If you’ve read… well, basically anything that I’ve ever written, then you’ll know that I can barely go two sentences without banging on about the importance of knowing your ‘why’. Or, in essence, identifying your core values.
So, this post has been a long-time coming and I’m very excited about the impact it can have on your life.
I find it completely maddening that this stuff isn’t taught in school. At least, it wasn’t in my day! Instead, you memorise dry facts and figures that you can regurgitate in exams (and never actually use in real life). But no one thinks to teach you about the basic foundational principles for navigating your own life: your core values.
In short, you are the captain of your own ship, so you’ll want to have some guiding principles to know what direction to steer in and where you’re headed. Your values are this powerful guiding force.
They stop you from drifting wherever the tide takes you, nourish and sustain you through choppy seas, and pull you back on course whenever you veer off-track.
If you’ve ever felt at all unsatisfied or unfulfilled, or that life is passing you by on autopilot, then it’s likely that you’ve stopped steering the ship. You’ve let someone else take over, you’ve abandoned the wheel entirely, or perhaps you’re even going in completely the wrong direction.
Identify your core values, and you can take back control of your life.
It really is as simple as that.
Why Are Personal Values So Important?
You can improve your overall satisfaction in life, as well as your family dynamics and relationships, by defining certain values that are important to you. Here are the main reasons why values matter:
Reduces decision fatigue
You’re presented with thousands of decisions every single day – some of them big, some of them small.
Get up on your alarm or lie in? Go out for drinks with a friend or stay home to rest and recharge? Cook from scratch or order takeout?
I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer to any of these dilemmas by the way. Your choices will be entirely dependent on your own value system. But the truth is that decision-making in your life becomes a hell of a lot simpler when you identify your core values, because they can guide you to make better choices for YOU. It therefore helps you to use your time more intentionally for the things which really matter to you.
Even big life decisions that may once have caused you sleepless nights will be easier to navigate.
You stop seeking external validation
I’ve talked at length about the dangers of seeking too much outward approval. It leads to chronic people-pleasing, living a life that’s smaller than you’re capable of living, and ultimately, being inauthentic to your true self.
Harmful approval-seeking may show up in your life when it comes to your appearance, over-reliance on the opinion of authority figures, or trying to keep your family happy while diminishing your own needs.
Different people will have different values, and that’s okay. You’ll never please everyone and life is short, so do what makes your heart sing. Developing positive self-talk and looking inwards for approval is much easier to do when you have a defined set of personal values.
Keeps you motivated when faced with challenges
This has been one of the major differences I’ve noticed in my own life after identifying my core values. Things which once would have had the power to knock me down or completely cripple me for days are now more like water off a duck’s back.
It’s not to say that I never face adversity anymore – far from it. But when I do, I’m able to use self-reflection and re-evaluate from a position of personal power.
This is the beauty of core values. Anything can be taken away from you; your job, your livelihood, even your loved ones. But no one can take your values away from you. How do you think Martin Luther King was able to keep going, through all the injustice he faced in his lifetime? As Viktor Frankl puts it:
He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.
Know your personal values and you’ll be pretty much invincible to the slings and arrows of misfortune.
Helps to set healthy boundaries
Boundaries are important for staking out your non-negotiables, but how do you know your boundaries if you haven’t first defined your values?
For example, if creativity is your primary value, then you may decide to ringfence an hour of your time around it each morning to ensure it’s a priority in your life. But what would you do if a friend called you for a chat during this time?
If you’re living by your values, you might say something like: Sorry, I’m busy right now, but I can give you a call back at 11 am if that works for you?
In contrast, how do you think you’d respond in this situation if you hadn’t defined your values?
Setting healthy boundaries is a form of self-care that actually helps you to give more to those around you. As Oprah herself says:
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.
Promotes independent thinking
I believe that it is our duty to be active, engaged citizens. Life isn’t about staying comfortable, it’s about contribution and working towards a better world.
It’s entirely natural to internalise the values you’ve grown up with, but that doesn’t mean they’re always right. For example, slavery was once considered normal and women were thought to be too unintelligent to vote.
Every generation has its unique struggles when it comes to fighting for love, equality and freedom. And defining your most important values is a way to not only improve your own life, but to have a positive impact on the world at large, too.
You become less outcome-oriented
When you’re pinning all of your happiness on achieving very particular outcomes or goals, you don’t give yourself much agency over your own feelings. We’re not as in control as we like to think we are, so understanding your values can be a crucial step towards maintaining your inner peace.
Moreover, if you’re too rigid in your approach, you miss potential opportunities. For example, if I’m hell-bent on becoming a TV presenter, I may turn down a position in radio that could have grown my skills and fulfilled my fundamental need to connect.
By focusing on your values and how you can live by these on a daily basis, you naturally become less outcome-oriented. And as a happy result, your values will usually guide you to dizzying heights that you could never even have conceived with your limited goal-setting alone.
Why Can It Be Difficult to Identify Your Values?
A word of warning: Identifying your core values can be tricky. I say this from personal experience.
In all honesty, when I came to identify my values, I had no clue what they were. I strongly suspect that this is why I always felt a vague disconnect and sense of unfulfillment gnawing away at me whenever I paused for breath or slowed down.
Most exercises designed to help you identify your core values will instruct you to look back at your life and think about moments that stand out when you were happy, proud or excited. But in my case… I was sceptical.
I fell into my values because I’d never particularly given them much thought. Despite this, I was clearly still valuing something. Broadly speaking, I’d say my values for the first thirty or so years of my life could be defined as:
Achievement (first academically, then shifting into my career)
Comfort/stability (largely fueled by fear due to poor mental health)
People-pleasing (playing the ‘good girl’)
So if I was to look back at my life and cherry-pick positive experiences, I’d say that I felt proud of getting straight A grades, happy when a guy thought I was attractive and excited to escape my life and go on holiday.
