If you cringe or wonder what’s up when you hear phrases like “value-driven” or “live your values” you are not alone.
For many years I ran away from the term “values” because I associated it with a political group from my childhood. That group used values to judge and condemn. They attempted to use their proclaimed values to disempower individuals with a different worldview.
Today my skin still crawls a bit when I *ask* people about their values because I am afraid they might think I am going to judge. But I ask anyway because as I career coach I know that understanding and living our values is a highly personal endeavor that gives individuals agency and helps them to live a life they love.
Knowing your values means that instead of forcing your worldview on anyone else you live your own values. Knowing your values means that instead of living someone else’s values, you live your own.
Why is this important? Because when we let outside influences dictate our values we get stuck. We feel yucky, we lose our motivation and most of all, we lose our power to act according to our own internal compass. This increases feelings of discontent, stress, and anxiety. Values hit us at our core. This is why they are often called CORE values. And knowing them makes it easier to live our lives and make choices that work for us.
The Importance of Core Values
Core values drive our decision making. If we know what we value making a decision becomes a choice and we are empowered to do what we believe is best. The greatest personal achievements, the most wonderful feelings of accomplishment, and the best intrinsic motivation come from intrinsically motivated actions.
The Oxford Online Dictionary gives the following definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic:
Belonging naturally; essential.
Not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside.
Values for our purpose refers to principles and standards of behavior — what is important to you in your life. How you show up for others and how you hope they will show up for you. You can see with the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic, that if we want to feel and live authentically, our values should ideally be intrinsically motivated.
As a career coach, I call these our CORE values. There are several exercises that we use in the coaching world to help people identify their core values. I like to use this Values PDF from Brene Brown’s Book Dare to Lead. If you’ve never done a values survey, I’d suggest setting aside 10 or 20 minutes to do so right now or when you finish this article.
Stop “Shoulding” on yourself.
Once you’ve completed the values exercise you can continue to use this process in your life. If you feel overcommitted and stuck or if you are having trouble with a particular decision or task try reframing it by switching up your language.
Which is more empowering?
I must bake a hundred cookies for the bake sale because as a good mom I should show that I care about the school. I have to bake these cookies tonight or I will look bad. I won’t get enough sleep, which stresses me out and I might wake up late and be rushed in the morning. I am already frazzled because when I wake up late I yell at the kids and we are all late.
I need to say no to baking a hundred cookies for the bake sale because as a good mom I value the time that I have and so I chose to go to bed early tonight so I can get a good night’s rest and wake-up on time to get my kids to school and me to work in the morning without being stressed, rushed or yelling at my kids.
I love to bake cookies and so I choose to stay up late tonight because I enjoy participating in my kids’ bake sale and I value making this kind of contribution. I know that this is my choice and so even though I may not get all the sleep I need, I will not be stressed in the morning, because I’ve already let my boss know that I’ll be 20 or 30 minutes late. This means that I can take the time I need to get the kids and cookies to school without being stressed or angry.
I must versus I need
I should versus I value
I have to versus I choose to
Here is another example — I want to improve my health by exercising more.
I must get up at 6 AM to exercise because my doctor told me I should. Remind me to set my alarm because I have to get up at 6 AM! And, then I feel like a sloth because I sleep in.
I need to get up at 6 AM to exercise because my health is important to me. I value my health, therefore, I chose to get up at 6 AM to exercise. And, I do.
See the difference? Feel the difference?
In positive psychology, we call this “stop shoulding” on yourself, because when you should all over you tend to end up feeling pretty shitty. When we feel shitty it tends to build and then we feel bad all around for not living up to our own expectations and also our perceived expectations of those around us. We think we let ourselves and everyone else down all the time when we “should on ourselves.”
Getting clear on your values and then using this to reframe the actions and activities that you take in your life allows you to be authentic to yourself and to the people that mean the most to you. Knowing your values alters your worldview and frees you up to love more and live better.
Humans are meaning-making machines.
Wherever we grow up; however, we grow up, we attribute meaning to the language and actions of those around us. We grow with the rules and expectations of our local culture. Sometimes the culture and rules we experience at home are different from what we get when we leave the house; sometimes we move regions and have to adapt to new rules and ways of doing things.
One of the things you will notice about most publicly successful people and even privately successful people is that as they grow up they tend to exude confidence. Where does that confidence come from?
A big part is having a clear values system backed up by an active and conscious worldview. Conscious is crucial, because you already live your life with a worldview, it’s the being intentional about it that empowers us to live a life aligned with our values.
Your worldviews is a mix of what you’ve learned and what your mind, heart, and gut tell you is right. It’s the foundation for how you make choices and what lets your mind play mental gymnastics without anxiety or guilt.
A strong worldview will let you know when you need to do the right thing for the wrong reason; or when maybe you should actually do the wrong thing for the right reason. For example, sometimes the best thing we can do is to tell someone “no.” Saying no can be a gift, in the same way, that discipline is love.
Your core values are the foundation of your worldview. But there is another important component that varies for each of us and that even changes over our life. These are our character strengths — what we value in ourselves and others. Things like gratitude and an appreciation of beauty, or spirituality or honesty.
