Knowing, and living, your personal values.
The world is a wilderness that can be challenging to navigate. Without the proper tools, one may spend a lifetime wandering through it, without an orientation. Often this happens because we don’t know what goals to aim towards. If you’re not driven by a certain career, or cause, it can be intimidating to make important life decisions without conviction behind it. In these situations, it is helpful to note that, even with a course mapped out, the fact remains: plans change.
Since the world is an unpredictable place, the best we can do to ensure stability and certainty is to create it for ourselves through our values. If we orient our lives along a protocol for action, rather than a sequence of events, we become more adaptable, more resilient, and more forgiving.
What are values?
Values are an internal compass. They are a mechanism for finding your way through life, as a compass does in the wild.
Values can take many forms, from a series of words to a manifesto for how you want to live your life. The key is that they represent your true convictions, and allow you to act as your most authentic self.
For each of us, our values will be unique. Even the same word might have a different meaning in the context of your life and experience as it does for your closest friend.
How values help you
With your values always in mind, you are better equipped to navigate important decisions in life. This can be everything from the people you spend your time with, to the place you chose to live, to your career choices. Values also help you to measure your progress. Take time to check in with your values, and see how closely you are following. It is possible to be nailing it in one area of your life, but straying in another. It is normal that we can’t give equal focus to everything going on at once. But making priorities clear to yourself and adjusting your focus to match those priorities will make enormous positive change. You can also build stronger relationships. If you know what you believe in, you can have confidence and courage to live with conviction. This gives you more room to be present for others in your life, and also to recognize the people in your life, family, friends, or partners, who support you in the life you are choosing and those who are holding you back.
Where to begin
As Stephen Covey suggests, highly successful people will begin with the end in mind. Below are some suggested exercises to get you started
“The most effective way I know to Begin with the End in Mind is to develop a personal mission statement or philosophy or creed. It focuses on what you want to be (character) and to do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based.”
Begin with the end in mind
Write down a list of things you want to achieve, and a character sketch of the kind of person you want to be. Do this through any form of creative brainstorming that is comfortable to you: bullet points, free-form prose, doodles, audio recording, conversation with a confidant…create from that a list of tangible hand-holds.
Achievements can be anything from learning a new language or finally organizing your home, to specific career milestones or contributions to the community. Your character sketch can involve proud moments from your past — maybe including values present at the time — to moments when you admired your friends or peers, or even a public figure whom you may never meet.
The point is to hone in on what gets you motivated, and to create a fortress of those resources around yourself.
Recognize your life contexts
Where you are from, who your family is, what activities you do, what you studied in school, who your friends are, what foods you like, what hair style you wear. Reflect on how these things came to be, and what values were present (the good and the bad) at the time of those Then recognize your own agency. You have control over the choices you make every day moving forward.
Learn from your own history
Map out the milestones in your life. The good and the bad. Go back as far as you care to, to identify 7–10 key moments that led you to where you are. Then reflect on the
In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then actboldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way. — Eleanor Roosevelt
Values are empowering in a way that only grows stronger the more time you spend cultivating them. It is one of the most essential things we can do in life, to be the best versions of ourselves: our most authentic selves. Each small action builds on those before, and the cumulative effect is remarkable. As Anna Deavere Smith will attest:
What you are will show, ultimately. Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions,what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.
As life changes, so we change, so may our values. To recognize that life is complex, is to to allow for those changes and, eventually, to embrace them as opportunity. It can also be that we mature and evolve beyond our earlier values. You may see this happen throughout your own process.
If the circumstances of your life change unexpectedly, take the time to reevaluate your personal mission statement. If change troubles your mind, you may be comforted to know that the things which are important to you can remain intact, despite any upheaval. Reflection on your values can help you to reground yourself in the midst of disruption in your life. If the change is positive or rewarding, a check-in with your values can keep external forces from shifting your focus, and instill a sense of gratitude in the moment.
Inspiration for your own process
Below are some examples of this process, approached by notable people throughout history, and some of their own conclusions.
Leo Tolstoy The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy
I keep finding myself confronted with the question, “What is the aim of man’s life?” and, no matter what result my reflections reach, no matter what I take to be life’s source, I invariably arrive at the conclusion that the purpose of our human existence is to afford a maximum of help towards the universal development of everything that exists.
If I meditate as I contemplate history, I perceive the whole human race to be for ever aspiring towards the same end.
If I meditate on reason, if I pass in review man’s spiritual faculties, I find the soul of every man to have in it the same unconscious aspiration, the same imperative demand of the spirit.
If I meditate with an eye upon the history of philosophy, I find everywhere, and always, men to have arrived at the conclusion that the aim of human life is the universal development of humanity.
If I meditate with an eye upon theology, I find almost every nation to be cognizant of a perfect existence towards which it is the aim of mankind to aspire.
So I too shall be safe in taking for the aim of my existence a conscious striving for the universal development of everything existent. I should be the unhappiest of mortals if I could not find a purpose for my life, and a purpose at once universal and useful… Wherefore henceforth all my life must be a constant, active striving for that one purpose.
Benjamin Franklin, 13 Virtues [excerpt from his autobiography]
…It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping, and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.
In the various enumerations of the moral virtues I met in my reading, I found the catalogue more or less numerous, as different writers included more or fewer ideas under the same name. Temperance, for example, was by some confined to eating and drinking, while by others it was extended to mean the moderating every other pleasure, appetite, inclination, or passion, bodily or mental, even to our avarice and ambition. I proposed to myself, for the sake of clearness, to use rather more names, with fewer ideas annexed to each, than a few names with more ideas; and I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning.
These names of virtues, with their precepts were:
1. Temperance Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view, as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, Silence would be more easy; and my desire being to gain knowledge at the same time that I improved in virtue, and considering that in conversation it was obtained rather by the use of the ears than of the tongue, and therefore wishing to break a habit I was getting into prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company, I gave Silence the second place. This and the next, Order, I expected would allow me more time for attending to my project and my studies. Resolution, once because habitual, would keep me firm in my endeavors to obtain all the subsequent virtues; Frugality and Industry, freeing me from my remaining debt, and producing affluence and independence, would make more easy the practice of Sincerity and Justice, etc., Conceiving, then, that, agreeably to the advice of Pythagoras in his Garden Verses, daily examination would be necessary, I contrived the following method for conducting that examination.
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I ruled each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I crossed these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day…
Bruce Lee, In My Own Process
I have come to accept life as a process, and am satisfied that in my ever-going process, I am constantly discovering, expanding, finding the cause of my ignorance, in martial art and especially in life. In short, to be real…
Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being, a sort of “being” vs. having — that is, we do not “have” mind, we are simply mind. We are what we are.
David Brooks, The Road To Character
“We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.
The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming… The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”
13. [Humility Code, #13 of 15] No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?
Lead by example
Don’t be afraid to share your values with your loved ones. In fact, it can help to have allies in the process, and a framework of accountability outside of yourself. If you begin to live a life of intention, towards your most authentic self, you may inspire others along the way. You may even be able to help them in starting the process, understanding how challenging it can be to make those first steps.
I hope that you find this resource helpful in your quest. I’d love to hear from you about your own experience with identifying your values. If you have any questions about where to begin or challenges you’ve faced in defining them, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!