I’ve read many books that stress the importance of understanding your personal values, getting clear about what’s most important to you in life. But at the time of this writing, I haven’t yet come across a source that covers this incredibly useful concept with sufficient depth. Most of the values coverage I’ve read takes you through a process of eliciting your current values and then leaves it at that. But I want to take you much deeper into this rich subject and show you how to intelligently connect your values to your goals.
In Part I, I will guide you through a step-by-step process for eliciting and prioritizing your personal values. It’s entirely possible you already have such a list because this is a common exercise you’ll find in many personal growth books. However, I still encourage you to read through this process because you will deepen your understanding.
My second goal is to explain the process of living with integrity to your values, so you learn how to consciously use your values to make decisions and take action. There’s no point in discovering your values and then filing them away and forgetting about them. This will be covered in Living Your Values, Part 2.
Why Do Values Matter?
The main benefit of knowing your values is that you will gain tremendous clarity and focus, but ultimately you must use that newfound clarity to make consistent decisions and take committed action. So the whole point of discovering your values is to improve the results you get in those areas that are truly most important to you.
Values are priorities that tell you how to spend your time, right here, right now. There are two reasons that priorities are important for our lives.
The first reason is that time is our most limited resource; time does not renew itself. Once we spend a day, it’s gone forever. If we waste that day by investing our time in actions that don’t produce the results we want, that loss is permanent. We can earn more money, improve our physical bodies, and repair broken relationships, but we cannot redo yesterday. If we all had infinite time, then values and priorities would be irrelevant. But at least here on earth, we appear to be mortal with limited life spans, and if we value our mortal lives, then it’s logical to invest them as best we can.
You’re free to decide what “best” means to you. The very idea that some possible permutations of your life appeal to you more than others means that knowing your values will be of great benefit to you. On the other hand, if any life you might live is as good as any other to you (whether prince or pauper, Olympian or obese, saint or sinner), then you can stop reading – you don’t need this information. But most people can certainly envision lives that are more preferable to them than others.
The second reason priorities matter is that we human beings tend to be fairly inconsistent in how we invest our time and energy. Most of us are easily distracted. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of living by different priorities every day. One day you exercise; the next day you slack off. One day you work productively; the next day you’re stricken with a bout of laziness. If we don’t consciously use our priorities to stick to a clear and consistent course, we’ll naturally drift off course and shift all over the place. And this kind of living yields poor results. Imagine an airplane that went wherever the wind took it – who knows where it would eventually land? And the flight itself would likely be stressful and uncertain.
So for these two reasons – limited time and a typically low index of distraction – consciously knowing and living by our values become extremely important. Values act as our compass to put us back on course every single day, so that day after day, we’re moving in the direction that takes us closer and closer to our definition of the “best” life we could possibly live. The “best” is your own ideal, but generally as you get closer to this ideal, you’ll enjoy increasingly positive shades of “better” even if you never reach “best.” And this makes sense because many results in life exist on a continuum. There are some discrete entities like being married or not married, but your health, financial status, relationship intimacy, and level of happiness are generally continuous, meaning that they can gradually get better or worse. It seems reasonable that more health, happiness, wealth, intimacy, inner peace, love, etc. is better than less.
But here’s the interesting part: Since our time is limited, and since it takes time to move along the continuum through the various “betters,” we usually cannot instantly achieve the state of “best.” We can’t land our plane just yet – it’s still in flight. Moreover, everyone has a different definition of what “best” means to them. For some people, good health is an absolute must. For others, being compassionate is what’s most important. And for each of these values, every person is at a different point along their own continuum. So imagine that there are a bunch of planes in the air, each in a different starting location and each having a different destination airport. You can’t then plot the same course to land every plane at its “best” airport. Each plane requires its own individual course.
For a more human example, everyone is in a different state of health right now, and everyone has a different ideal for their “best” possible health. So the course each person takes from their starting point to their own best state of health will be unique.
Because of these individual differences, some of your “planes” will be much farther from their airports than others. If you want to weigh 150 pounds and you currently weigh 155, this plane is within sight of its airport and is approaching the runway. If you want to become a millionaire and you’re flat broke with a low income, that plane is much further away.
Because you can’t do everything at once, you have to prioritize which planes are most precious to you. You may not be able to land them all within the span of your lifetime because you probably don’t know how long your lifetime will be; nor can you be certain how long it will take to land each of these planes. But realize that the closer you get each plane to its airport, the better that area of your life will be.
Now let’s begin the process of…
Eliciting Your Values
Here is a step-by-step method to create your own personal values hierarchy. I want to warn you that this can be a time consuming process, and it will require your concentrated attention. So if this isn’t a good time for you to do this, feel free to read it over now and then complete it when you can put in the time. It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort.
