How to Identify and Use Your Core Values to Guide You

Finding core values and moral compass
Photo by Ali Kazal: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-checking-compass-on-trail-10772297/

How to understand your core principles and follow your moral compass

Our core values and principles act as a moral compass, helping to inform our thinking, guide our decisions and drive our actions.

What is the definition of a core value or principle?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a core value is:

“A principle or belief that a person or organization views as being of central importance.”

Whether we can articulate them or not, we all have such beliefs that shape our thoughts, decisions and actions. 

Core values remain true. As Jim Collins and Jerry Porras stated in their book Built To Last(1994), core values are inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain.

If we do compromise our principles, it is likely to lead to pain in the long run. Conversely, we are more likely to he happy and fulfilled if we know and follow our core values. As Stephen Covey notes:

“Peace of mind comes when your life is in harmony with true principles and values and in no other way.” – Stephen R Covey

One of the most important aspects of core principles is that they help us make decisions. This is why we often compare values and principles to fixed navigation aids such as the North Star or magnetic north, as displayed on a compass. We use our values to guide our way, especially when we are finding it hard to see an obvious route forward.

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” – Roy Disney

The Moral Compass Tool

Have you ever been lost, not knowing which way to go?

There have been many times in the mountains when I have suddenly found myself in fog, hardly able to see. It is very easy to make a mistake in these moments and wander off in the wrong direction. The cloud can be disorientating. Sometimes you can be sure you are heading the right way until you establish your true heading. 

At times like these you must rely on your compass rather than what you can see or even what you feel is the right way to go. The compass, used properly, can help guide the way. And it is the same for our moral compass. When we have to make challenging decisions, where the way ahead may not be obvious, we have to rely on that inner compass. 

Therefore, when it comes to The Right Questions toolkit, our core values are represented by the compass. This is a fitting metaphor as many people talk about their moral compass. This is effectively the set of principles that aid us in making choices, be those ethical or everyday decisions.

“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.” – Michelle Obama

As with a real compass, to be able to use our moral compass effectively, we need to understand the forces that pull on the compass needle. In this case, we need to identify the core values – the hidden forces – that push us in certain directions.

As discussed previously, examining our passions, priorities and personal stories can all give us insights into our core principles. But sometimes finding a word to describe these tenets is a challenge, and that is why a couple of other exercises can help identify and name our values. 

 The common work and life principles list exercise

A good exercise to identify your core principles is to use a list of example values. Once you have the list of values you can:

  1. Score each word in terms of how important you think that principle is to you.
  2. Then score each word in terms of how closely your behaviours and actions match that principle (1 hardly at all through to 10 being always).
  3. Add the importance and action scores together for each value.
  4. Identify the highest-scoring (most important) core values.
  5. If you have more than 3-5 principles scoring equally highly, score them again. This time using fractions, or putting them into priority order.
  6. Once you have identified your top 3-5 values, write out a personal definition of why the word is important. Also, describe the actions that reflect that principle.

Here is an example table and a list of common values and principles for reference. You can use the template either by copying it into a spreadsheet or printing it out:

