Why you need to know your core values and how you can find them
Values are the principles and beliefs by which we live our lives and make our decisions. If you want to effectively lead yourself and lead others then you need to be aware of what those values are.
Are you feeling unhappy, distressed or dissatisfied?
“Happiness equals reality minus expectations”Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells
If you are, then there is a good chance that your reality is not living up to your expectations. Economists and researchers Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells worked out the fundamental equation of happiness was: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.
For example, it might be that you are unhappy about your:
- Work-life balance
- Health and fitness
- Life purpose and direction
The actual reason why you are unhappy
The usual reaction at this stage is to set a goal and achieve something that we think will make us feel happy. But, this often does not solve the underlying issue as unhappiness, and our expectations about being content, are actually rooted in our values. Our dissatisfaction is often caused by a misalignment between your core values and what is happening in your life and work at the moment.
Therefore, even if you did set and achieve a goal without understanding this, you may well find you end up unhappy again. If you do not make a decision in the context of your key principles then it is likely you will make the wrong decision or not really solve the deeper cause of your unhappiness.
By understanding your values you are in a good place to make a change for the better. That is the reason for starting with asking the question ‘why?’ Why do we want something? Why do we feel that way? Why do we want to change? These are the questions that will help us understand our motivations and pick the right goals.
Understanding your own values or principles is therefore vital in order to be effective and happy. And that is not just me saying that. Ray Dalio shares his precepts in his book ‘Principles‘ and urges others to discover theirs. Brene Brown evidences the importance of values in ‘Dare to Lead‘ and Steven R Covey argues for a model on leadership based on being Principle-Centred.
“Peace of mind comes when your life is in harmony with true principles and values and in no other way.”Stephen R Covey
What are values or principles in life?
Value denotes a degree of importance. In monetary terms, we set a value on something by how much we are willing to pay for a product or service.
In moral terms, a value is an ideal that we give a high degree of importance. Values are the moral code that guides us, and the priorities that motivate us. They are the principles we uphold, the ethics and tenants that we believe in and ascribe to. These ideas are our standards that set our rules of conduct and standard of behaviour.
If you do not know what your values are then it is very likely that you are living your life – whether you know it or not – according to other people’s principles or priorities.
“Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance.”Brian Tracy
How do we express our principles?
There are values we hold personally and those we share corporately, be that with a team, community or organisation. They are often similar but expressed in subtly different ways. For example, common personal values might be expressed as kindness but a team might talk about respect for others. A person may value honesty whereas an organisation might express that as transparency.
David Brooks has formulated another way of looking at values, and that is resume values versus eulogy values. The differences are explored in his book “The Road to Character” and outlined in his TED Talk, “Should you live for your resume or your eulogy?”
How do you assess your personal core values?
You can do an assessment of your values but examining different aspects of your life and looking for trends. You may have a feel for the values you most relate to, but thinking about values through these different lenses will help you see which principles you really do embody or aspire towards.
In my experience, it is good to start with examining our:
- Personal Stories
- Passions and
“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
The amount of our character that is fixed at birth or developed by external influence has been a hotly contested subject for many years. We will not go into the ‘nature versus nurture’ arguments here, but it is relatively safe to say that our character is formed from a mixture of both innate qualities and our experiences.
There are various personality tests that you can do but one of the most instructive ways you can examine your character is by looking at the stories of your life.
Try to think about:
- When have you been most happy?
- Which achievement or experience are you most proud of?
- What has been your biggest success?
- What has been your biggest failure?
- When have you been most afraid and what do you fear most?
- Which thing in your past are you most ashamed of?
When reflecting on a personal story you can analyse it in this way:
- What was the situation?
- Which role did you have to play and what did you do?
- What was the result and what did you learn?
One simple and effective way to examine our priorities is to see where we use our resources. We invest our time and money in what we value.
Where does your cash go? Money provides a very tangible expression of what we prioritise. Have a look at your bank account and credit card bills. Do some analysis and ask:
- How do you budget or divide up what you spend?