The question to ask yourself is this: What is truly important to me in life?
Brainstorm a list of your values as your answers to this question. Try to reduce your responses to a single word or two that encapsulates each answer. For example, if one of your answers is, “having a successful career,” then you might reduce that to the value of “success.”
To make this task easier for you, I’ve put together an extensive list of values you can use to help build your own list. Don’t worry about the order of your list yet or how long it is. Just get everything down in writing.
So you might end up with a list that looks something like this:
There’s no hard rule for how long your list should be, but I usually prefer a list in the range of 10-15 values. If you have more than this, consider cutting out the marginal values that just barely made your list, or combine multiple values that are nearly identical on a single line, like achievement/accomplishment.
Prioritizing Your Values
The next step is to prioritize your list. This is usually the most time consuming and difficult step because it requires some intense thinking.
My preferred method of prioritizing my values list is to identify the top value, then the second highest value, and so on until I’ve rebuilt the whole list in order of priority from the top to the bottom. So you may begin by asking yourself these questions: Which of these values is truly the most important to me in life? If I could only satisfy one of these values, which one would it be? The answer to this question is your number one value. Then move down the list and ask which remaining value is the next most important to you, and so on, until you’ve sorted the whole list in priority order.
Sometimes the highest priority value will be obvious to you. Other times you’ll have it narrowed down to a few choices but will have a hard time figuring out which one is really the most important among those. When that happens here’s what I recommend. Invent a scenario for each value, and then compare those scenarios.
For example, if you’re trying to decide which is more important to you, learning or peace, then ask yourself, “Which would I rather do – read a book or meditate?” This example assumes that reading a book would satisfy your value of learning and that meditating would satisfy your value of peace, each to roughly the same degree. I usually find that when I create scenarios for the tough-to-prioritize values, the best ordering becomes clear.
So let’s say we’ve sorted our list above, and we’ve come up with this:
What can you tell me about this person? When you know a person’s values hierarchy, you should have a fair chance of predicting their behavior. If this person lives true to her values, she’ll lead a life focused on peace, love, and intimacy above all else. Her relationships (both with herself and others) will be extremely important to her, and she’d never put career success above her family.
On the other hand, let’s say this person prioritized her values in the exact opposite order:
What kind of person is this? Now we have someone who’s probably very career-oriented, perhaps an entrepreneur. She will lead a very different life than the person with peace as her top value. Succeeding and becoming wealthy is more important to this person than personal relationships, so if she has a choice between advancing in her career or going on a family vacation, she’ll almost always put her career first.
I want to say again that this is indeed a difficult and challenging process. These are not easy decisions to make. If a value appears on your list, then it’s definitely important to you. By prioritizing your values consciously, you’ll be able to rely on them when you need to make important decisions in the future. If you know that what is truly most important to you in life is to experience inner peace, then it will be easier for you to say no to those things that take you away from peace.
Now that you have your own values hierarchy worked out, it may seem like you’ve just unlocked something important. Many books that cover values treat it as such. But in my experience, this particular list isn’t actually that important. This list only tells you the values that have previously been conditioned into you – by your upbringing and by society. In terms of our airplane analogy, this list tells you where your planes are currently headed. But that isn’t necessarily the direction you want those planes to continue to go.
Reexamining Your Values
Now comes the really interesting part. You don’t have to continue living by the same values. You can consciously change them – even radically if desired. You can go from a person who values peace most highly to one whose top priority is success, or vice versa. You are not your values. You are the thinker of your thoughts, but you are not the thoughts themselves. Your values are your current compass, but they aren’t the real you.
Is it really possible that you can consciously change your values? Yes it is. That will become clear in Part II of this article when we explore how to consciously live by your values. But for now, let’s tackle this question first: Why would you ever want to change your values?
You may want to change your values when you understand and accept where they are taking you, and you realize that what you appear to value right now will not enable you to enjoy the “best” possible life for you. Your “best” life is your vision of all the destinations you wish to reach – the greatest ultimate destiny you can possibly imagine for yourself. But your values are just a measure of the current direction you’re headed right now. And in most cases these two things are incongruent, meaning that your current values are not aligned with the course of your best life.
I want you to take a moment right now to get in touch with what this really means to you personally. If you keep living by your current values, then you can expect to get similar results to what you’re already getting, possibly a little better if you apply them more consciously. But most likely there is some part of you that isn’t satisfied with where you’ll end up if you keep following this same course. What are the “airports” where your planes will merely pass over but never land? Will you never experience an intimate, loving relationship? Will you never have children? Will you never become wealthy? Will you never develop an outstandingly energetic physical body? Will you never travel around the world? Will you never be able to help your favorite cause? Will you never feel that you’re living in total accordance with your spiritual beliefs?