 ValueImportance  (1-10)Action (1-10)Combined Score
1Accountability   
2Accuracy   
3Achievement   
4Adventure   
5Altruism   
6Appearance   
7Ambition   
8Autonomy   
9Assertiveness   
10Balance   
11Beauty   
12Being the best   
13Belonging   
14Boldness   
15Calmness   
16Carefulness   
17Challenge   
18Cheerfulness   
19Clarity   
20Commitment   
21Community   
22Communication   
23Compassion   
24Competitiveness   
25Connectivity   
26Consistency   
27Contentment   
28Continuous Improvement   
29Contribution   
30Control   
31Cooperation   
32Correctness   
33Courtesy   
34Creativity   
35Curiosity   
36Decisiveness   
37Democraticness   
38Dependability   
39Determination   
40Devoutness   
41Diligence   
42Discipline   
43Discretion   
44Diversity   
45Dynamism   
46Economy   
47Effectiveness   
48Efficiency   
49Elegance   
50Empathy   
51Enjoyment   
52Enthusiasm   
53Environment   
54Equality   
55Excellence   
56Excitement   
57Expertise   
58Exploration   
59Expressiveness   
60Fairness   
61Faith   
62Family   
63Flexibility   
64Fidelity   
65Fitness   
66Fluency   
67Focus   
68Freedom   
69Friendship   
70Fulfilment   
71Fun   
72Generosity   
73Goodness   
74Grace   
75Growth   
76Happiness   
77Hard Work   
78Health   
79Helping Society   
80Holiness   
81Honesty   
82Honor   
83Humour   
84Humility   
85Independence   
86Ingenuity   
87Inner Harmony   
88Inquisitiveness   
89Insightfulness   
90Integrity   
91Intelligence   
92Intimacy   
93Intuition   
94Joy   
95Justice   
96Leadership   
97Legacy   
98Love   
99Loyalty   
100Making a difference   
101Mastery   
102Merit   
103Nature   
104Obedience   
105Openness   
106Order   
107Originality   
108Partnership   
109Patriotism   
110Perfection   
111Personal growth   
112Piety   
113Positivity   
114Power   
115Practicality   
116Privacy   
117Preparedness   
118Professionalism   
119Prudence   
120Quality-orientation   
121Recognition   
122Reliability   
123Resourcefulness   
124Respect   
125Restraint   
126Results-oriented   
127Rigor   
128Romance   
129Security   
130Self-actualization   
131Self-control   
132Self-expression   
133Selflessness   
134Self-reliance   
135Sensitivity   
136Serenity   
137Service   
138Shrewdness   
139Simplicity   
140Soundness   
141Speed   
142Spirituality   
143Spontaneity   
144Stability   
145Status   
146Strategic   
147Strength   
148Structure   
149Success   
150Support   
151Teamwork   
152Temperance   
153Thankfulness   
154Thoroughness   
155Thoughtfulness   
156Timeliness   
157Tolerance   
158Traditionalism   
159Trustworthiness   
160Truth   
161Understanding   
162Uniqueness   
163Unity   
164Usefulness   
165Vision   
166Vitality   
167Vulnerability   
A list of common core values for you can use as a free template

“Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behaviour that gets you what you want out of life. They can be applied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.” – Ray Dalio

The values cards exercise

Another great way to work out your core values is to use a deck of cards which have example words printed on each card, one principle per card. You can either purchase these decks or create your own. For example, you could write out or print the list of principles given above to do this exercise. Once you have a values card deck you can follow the steps below to get to your top three core values.

“If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities” – Brené Brown

Values card deck instructions:

  1. If there are any blank cards separate these out first.
  2. Think of some values or principles that you think are important to you. You can write these (one word per card) on the blank cards.
  3. Now sort the pack of cards into three columns of roughly equal size. One column has the most important values to you personally. Another has those of middling importance, and the third contains the principles that are of lesser importance to you.
  4. When trying to choose between values with similar meanings, pick the word that resonates the most with you.
  5. Take away the columns of cards containing the values of middling and lesser importance.
  6. With the remaining cards, now separate them again into three columns. Again, reflecting what you believe are your highest, middling, and lowest-importance principles.
  7. Keep the most important cards, once again stacking the others to one side
  8. With this final selection now put them into priority order, aiming to select your top three personal values.
  9. Now, for these top three values, write your own definition of what they mean to you. Describe the sorts of behaviours that are reflected in this principle.

Using and refining your core values

Once you have identified your top 3 core values it is worth spending some time analysing how you use them. Here are some simple ways to do this:

  • When you have to make a choice in the coming days, think about how those values impact the decision. 
  • Set some time in the diary, a week or month from now so you can reflect upon your chosen values. Ask yourself, do they still feel right? How have your actions over that period reflected your values?
  • In another 3-6 months go through the list of principles or values card exercise again and compare your results. Did you come up with the same three core values?

It is worth doing this as it is quite hard to identify your top three values in your first go. Also, our present circumstances influence our priorities at any given moment. Therefore, it is important to examine our values over time. This ensures we have identified the right ones and can properly express what they mean to us. 

Most importantly, this reflection allows us to highlight the behaviours that embody those values that are most important to us. We can then make sure that our core values become verbs that drive action, not just nouns that remain conceptual. 

When you have properly identified your core values you can see how they impact your everyday life. Don’t just react to circumstances, use your inner compass to direct your behaviours, your decisions and your life direction. As Stephen Covey encourages us:

“Live your life by a compass, not a clock.” – Stephen R. Covey


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