How would it feel to know that every choice you make is true to yourself?
A life lived with integrity, a life with no regret.
The first step towards that, is knowing what your core values are.
These are the hidden principles that matter most to you in life.
And if you haven’t consciously defined them yet, you’ll run into 3 problems:
Your decision making will often default to the values of the culture you’re in:
- Your peer group
- Your country
- Your religion
- The company you work for
It’s possible that those values don’t align with your own
Without knowing your values, you’re an easy prey for getting persuaded into making the decisions others want you to make.
Many people are experts in doing this (advertisers, salesmen, politician).
These people don’t always have your best interest in mind.
Some things simply have a gravitational pull on people:
- Funny cat videos
- That last slice of pizza
These aren’t bad things. But it’s highly likely that you value other stuff more in life.
And if you don’t know what that stuff is, these things will corrupt your choices.
How to Identify Your Core Values
The first step towards finding your values feels deceptively simple.
Take a piece of paper and ask yourself what is important to you.
Which things matters most to me in life?
Which things matter most to me for my happiness?
Which things matter most to me when dealing with others?
Write as many answers as feel true to you.
Next, shorten each answer to a single word.
- “Having a successful career” would be “success”
- “Being nice to people” would be “friendliness”
- “Being the best at everything I do” would be “superiority”, “excellence” or “delusion” 😉
For now, this list can be as long as you want. Just keep writing until you have most of what matters to you.
It’s better to start with a wide selection at this point. As we continue the process, you may be surprised which ones end up being the most important on the list.
Common Mistakes When Identifying Core Values
Just because we think or say that something is important to us, doesn’t mean it actually is.
Our real values are revealed through action, not words
Here are 2 common ways in which we might misidentify our values:
- Not being honest with ourselves (to fit an ideal)
Often, when people (or companies) do the above exercise, they write down a list of things they believe should be their values.
But when you look at their behavior, it becomes clear that they value other things more. You’ve seen this before:
- Countries claiming to have “freedom” as their highest value, while continuously invading others or meddling in their affairs
- Religious groups claiming to advocate “kindness” while also attacking homosexuals or nonbelievers
- Companies claiming to value sustainability but investing more into making sure that everyone hears about it than they invest in the sustainability itself
As individuals, we are not immune to such self-delusion.
Your mind can easily trick you when:
A) You feel a need to fit in with your social environment,
B) You have an idealized image you long to live up to
In the next section, I’ll provide a framework to help you prevent this.
2. Shadow values disguised as virtues.
We all like to be the hero in our story. So when we value something that we judge in others, that value will disguise itself as a “socially acceptable” or “politically correct” virtue.
The real value will operate in the shadows, and the “virtue” will be used as an excuse for antisocial behavior. Or to cover up a part of our personality which we are in denial of.
Many people say they value honesty. But they only do so as an excuse for criticizing others. They’ll say “I’m not an asshole, I’m just honest. I tell it straight to people’s face.” Yet, when it comes to telling their partner that they cheated, suddenly that honesty isn’t as important anymore.
Similarly, there are groups in society who believe they value “equality” or “liberty” but when you look at their actions, they value power, revenge and punishment.
And on the opposite spectrum, there are groups who say they value “tradition” but actually value control, repression and exclusion.
As long as a shadow value is disguised as a virtue, it’s impossible to live with integrity.
The virtue might often conflict with the value, leading to confusing choices that tend blow up in your own face.
Following the steps in the rest this blog post, should protect you from this.
How to Find Your True Values
Would you have sex with someone you’re disgusted by in exchange for 100 dollars?
How about million dollars? Or a billion?
For which amount of money would you lie to your partner, break your diet or do something shameful in public?
The amount at which you said “yes” is the point where you value those things less than money.
The amount where you still said “no” is the point where you valued them more than money.
This is how values really work.
Values only reveal themselves when challenged by choices.
So the way to find your true values is to take the list of values you wrote earlier, and compare them to each other in fictional dilemmas.
For example, let’s say on your list you have:
Now you’ll take each value and test it against every other:
- If you could have freedom at the cost of safety, would you still choose it?
- If you had to choose between honesty and politeness, what would you do?
- If you could have infinite abundance but 0 freedom, would you want it?
Each time a value wins from another, give it one point. Then rank your values in a clear hierarchy from most to least points earned.
This can be a tedious process if your list was long (because it involves some intense dilemmas), but it’s worth spending an hour or 2 on this.
Think of it this way:
If you do this process once every few years, you have massive clarity on all your decisions all year round.
Eventually, you’ll discover 5-6 values that consistently outrank all the others.
