As a society, we constantly talk about our “values,” as if we as individuals (or we as a country) actually know what those values are. If you had to take a pop quiz right now that asked you to name your top three values in life, would you have your answers ready? In my experience, most people confronted with the question feel quite unsure of their response, that they are forgetting something, or maybe mis-prioritizing in what feels like a snap judgment.
Rarely do people take the time as adults to thoughtfully inventory their values and identify the ones that matter most to them. And even more rarely do people align their daily life activities with their most cherished values. Achieving this rare and exquisite alignment of values and actions is the goal of true connection.
What Are Your Values?
What we claim in conversation or debates as our values can often be quite out of step with who we are today. Our stated values probably include things we’ve inherited from our parents, spouse, teachers, and mentors, as well as things that we think we should stand for, but that don’t necessarily reflect our real priorities. Or they may just be relics from another time, when that was the most important thing to you in life…and you now have different priorities.
Just taking the time to collect, examine and reflect on your own true values as you feel them today is a tremendously rewarding exercise that can give you greater clarity of purpose, and a more useful understanding of yourself and your needs. Self-knowledge is power! When you know what matters to you, you’re better able to make choices that honor your priorities, and avoid those that don’t.
And, as you might expect, research shows that taking that next step – actually living and working day to day in accordance with our values – is correlated with even greater levels of satisfaction and well-being.
How Do You Find Your Values?
Writing things down is incredibly helpful for flushing out our unarticulated thoughts and feelings, and giving us the opportunity to consider them – and it’s one of the best methods to start identifying your values. Try setting aside 30-45 minutes to focus…no smartphone, no computer, no TV or music on in the background.
Start by writing all the different things that matter to you in life, and don’t hold back – you want to list everything that occurs to you as important. Need some examples? Family, honesty, financial success, empathy, creativity, freedom, safety, fairness, achievement…there are as many values as there are people on earth. Live Bold and Bloom’s site lists more than 400 to get you started.
Once you run out of ideas for your values, look at your list and look for themes or patterns in your answers. You may find that some items are more specific examples of another value – for example, honesty might be considered part of integrity. Condense thematic families of values, if you can.
Once you’ve consolidated the list according to any themes, ask yourself honestly: which of these are the most important to you? Identify your top three…the things that matter most.
It won’t be easy, but by winnowing down your list to the three most important, you are able to understand the areas of your life you are least able to ignore or compromise in. You have a clearer view of the values that you really should live by every day, which helps you make choices about the types of work, friends, and lifestyle that will make you most fulfilled. And you have thoughtfully and respectfully ranked your values…so that when two or more of your values conflict (as will inevitably happen at some point), you know where your highest priorities lie, and you can more easily make the right choice for you.
Your top values will almost certainly change over time, as your circumstances and experiences change. There is no shame or pathology in this. The important thing is to regularly check in with yourself – getting clear on what your current values are, and looking back at past lists to see where you once were. It’s fascinating to read old journal entries and see yourself as the person you were then…and more often than not, you will find a common thread. Make sure that you’re honoring it in your life.