- How much do you spend on different things? (E.g. debts, savings, utilities, rent/mortgage, holidays/travel, clothes, leisure activities etc.)
Time is a truly finite resource. How you spend your time will give you a good indication of what you really value. Take a look at your diary or think back and answer the following:
- What amount of time goes to various activities each day and each week? (Working, sleeping, eating, leisure activities etc.)
- Within your work time, how does it break down? (Emails, speaking to people/phone calls, meetings, writing, planning, business development, people development, etc.)
- Which roles do you play in life and how do you prioritise them? (Employee, leader, spouse, parent, friend, child, creator, team member, other?)
- What habits or routines do you have?
Our passions are the things that drive us emotionally. Our passions either draw us towards or away from something or someone. Often we don’t analyse these thoughts and they can go unnoticed but if you reflect on your thoughts and dreams, beliefs and influences then you will gain a deeper understanding of your passions.
Thoughts and Dreams
What we spend our time thinking, dreaming or worrying about can also tell us a lot. Think about:
- What are you hoping to achieve in life?
- When you daydream what is it about?
- If time and money were not limited what would you do?
- Imagine that you have one wish that would immediately be fulfilled, what would it be?
- What are you anxious or stressed about right now?
What are your theological, metaphysical, philosophical and political beliefs? Ask yourself:
- What are the values of the politicians or political parties you vote for?
- Where do you put your trust for the future?
- When something goes wrong, what or who do you turn to for answers and support?
- What makes you joyful?
- What makes you angry?
There are many external influences on our lives and predominantly these are people we know or respect. Think about the following:
- Who do you follow?
- Who do you want to be like?
- Which are your favourite biographies?
- What are the books and stories you like most?
- Which films do you like most and why?
- What are the principles of your family and friends?
Having thought through your personal stories, how you spend your time and money, your dreams, your beliefs and your influences, you should be a much better place to assess what your values really are.
What trends do you see appearing and which words help to sum those up?
What are examples of values?
The list of words that we could use to express our values is almost endless but sometimes we can struggle to come up with the right one.
Here is a list of more than 150 more common values that will help to prompt you:
|Being the best||Environment||Joy||Sensitivity|
|Cheerfulness||Expressiveness||Making a difference||Speed|
What are your top 3 personal values?
Pick the 3-5 most important principles, those with the highest score and correlation after looking at the various aspects above.
How do you define or refine those principles?
For each of the 3-5 words that you have chosen, write your own definition. Think:
- What does the word mean to you?
- Which actions or behaviours display your defined value?
- What other word or words would you add to the initial one to make it embody the value most clearly?
The idea here is to define how you actually live out your value. Simon Sinek puts it in this way:
“For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not “integrity,” it’s “always do the right thing.” It’s not “innovation,” it’s “look at the problem from a different angle.” Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea – we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation.”Simon Sinek
Next, put your principles in priority order. This is important as there will be decisions where you have to know the most important factor. To help you try asking these questions:
- If you could satisfy only one of the values which would you choose?
- When a situation causes a conflict between two of your values (for example career and family) what would you do?
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”
― Roy Disney
Once you know your values you can use them to guide you in making decisions, setting goals and living a more fulfilling life. You are likely to continue to refine your list over time so it is worth reviewing whenever you review your plans.
Maybe take some time out to reflect on this wisdom from Gandhi:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,Gandhi
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
This process can work both ways. We have to make an active choice. If we go with the flow then we can be swayed by wrong beliefs and unhelpful thoughts that can create bad habits, wrong values and an unhappy destiny. Or, if we actively work to define our values, we can build useful habits, have positive words and actions and create positive thoughts and liberating beliefs. We all have a personal responsibility for our destiny.
In the next post, I will give a personal example of why one of my values is ‘life is an adventure’.
You may also want to look at this popular piece on how what we believe affects who we are: