Why What we Value Matters

worhsip and personal values
Photo by Jonas Ferlin from Pexels

We All Worship Something, The Question is What and Why?

The philosophical author David Foster Wallace said,

There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. 

David Foster Wallace

But what did he mean and was he right?

Foster Wallace was talking about how our behaviour; our habits, decisions, and actions, are dependent upon what we believe. In other words, what we do is dependent upon our values. And to work out what we value, we need to ask some why questions.

Why are you doing that?

Why do you do behave the way you do? This sounds like a stupid question, but it is actually quite profound. Why do you do that job? What is the reason that you the leader or the follower in that situation? How come you hang out with those people? Why do you read those books?

The easy answer is usually to do with liking something or other. But that still begs the question, why do we like any one thing more than another? There is always another why. But some people do not like being asked why they act or think in a certain way. 

As a parent, I am very aware that why questions can be challenging, if not downright annoying. Children love to ask why, and it can get very frustrating, especially when you just want them to do something. 

But it is not the repetition that pricks us most; it is how quickly the thorny question can get to the edge of our understanding. Any parent will tell you that soon enough the answer becomes something like “that’s just the way it is.” With the answer, our ignorance, as well as our lack of patience, is exposed. But the question remains: why are things that way?

Be curious

We should all keep asking those sorts of questions. Therefore, stay curious. We do not need to be childish in our behaviour, but it is good to retain a child-like curiosity. That helps us to keep learning, keeps our sense of wonder and holds back the tide of cynicism that seeks to envelop us in our adult years.

The fact that you are reading this means that you are curious. You are intrigued to find out what I might think, what I have to say on this subject. What I find intriguing is that, even though we are likely not to have met, we are now involved in an exchange of ideas, where our beliefs, biases, and suppositions swirl together in metaphysical discourse, held in the luxurious debating chamber of your amazing mind. The very fact we can have this disembodied conversation is a wondrous thing!

There is wonder everywhere. So, remain curious. Keep asking questions. Provoke discourse.

What are values?

I like questions and, like Simon Sinek, my favourite questions are why questions. I appreciate why questions because they delve into motivation, into reason and belief. In other words, they expose the underlying values that drive purpose.

The values, exposed by why questions, are a thing of fascination to me. I have spent years examining my own values and helping others to identify theirs too. 

But what are values exactly? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, values are defined as:

“Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life.”


This is a good starting point, but we can understand the term further through exploring this definition and the word’s synonyms:

  • Values are principles. They are ideals, truths, or propositions that we aspire to.
  • Values are standards. They are the formal and informal precepts, regulations, and rules we live by.
  • Values are judgements. They are the benchmark, the plumbline, the compass that informs our decision-making.
  • Values are beliefs. They are the tenets, convictions, and ideas we put our faith in.
  • Values are priorities. They are our motivations, the things that take precedence, that we give importance to and affect how we use our resources.

So that is what values are. Of course, the next question is why are they important?


Values are important because they drive our behaviour. It starts with principles shaping our thinking. Standards inform our judgements and impact our decisions. We then plan according to our beliefs and act in line with our priorities. 

Those are values. And values are about value; the worth that we give something. So, what do you value the most? Where do you place your worth?

If we value something very highly, we give it worth above other things or even ultimate worth. We build our lives around it. This prioritising, giving position, reverence or regard was called worschipe in Middle English.  This evolved into the present word worship.  In other words, even if you do not consider yourself spiritual, we all give something religious value.

We cannot help it. Our time and resources in life are finite and therefore we must prioritise. Something ends up on a pedestal. It may not be a spiritual entity we put on the throne of our lives but one way or another we will take a good thing and make it a god thing.

The importance of understanding our motivations

Sometimes we are not fully conscious of what this base belief is. Or we can be tentative about sharing our motivations with others.

Either way, it is vitally important we understand what drives us. That is because there are dangers hidden in what we value. As David Foster Wallace puts it:

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…

…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…

…worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear…

…worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 

David Foster Wallace

So, it is crucial that we know what we give ultimate worth to and ask ourselves why we value it so highly.

The reason we do things

This sort of self-exploration can be a scary journey as we can be confronted by some uncomfortable truths. Often, what we think is the reason we do something is not the actual reason. As financier J P Morgan observed, 

“A man always has two reasons for what he does—a good one, and the real one.”

J P Morgan

The journey of self-discovery is an essential one.  We need to know where we place our worth because what happens when these things are challenged or even taken away? What are we left with?  

Crises, such as the global pandemic, shake us and often expose the foundations of what we believe. Resilience has become the new word-du-jour, but real resilience starts in the mind and is dependent upon our values.

If what we value starts to crack under the strain of circumstances, then our lives can start to crumble around us. Therefore, we need to know if our values are vulnerable.  The only way to check is to dig down and unearth our philosophical foundations. Only then can we start any remedial works.

The 5 Whys

There are lots of thinking and coaching tools you can use to conduct this psychological survey but one very good way to start is with some reflection time and the use of a technique called The 5 Whys.

The approach was developed by Sakichi Toyoda to analyse systems within the Toyota Corporation. The result was that he helped to revolutionise their production. Every system and action in the company were analysed by asking why, over and over again, until the primary reason was revealed, and the process could be refined.

We can apply the same approach to delve down to our fundamental motivations. Try in on a decision you have made today. You can take some time out to think, write in your journal or talk this through with someone. Whatever works best for you. Answer the question as to why you made that choice. Then ask why of that answer, and continue five times, or however many you need to get to the prime reason.

For example, I might ask why I am writing this. The answer might be that because I have planned that task into my diary. But why did I plan that activity into my calendar? Well, largely it is because I enjoy writing. But why do I enjoy writing? I enjoy writing because the process helps me share personal insights. Why is that important? Because I am motivated by helping people in their own personal development. Why do I care about other people’s personal development? Because I think people have amazing potential and I love to be part of helping to unlock that.

You can see from this example that asking why of even simple everyday activities can be very insightful.

One of the great things about the 5 Whys technique is that you can use it at almost any time and in pretty much every situation. It can work well as a mindfulness technique. If you feel a certain way, ask the 5 Whys. If a thought pops into your head, ask the 5 Whys. When you make a decision, ask the 5 Whys. 

The next step on your journey of self-discovery

As Foster Wallace pointed out, we all worship something. If we do not know what that is, or we pick the wrong thing then we run the risk of it undermining our happiness.  

So, we need to do some self-reflection to identify what we prioritise and understand our personal values. Start by asking why. Use The 5 Whys technique to explore your thoughts, choices and actions. 

Good luck on your journey of self-discovery. I promise you will be better off for it!

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