Now what if all these “nevers” could suddenly become possible for you? How can they? They can become possible for you by shifting your values. And here’s the key: You don’t need to maintain the same values throughout your entire life. You can change them as often as you like. I recreate my own values list every 3-6 months.
When you change your values list and consciously act on it, you change your behavior and therefore your results. And this can lead to incredible new experiences. For example, if your top value is health, and you’re already in outstanding physical condition, what would happen if you changed your top value to wealth? You would cut back on your workouts for a while and invest tremendous energy into becoming wealthy. Your investment in health would slide a little, but in the short-term, it probably won’t make a huge difference. Health may still be one of your top values, but it just isn’t number one anymore. So now by focusing intently on your new top value of wealth, you eventually succeed in becoming wealthy. But eventually as you become very wealthy, making more and more money beyond a certain point may no longer serve you. Now you decide to shift your top value to compassion, so you go out and use your healthy, wealthy self to compassionately help others. Through this process of consciously shifting your values, you’ve changed from a gym rat to an entrepreneur to a philanthropist. You’ve lived an amazing life. But if you always maintain your original values, you’ll only experience being a gym rat for your entire life. And most of your true potential would remain untapped.
Changing Your Values
So how can you decide how to change your values? You go through a very similar process of listing and prioritizing, but now you do it with your destinations – your goals. I’m not going to repeat the process in as much detail here because it’s exactly the same as above. You just repeat the above steps with your goals instead of your values. Here’s a sample goals list:
Reduce weight to 150 pounds
Become a millionaire
Move to San Diego
Become a real estate investor
Travel through every country in Europe
Fall in love and get married
Give a speech in front of 5000 people
Get a part in a movie
Visit the moon
Run a marathon
So again, write out your goals. Decide which ones are truly most important to you. Prioritize them. And in this case it’s fine if you have more than 10-15. More than 100 is even OK; it will just take longer to prioritize.
These goals represent the experiences that you feel are part of the “best” life you could live. I don’t mean a good life or even a great life – I mean the best life. If a life where you never traveled through Europe wouldn’t be the absolute best for you, then you’d better include that goal on your list.
Returning to our airplane analogy again, this goals list represents your list of airports. Now do you see the problem with having a static list of values throughout your entire life? How is a single list of values going to allow you to hit all these different stops? The values that will make you a millionaire probably aren’t the same ones that will get you married. And the values that will send you skydiving aren’t the ones that will help you become a real estate investor. At some point in your life, you’ll need to focus intently on one of these goals while letting the others slide.
If you fail to focus your energy on the goals that are truly important to you, some of them will slip away, and that’s a heavy price to pay. You may succeed in your career and never get married. Or you may get married but never enjoy a state of physical fitness. Think back to the big, meaningful goals that you’ve already accomplished. Didn’t you have to go through a period where achieving that goal became your top priority for a while? And in the process, you (probably unconsciously) shifted your values to accommodate that goal. I remember that for the six months before we got married, my fiancée went into wedding planning mode. Her top values during this time became things like organization and preparation, but after our honeymoon, those were no longer her top values. They were no longer needed to such a degree.
Now that you have your goals hierarchy, pick the top one or two goals, and consciously devise a values list that will lead you to achieve them. Let’s say your goals list is prioritized as above, so your #1 goal is to reduce your weight to 150 pounds. To achieve this goal, you might make fitness your #1 value. Then you might make self-discipline your #2 value, so you’ll stick to your diet and exercise program. And then learning might become your #3 value, so you spend time educating yourself about proper diet and nutrition. You must design these values based on your own personal circumstances. Like any skill this takes practice, but over time you’ll become better and better at designing your values to adapt to your goals.
Whenever you achieve a major goal, that’s a good time to select a new goal and update your values list to accommodate it. Once you’ve run the marathon, if you feel ready to move onto something else, like becoming a millionaire, then you can knock health down a few notches and go into maintenance mode there while you push values like wealth, success, and courage to the top of your list to help you meet the next challenge.
Most books I’ve read that cover values suggest that you derive your goals from your values. I recommend the exact opposite approach – that you derive your values from your goals. I’ve spent years trying to use the first approach, and the result was a lot of frustration. I always felt I was missing something because my static values list never seemed to allow me to achieve certain goals. Eventually I figured out that goals come first, and then values can be adapted to fit those goals; when a goal is reached, then a whole new values hierarchy can be created. The airplane analogy makes this distinction very clear – before you can set a course for your plane, you must first determine the airport where it will land. If you set the course without knowing the destination, then you will experience tremendous frustration trying to get your planes to land where you feel they should.
If you’d like to read through an example of how I consciously shifted my values when my major goals changed, you may enjoy reading this values update.