feel vague and abstract if you’ve never actually seen them applied to concrete problems. The rest of this article will take you through concrete ways values can guide you.
(As a baseline, I’ll share my own personal values and occasionally use them as examples: Compassion, Impact, Intimacy, Open Mindedness & Authenticity.)
THE ULTIMATE FILTER
Personal values are filters to make authentic choices and decisions about how to live life every day. Before I get into how, it’s important to understand the distinction between choices and decisions:
|Selection from alternatives; act that involves mind and emotions||Deeper consideration process made through analysis|
|Coffee or water?||Should I make an effort to be be healthier?|
|Which college offer should I accept?||What kind of colleges should I apply to?|
|Should I propose to my girl/boyfriend?||Do I believe in monogamy?|
|Should I attend my friend’s birthday party?||How important is this person in my life?|
You can think of defining your personal values as one of the most important decisions you’ll make. You should be deliberate and discerning about what matters in order to make that decision. Consider what kind of values make you feel most yourself, and which ones you couldn’t live without. Once you’ve identified them, they’ll make choices (like whether or not to call a friend up) and decisions (like what to look for in your next work opportunity) easier.
Here’s a tip I follow in my own life to make sure I’m using my values as filters for how I spend my time: Add a category to your To-Do List where you map each item to one of your top values. If there’s something that doesn’t map to any value, why spend time on it?
Used the right way, values can become the guiding principles that help you lead the life you want in big and small moments.
VALUES IN YOUR CAREER
Some of the most challenging decisions and choices many of us make have to do with work and career. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve asked yourself one of these questions:
- Am I happy with my current work?
- How do I measure my career success?
- What kind of work opportunities should I apply to?
- Should I accept this promotion?
- Should I start my own business?
There are many factors that go into making these decisions — things like skillset, interests, compensation, location and prestige. Each pulls us in different directions and can leave us feeling immobilized by the plethora of options. But add personal values as a filter and your choices immediately become more clear. My personal values include impact and compassion, so I look for work that will allow me to spread compassion and make an impact.
Aim for a career that fulfills role description requirements and is true to your values:
Said another way, as Bednarski explains, aligning your personal values with your work plays an integral part in discovering fulfilling work and finding the type of organization you feel called to serve. “Quite simply, our work must reflect our values to truly be our life’s work, work that we love,” says Bednarski.
VALUES IN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
Another area of life where knowing yourself will help you make crucial choices and decisions is in your relationships. Author Kevin Daum says that the savviest amongst us “consciously or unconsciously use personal core values to select friendships, relationships and business partnerships.” What does that look like?
Think about the many relationships you have in your life — from colleagues and people in your professional network to best friends, mentors, family and romantic relationships. In order to build strong relationships with people in your life, you have to dedicate time and energy toward building trust and familiarity. As great as it would be, you can’t do this with everyone all the time. You have to make choices every day. How do you decide how to spend that time and energy? For me, because I value intimacy most, I make sure to plan one-on-one dates with the most important people in my life instead of opting for that party where I’ll see fifty acquaintances.
Personal values may also guide your decisions about the type of partner you want in life (or if you want one at all.) Your partner doesn’t need to prioritize exactly the same values you do, but they’ll be supportive and understanding of your values. In other words, “being with a partner who shares many of your values and who is supportive of them (in other words, who validates the importance of these values to you, and does not demean them or put them down, even if he or she does not share exactly the same beliefs) are important factors in having a healthy and satisfying relationship.”
VALUES AS A WAY TO COMMUNICATE
Knowing yourself also means having the language you need to explain why certain things upset you. There will be times when you feel that people in your life are influencing or even pressuring you away from the life you want to lead. Instead of slowly building resentment toward that friend who flakes on his commitments to you, or holding a grudge against a partner who keeps bringing up old arguments, you’ll be able to bring up these issues before they become fissures. Remember, your values are a representation of what matters to you, and the people close to you will respect that.
Knowing what you value can also serve as a litmus test when deciding whether something is worth bringing up. Ask yourself: Is the problem putting you at risk of not living life according to your values, or is it a small inconvenience that you can choose to compromise on?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR VALUES
The flip side of having personal values that act as a compass to guide your actions is not actually knowing what you value. As our society becomes increasingly secular and globalization accelerates, a lot of old paradigms that dictated our values have started to evaporate. More and more of us are unsure of what really matters to us, and can end up feeling directionless in life and work.
At Live in the Grey, we’ve seen a huge craving for purposeful and meaningful work in the past few years. It can seem easier to passively let things happen than to actively put a stake in the ground about the kind of life you want to lead. But over time, career (and life) ambivalence can wear on us. We all eventually want to be able to look back on our choices with a sense of clarity. As Z. Hereford writes, “if you are unaware of, or become disconnected with your values, you end up making choices out of impulse or instant gratification rather than on solid reasoning and responsible decision-making.”
Imagine you’re trying to make a big decision about where to live. You might make a pros & cons list that looks a little like this:
Should I move to Seattle?
At first glance, both sides have compelling points, and the con side even seems to be winning. But each point and counterpoint is completely unweighted. If you focused instead on the fact that family, meaningful work and new experiences mattered more to you than anything else on the list, your choice would suddenly be clear:
One thing to keep in mind is that knowing your values doesn’t mean you know exactly what you want in life. Opportunity, serendipity, relationships, culture, circumstance — these things all play a role. But being in tune with the part you do control is crucial in working toward fulfillment on a daily basis. Your definition of success (and therefore your personal values) may change over the years. That’s why you should continue to revisit your values to make sure you’re still a good match for each other.