These are the things you, in your current form, value most in life.
Write them down, learn them by heart, hold them in high regard.
Because armed with this knowledge, you can’t be corrupted or persuaded into betraying yourself.
How to Apply Core Values In Your Daily Life
Now that you know your core values by heart, the first way you can use them is as a shortcut for making tough decisions.
For example, up until recently, I had the perfect occupation for my personality:
- Location independent
- Interesting co-workers
- Making use of my talents
- Full control of my own schedule
- A constant vehicle for personal growth
- A decent income and great earning potential
But after 5 years, I noticed some things happening in the company that didn’t align with my values. I still valued the majority of things about my work, but the value it didn’t align with ranked higher for me. So I quit.
It was a tough decision, because I loved it there and it dropped my income by 80-90%.
If I wouldn’t have known my values, I would have stayed. But those are the type of decisions that set you up for a life where you feel deeply dissatisfied and don’t know why.
Life is full of these “cross-road decisions” that determine your happiness:
- Should work on your relationship or leave your partner?
- Should you accept a raise that will increase your working hours?
- Should you stop watching Netflix and scrolling social media? Or did the idea that they’re bad for you enter your brain through influencers and documentaries in the first place?
There are no universal “right answers” for these situations. But your values can guide you towards yours.
In the above three examples, you can look at your list and see what matters more to you:
- Commitment or enjoyment?
- Freedom or wealth?
- Entertainment or … ?
But what do you do when you used your values to make a decision and you dislike the answer that comes out?
This could mean a few things.
It might just be fear of change coming up. Or it might be that what you think you value in this situation, isn’t how you truly feel about it.
If you’re unsure, here’s a holistic approach to quadruple check your choices:
How to Make Whole Body Decisions
How often do you ask your pinky toe if it agrees with your decisions?
If you’re like most people, you’d probably rather make them by thinking.
But your body inherited an intelligence far older and more developed than your brains.
Shaped by billions of years of evolution and life experience. From the earth’s first microbe, all the way to your mom.
So why did I not just skip the whole thing about values and write about this instead?
Most people in western culture are dissociated from the body. As long as that’s the case, the approach I’m about to share is not accessible to them. Values on the other hand, make use of something we’re using all day: our mind.
While our values are indeed mental concepts, they do arise from our feelings. And feelings are felt in the body. So using your values as a guide usually gives similar results.
Still, if you feel like something’s off with a mentally-made decision, get yourself into a meditative state and go through these 4 steps:
- Check with your mind and values as usual.
- Check with your heart. How does each option feel emotionally? Can you feel your heart coming alive? Or does it contract?
- What about your gut, what do your instincts say? Is your gut calm, or does it resist one of the outcomes?
- What about your genitals, are they into this? Or is it a floppy taco down there?
Simple rule: if any of them feel like a “no,” the option is a no. Stick with it.
It’s either a “hell yeah” or nothing it all.
Compare it to summoning a council of wise people (who are all you) to debate the decision. And they can only move forward once unanimous agreement has been reached.
If you use only 1 type of intelligence, people can:
- Convince you with rational arguments
- Manipulate you emotionally
- Seduce you until your taco makes the wrong decision
By having all your intelligent parts work together, the chances of that become slim.
How to Align Your Life with Your Values
Another way to use your values, is to get your lifestyle. This is how you do it:
In my previous post, I explained how to use an unusual calendar habit to tweak your lifestyle to perfection.
If you’re already using that habit, that means you now have clear knowledge of what is currently being prioritized in your life.
If not, you can either read that post to learn how to do it properly, or ”just wing it” for now:
Take a piece of paper and write down the 5 activities you spend most time on in life.
Compare these activities with your list of values.
Make changes in your schedule or habits if needed.
Another simple habit that worked for me:
Ask yourself this question every evening:
How well was today’s flow aligned with what I value most in life?
The more you use your values to guide your planning and decision making, the more everything in your life starts to align with who you are.
How to Align Values and Goals
When setting goals, we think of what we want to achieve.
But the more important question is: Why do we want to achieve it?
Ask yourself this:
If my dream became a reality right now. What would that give me?
What would be different about the way I feel, if this dream was real?
The goal represents something to us, something we value.
If we dream of living on a tropical beach, that may represent, comfort, warmth or relaxation.
Whatever it is: It’s probably on your value list.
Knowing this opens up some possibilities.
Using Values to Identify Shortcuts to Your Goals
Once you know which values drive your goal, the next this question is:
Can I already get some of that in my life without having to achieve the goal?
And usually, the answer is “yes”.
Maybe, moving to Bali has to wait another year.
But you can do things today that serve this value.