When I work with coaching clients one of the first things I ask them to do is to take the VIA Character Strengths survey.
VIA Characters Strengths
The survey and the basic results are free, so this test is accessible to anyone reading this article online. You can pay for a more detailed report, but for our purposes today, I don’t find that to be necessary.
Once you have your results you can put them to use two different ways.
Your Unique Values
This is how you show up in the world. If you are someone who always notices and fights against the inequities in the world then “Fairness” may be a top strength for you. The VIA report will highlight your top 6 strengths, but give you a list of all 24 in descending order.
The last strength on your list is not necessarily an indicator that you don’t value or are “bad” at this strength. What it indicates is that it is not as important to you in how you live your life as your top strength.
For example, I admire and value spirituality, but I’ve not been raised with a strong spiritual practice and I have never made it a priority in my life. Spirituality is one of my “last” strengths.
On the flip side, my life has been defined by a search for beauty and excellence. I’ve had to “recover” from perfectionism and I am truly bothered by ugly things and places. My number one top strength? “Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence.” This is why my office is my personal oasis, why I always keep houseplants and adore flowers. If I could live in a Japanese botanical garden, I would!
What you look for in others and the world
Your VIA strengths are also useful for you in looking out for what you value in a place of work or in a company that you do business with. If your workplace is in conflict with what you value, you will always fill at a disadvantage.
If our CORE values as discussed in part one are our principles and standards. Our Character Strengths reflect our ideals and requirements for the world in which we live. If we do not recognize the importance of both types of values in our life, if we do not own what is important to us by creating and defining our worldview, we will always be wondering why something doesn’t feel right.
This right here is one of the reasons that journaling and meditation can be such powerful tools.
When we write in a journal we are safe from the influence and judgment of others and we can work through things like our values. The following questions are things that you might wish to journal about or think of during a time of meditation or quiet reflection.
I recommend journaling for two reasons. The first is the physical act of writing with a pen on paper activates areas of the brain that deal with healing and processing. Writing is more than thinking — it can actually help you work through ideas and formulate or reformulate your world view.
Maybe we need to change the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” to “Laughter and handwriting are the best medicine!”
Given my top 6 VIA strengths — am I surprised? How do they align with my current priorities in life? Do I want to change anything? If so, why or what?
What brings me feelings of peacefulness?
What causes me to feel joy?
How do I feel right at this moment?
What is causing me stress right now?
What makes me feel alive?
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be?
What do I need to feel safe or secure?
Why do I worry about _________? What about this is important to me?
Over a single sitting or several weeks try journaling and meditating on your character strengths and core values. Write them down and think about how they show up in your life.
Notice during your daily activities how and when you experience different emotions, such as anger, joy or guilt dependent on the interplay of your values and what happens in life.
Notice if certain activities, people or places particularly energize you or drain you. Then take some time to think about the world view you’ve been living with and maybe how you’d like to adapt it to match your core values and strengths. Doing so should be intrinsically motivating and may even cause you to feel elated and or deep joy and gratitude.
Notice how clarifying your worldview simplifies your life and makes taking choices easier.
How Values Show up in our Work
In the workplace, real equality means valuing family just as much as work, and understanding that the two reinforce each other. As a leader and as a manager, I have always acted on the mantra, if family comes first, work does not come second — life comes together. If you work for me, and you have a family issue, I expect you to attend to it, and I am confident, and my confidence has always been borne out, that the work will get done, and done better.Anne-Marie Slaughter
When looking for work we need to live our values. We also need companies that value what we value. When it comes to men and women in the workplace, equality doesn’t mean valuing women on male terms, it means valuing each person’s unique life choices.
Families are important. Parents are important. Partners are important. Life. Work. Purpose. Everything is interconnected.
Meaningful work is important. Demeaning and soulless workplaces literally kill us. They increase our stress and cortisone levels. They create apathy and reduce engagement.
If you are unhappy in your current job you can do two things. You can try to reframe your current work and position so that you enjoy it more. You might do this by talking openly with your manager about what is working and what is not. You might ask for a special project or a promotion, you might ask to move laterally or even go back to a previous position.
If that doesn’t work then you might need to create a plan to find a new job. Maybe you need to pivot. Maybe you need to completely switch gears. Maybe you want to upskill and go back to school or get a certificate.
Whatever you do, first get clear about your values, your strengths, and your interests. Make sure that if you invest the time in creating a new future that it’s a future aligned with the direction you want to go. Make your move a choice and you will be empowered to create your own success.
Once you are clear about your values, make sure the companies you target also have clear values. If you are going to walk your walk; the expect the same from your employer. This article on Power to Fly about Zapier’s company values is a great example of two companies that have clear values and that live their values.
Be a SuperWoman: Live your Values
See the difference? Knowing your values empowers you to live the life of your choosing. It simplifies your decision-making process and facilitates intrinsic motivation. Pushing your values on someone else is also likely to fail, so understanding the values of those around you is an important step to building empathy and direct communication.
I start nearly all my coaching relationships with a values survey because self-awareness is the foundation for building a life you love.
If you can only do one thing today towards building yourself a more satisfying and resilient future — that thing should be thinking about and identifying your core values.
You might even call your Core Values your personal Holy Grail.