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Do you know how to define your values?

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

aging cabin in meadow below large, snow-capped mountains

Values are all the rage. While values-centric consumerism has been around for decades, the pandemic accelerated the concept to a new dimension. And that’s a good thing: Let’s not go back to the days where the only valuable goals were profit and power.

Scroll through your LinkedIn feed or scan any business publication, and you’ll see phrases like values-driven, commitment to our values, and central to our core values peppered throughout. Several times a week, you’ll probably view at least one piece of content focused specifically on a value or set of values embraced by an organization. If you have teens or college students at home, you’re hearing it there too: Gen Z might be the most values-driven consumers in history.

Businesses now invest heavily in defining their values and building plans to put those values into action. To an extent, governmental agencies are starting to do the same. Nonprofits have always been values-driven but are now under pressure to be more specific in some cases and broader in others. Clearly, values are the currency of trust for the 2020s.

…which led me recently to wonder: Do I know my own values?

It’s easy enough to define the values of my business: that’s a foundational part of any good branding process. But what about my personal values?

I’m not a particularly religious person, making it hard to default to an existing value set. I’ve been through a lot of big transitions in recent years (hello midlife crisis), and as a result, I realized it was time to get clear on my personal values.

Here’s what I did to find out

It’s no coincidence that the word we use to encapsulate our highest ideals, standards and beliefs happens also to be the word we use to describe worth. Hence, I decided to start there and ask myself, What do I value?

Then I had to get specific about how to detect what is true about what I value. I looked for:

  • On what do I spend money (beyond necessities)?

  • On what do I spend time?

  • What consumes my thoughts (or what do I worry about)?

  • What do I feel proud of doing or being?

Some of the answers surprised me in a good way:

  • I spend money on fun things – not beautiful things, not necessarily practical things, but things that delight me.

  • While I aspire to write novels, I spend embarrassingly little time on it.

  • I worry about money, even when I have nothing to worry about.

  • I am most proud of work where I’ve had the broadest impact – historical impact in some cases.

If I’d simply listed my values without asking those follow-up questions, my list would have been far less authentic. The exercise woke me up to some truths about where to invest and where I can spend less energy.

Next, I listed attributes I seek in friendships.

  • What makes me feel really connected to someone?

  • What do I admire most about my closest friends?

  • What do I appreciate about my most reliable work colleagues over the years?

Only then did I turn aspirational:

  • What four or five things makes someone a good person?

  • What four or five ideals do I keep closest to my heart?

  • What do I hope to be remembered for?

Spoiler alerts

  1. Your values might conflict! Ranking values is an exercise for another day, but rest assured that the conflicts are not bad. Humans are particularly fond of incongruous belief sets – take any religion, political party or family on earth and you’ll see how conflicting values leads to deeper meaning and growth.

  2. Your values are not static! They should definitely change based on your life circumstances, world events, seeing yourself more clearly, learning new things and encountering new people, places and ideas.

I’m sure there are dozens of other, more thorough ways to help you define your values. But I thought I’d share my process in case it can help you, because life is easier when you’re clear on your values.

P.S. Because you’re probably curious, I came up with 35 personal values – most of them overlapping. When I prioritized them, these rose to my Top Ten:

1. Time

2. Discovery

3. Relevance

4. Independence

5. Tolerance

6. Humor

7. Authenticity

8. Excellence

9. Novelty

10. Security

What are yours?

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