Take more time to relax. Hug your friends more often. Wear clothes that make you feel comfy and warm.
All your dreams and goals have underlying values. Anything more easily achievable that serves the same values, is a shortcut to what you desire.
Travel goals can be a desire for freedom and aliveness.
Money could mean wanting to experience more possibilities, power or abundance.
What if instead of focusing on money, you first start practicing feeling more grateful for everything you have? You’d experience more abundance without having to achieve the goal.
This idea may seem like giving up. But it’s not at all.
You can still achieve your dreams afterwards.
But focusing on this underlying value, is actually better way to get what you truly want.
Just look at this hypothetical example:
Let’s say you wanted to be famous, because you craved belonging, acceptance and recognition.
After years of hard work, you achieve it. But now you have to deal with a bunch of jealous haters every day.
As a result, you’re further away from your values than before.
Taking a shortcut by focusing on self-acceptance and joining communities of people with similar interests, would’ve been the superior choice.
Using Goals to Re-Shape Your Values
Think about goals as targets that give us direction.
It’s like climbing a mountain. We choose to climb a mountain to get to the top.
The view on the top is beautiful. But you only stay there for a brief while.
Because that beautiful view mostly served as an excuse for the climb.
The climb itself is a hugely rewarding experience. But without a view to look forward to, we wouldn’t do it.
Few people wake up and say “I’d love to spend the day doing really challenging stuff that lead me nowhere.”
While the process in life is as rewarding -perhaps even more rewarding, than the result. We still needs results to drive our process.
Eating a good meal is one of the most sensually delightful experiences to have. But we still do it either because we’re hungry or because we want to change our emotional state. The delight is in the journey, but the journey is driven by the goal.
If goals are “mountaintop views” that give us excuses to go on a journey, one way to select good goals is by asking:
Which journey is this goal requiring me to go on?
What type of person do I need to become to achieve this goal?
What type of values would such a person have?
Would I be happy to become a person with such values?
If you want to climb the Mount Everest, that’s one hell of a journey. It will require you to become a certain type of person. You’d definitely value challenge over comfort. And perseverance over short-term health. Not everyone wants to have such values. And that’s okay.
Similarly, not everyone who thinks they want to become a millionaire, might actually want to become the kind of person that achieves it.
If you want to become a millionaire because it would allow you to relax and chill all day… why not skip the work and become a stoner instead? 😉
If your goal requires you to become a person with values you don’t wanna have, ditch the goal.
And ask yourself: Which goal can I set that turns me into a person who embodies my core values even more?
How to Improve Your Value System Over Time
As hinted in the section, it is possible to change your values. Even in radically opposing directions.
As with any skill, we shouldn’t expect to get it right the first time.
Just as you can change your goals when you don’t like the values they require you to have, you can change your values when you don’t like the direction they are taking you in.
In a recent post, I shared the story of how freedom used to be my #1 value.
It worked out great for me. But not always for everyone else. I would crash other people’s parties on a daily basis, and act as their place was my private playground.
One day a good friend told me “When freedom is your highest value, you create an imbalance in your personality. You become a steamroller, rolling over everyone else’s freedom, while celebrating your right to yours.”.
We pondered what values might balance out my personality, and settled on “Love”.
By picking love as my #1 value and freedom as second, they balanced each other out.
This new iteration of my value system:
- Dramatically improved my social life and relationships.
- Helped me loved myself more. Before having love as my value, I would frequently get into fights with police men over minor impingements of freedom. Which inevitably led to abuse from them. By fighting for freedom, I abused myself, rather than love myself.
Your core values determine your behavior and attitude. Those in turn determine the results you get in life.
If you’re not enjoying those results, having a look at your value system is a great place to start.
Interestingly, “changing your values” doesn’t seem to be a process of actual change. It’s a process of increased awareness and revelation of what your core values truly are.
After all, why would you choose a new value? Because you want to. And we want things because we value them already.
Just as a goal might represent certain values, each value on your list might represent another, deeper one
For example, if you have the value “money” on your list, you may find out that it’s just a placeholder for the value “abundance”. That if you had everything you could ever want, money no longer mattered to you.
Then in time, you might dig even deeper and ask: Why does abundance matter to me?
Is it safety? Freedom? Autonomy?
As you continue playing with your value system, you get closer and closer to understanding the core of who you are.
The more you know yourself, the more you can make aligned decisions.
And when every decision you make or action you take is true to yourself, their outcome doesn’t matter anymore. There is no regret.
You know that you did what was right for you.
And whatever happened as a result is merely feedback.
Feedback that once again brings you a little closer to your deepest core values.