In our everyday lives, we have to make lots of big or small decisions that can change the paths of our lives. Why do I not like this job? What industry do I want to move into next? What is my personal brand? How do I choose between two similar job offers? Who do I volunteer for?
What are the common mistakes people make when making those choices?
- Following what everyone else is doing
- Saying what everyone else is saying
- Choosing what makes money, what is easy, what is normal, what causes the least conflict…
Although it is perfectly fine to do your research on what’s going on in the world around you, what we often forget is doing research on ourselves. What do you ultimately want in life? What makes you tick? What’s unique about you? The answers to these questions can ultimately be distilled to your core values.
Knowing your core values and honouring them when you make life and career decisions is the number one secret to having a fulfilling and abundant life and career where you are not just surviving, but thriving.
What are values?
Values are qualities, principles or characteristics in life that you consider highly important (1). They are uniquely yours and are generally traits that you held from your formative years. Values are neutral. There’s nothing right or wrong about those qualities you have. Your values reflect your true self. Examples of core values: aesthetics, efficiency, adventure and growth.
Values are not necessarily morals or virtues. Integrity, justice, honesty and kindness, etc. are undoubtedly qualities we all desire to exist for our society to function and flourish. Family, friendship and communities are what us human commonly need as social animals to stay safe and thrive. However, these qualities or things are more societal values, but not necessarily values that differentiate you as an individual. That said, there are times when morals or virtues are indeed values for some due to incidents that took place during an individual’s formative years. One way to distinguish this is whether those qualities are instilled by external forces or taught. If it is not, it is likely a core value.
Values are not qualities you want to have. If you have to work on cultivating a quality, it’s completely OK but don’t count it as your value. Finding your values is not like picking your favourite candies from a candy store.
Values are not necessarily your strengths. Values could be your strengths, but not the other way around. Peter Drucker, who is touted the “founder of modern management”, was a very successful investment banker as a young man in the 1930s. But he found that the strengths that led to his success in this career was not what he valued. What truly mattered to him was people. Deciding to honour this value, he quit his job without any money or career prospects in the midst of the Great Depression (2).
Values are not things or people. Most of us do know what things in life are important to us and what kind of people we connect with more easily. Using this knowledge as a starting point and go a few steps deeper will help you uncover characteristics that you value at a truly personal level. For example, wealth is not a value itself. If your highest priority is to travel the world when you achieve wealth, perhaps adventure is a value of yours. If it’s to dedicate yourself to philanthropy, maybe empathy is a value of yours.
Why should you care?
Your values transcend all areas of your life. The benefits of knowing your values are infinite and can be summarized by these five keywords: Differentiation, Direction, Focus, Inspiration and Fulfillment.
Let me illustrate these benefits in the context of our fictitious character, Paul the stickman’s career.
When Paul just graduates from business school, he knows that he needs to craft a personal brand to differentiate himself from other candidates in his resume, LinkedIn profile, and whenever he is networking. He translated his value of adventure into many specific elements in his brand and overall career decisions: Being adventurous, Paul loves travel, is a risk taker, embraces innovation, and is never afraid of trying new ideas. Knowing this, he decides to work in the tech industry and chooses the area of business development as that will allow him to be immersed in the world of innovation and constantly exploring new opportunities. When he is networking and making job applications, he not only targets companies that share his values, but also ensure that they have a global presence so that he has the opportunities to work with different cultures.
Paul finally lands his dream job as the head of business development in a tech company planning to eventually expand its business abroad. One day, he is stuck trying to solve the puzzle of stagnant sales results from his current territory. Suddenly, a light bulb goes up in his head: “What would my value of adventure tell me in this situation? Maybe I could check out what our competitors in other countries are doing with their products? Or maybe…this is the time to pitch to our VP that we take our products global?!” After some careful research which supports his proposal to his leadership team, Paul’s strategy finally won the approval and eventually a big year-end bonus for his game changing idea.
Paul’s story illustrates the following:
- Being fully aware of your values differentiates you, gives you a stronger sense of self, which translates to confidence.
- It gives you a sense of direction, which allows you to focus your energy and resources more efficiently and make decisions faster.
- Since your values are so core to you, they can easily inspire new ideas that you embrace and you are more likely to turn them into realities.
- Working in areas aligned with your values requires hard work but generally far more effortless compared to working in areas that don’t inspire you, which means you are more likely to persevere and perform.
- When you are honouring your true values, you are being your most authentic self which means you can easily attract and influence other people similar to you to work together on things you all care about.
4 steps to discovering your core values
1. Find a partner to do this exercise with
A conversation partner, ideally someone who knows you well and am not shy of sharing their observation of you, or a coach, can help you brainstorm and identify your blind spots. Have this person ask you the following, probe for details that allow you to jot down 10+ qualities you possess that are reflected by your answers.
- When are you the happiest? What makes you feel alive?
- What have been your three greatest accomplishments and failures?
- What are some unforgettable moments that you find moving or resonating in movies, TV shows, novels or news reports?
- What do you obsess about?
- What are your pet peeves (e.g. types of people, situation, things)?
2. What are the common themes? Group similar words into clusters. Don't get too hung up on the choice of words.
3. Compare them to the value definitions shared earlier in this article and narrow them down to 5 values, or 5 value clusters.
4. Prioritize your values based on their level of importance to you. Don’t worry about getting it right. It’s the process of prioritization that gives you the most valuable insights.
Important note: Don’t stop your value exploration right after these four steps. Continue to reflect and discover yourself and you may find more values that are more important later. You can also consider working with a personal coach as they are trained to ask powerful follow-up questions based on your answers, share observations in a non-judgemental way, and are good at brainstorming and distilling core values from your answers.
Putting your values to work
There are so many ways to put your values to work, for example:
- Identifying lurking problems in your life or career
- Establishing your personal brand
- Looking for the right company or people to work/partner with
You can always start by getting a baseline reading of your core values. Pick an area of your life that you want some change in. Rank the level of satisfaction you have with each of your values from 0-10. What comes up? What are the values that are being trampled on? What values you haven’t been honouring? What change can you make to bring up your satisfaction level?
It may not be easy or comfortable
Living a life honouring your values will give you more liberty - more space to use your talent to the fullest, the opportunity to thrive with like-minded people in the long run. But just like any other great things in life, achieving it is not always painless especially in the short term. It may mean having a difficult conversation, quitting a job, initiating a breakup, moving to a new city…OR it may mean fully accepting what is right in front of you and assuming the grass is greener on the other side, because you finally realize that what you presently have is exactly what you’ve always wanted.
Do what is right, not what is easy. Enjoy your treasure hunt.
1. Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives 3rd (third) Edition by Kimsey-House, Karen, Kimsey-House, Henry, Sandahl, Phillip, Whitworth, Laura
2. Managing Oneself (1999) by Peter F. Drucker