This doesn’t mean that any of these things are helpful when it comes to identifying my true underlying values. My gut reaction is that I’m ashamed of this list.
It can be difficult to differentiate between pleasure and fulfilment, but they’re entirely different things. We also tend to value what our parents, teachers and friends value, which is further cemented by religious groups and the herd mentality of society at large.
So the real question is: what do YOU value as an individual, and why?
5 Steps to Define Your Core Values
I can tell you wholeheartedly that the time you spend on the exercises and steps in this next section will pay you back in abundance, so don’t skimp on this.
Grab your notebook and a pen (or your laptop), make a cup of tea, and get comfy somewhere you won’t be disturbed. By the end of this process, you’ll have a personal manifesto that will be the bedrock of your life moving forwards. You’ll be referring back to this often.
1. Core Values Exercise: 10 Questions
Start by jotting down answers to these initial 10 questions. I prefer to start the process here before using a generic list of personal core values, because you will be intrinsically guided towards the things which matter to you the most.
Who are your role models and what are the qualities you admire in them?
This could be someone from your own life, for example, a family member or an inspiring person in your community. You may also want to think about others you look up to – whether it’s a figure in history, your favourite artist, or a political thought leader.
What topics make you feel passionate?
Is there anything that particularly makes your blood boil or that you simply can’t resist getting on your soap box about?
Who do you WANT to be?
I find this to be a more helpful question than focusing on the person you have unconsciously been in the past. In your ideal vision, who are you?
What does your highest self do? What does a day in their life look like?
Go a little bit deeper on the last question. Where does your highest self live, what do they spend their time doing, what is their calling? Write down a basic daily routine for what their life looks like on an average day.
What do you want people to say about you when you’re not in the room?
What do you want your reputation to be? How would you like someone to truthfully describe you if they were sure they weren’t being overheard?
What brands do you admire and why?
Brands have names and logos, but this isn’t why we associate with them. We are drawn to brands that speak to our values. What can you learn about your own values from the brands you love and admire?
What did you enjoy as a child?
Did you ever enter into a flow state as a child, where you were so engrossed in the activity at hand that time and space completely fell away? These are telling moments that can help you to identify the things and experiences you’re naturally drawn to.
What are your non-negotiables?
Are there some things in life which you simply won’t allow yourself to compromise on? It might be something as small as making your bed every morning. Or it might be an overall philosophy like pursuing a strictly cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle. Either way, your non-negotiables give you clues as to where your values lie.
What is it that you don’t feel brave enough to do?
If you didn’t have to contend with fear and doubt, what would you do differently in life?
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
This is a powerful question. It may be a morbid thought, but it’s also a necessary reminder that life is short. What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
2. Distil your answers into common themes
Once you’ve completed this exercise, read back over your answers. Hopefully, a few common themes begin to emerge.
At this point, you may want to consult a (non-intimidating!) ‘master’ list of core values to articulate the values that are interwoven within your answers.
You should find that certain related words keep cropping up. For example, it might be that you jot down: ‘Freedom’, ‘Independence’, ‘Flexibility’ and ‘Self-Sufficiency’. This is good because it starts to build up multiple strands of evidence that this is a top priority for you.
3. Highlight the word that sums up each value group
Once you have around 4-5 groups of semantically-related words, it’s time to identify the overarching or ‘core’ values that best sum up each list.
As a personal example, one of my own lists consisted of ‘Learning’, ‘Curiosity’, ‘Independent Thinking’ and ‘Innovation’. For me, I decided that this list of personal values would sit under the umbrella of ‘Independent Thinking’ because it best encapsulates all of these terms.
When you’ve pinpointed 4-5 top values (any more than this, and I’d argue they’re not really priorities any more), have an honest check-in with yourself that you feel proud to define yourself in this way. If you’ve got it right, it’s not uncommon at this point to experience an immediate sense of relief and inner peace.
4. Arrange your core values into an ordered list
Now you’ll want to order your list and check for any clashing values.
For example, if you find ‘Family’ and ‘Freedom’ at the top of your list, you’re going to need to work out which takes priority. Perhaps you can make room in your life to satisfy both needs, or perhaps you need to completely re-evaluate whether they can harmoniously co-exist.
You can test out your core values by asking yourself some targeted questions. As I value both ‘Creativity’ and ‘Health’, a good question to ask myself would be:
If I’m engrossed in a creative project, do I make time for my daily gym session?
In this example, I’d put my physical health first, because I know that I can’t do any of the things that I’m passionate about without my long-term health (so I need to focus on this daily). This immediately helps me to move my values into position.
5. Write a personal values statement
This final step is often overlooked, but I’d argue it’s the secret rocket fuel to supercharge your values system. You’ve got to be passionate about your values and what they mean to you if you’re going to live by them every day. So once you’ve got a somewhat generic ordered list, it’s time to inject some life into it by creating a personal values statement.
For example, my core value of ‘Health’ looks like this:
I only have one body and my most important relationship in life is with myself. I understand that caring about my health on a daily basis strengthens my personal integrity, shows myself unconditional self-love, and is the cornerstone for being able to effectively serve others.
Eat plant-based whole foods (use Dr Greger’s Daily Dozen checklist)
Go to the gym at least 3 times a week
Get outside for a 15-minute walk
Get 8 hours of quality sleep (set a wind-down reminder before bed)
Keep it short and punchy so that you can easily re-read your manifesto often. And, if you can, think about how it translates into daily systems that you can begin to hold yourself accountable to.
Are You Currently Living by Your Personal Core Values?
Maybe there are elements where you’re already living in alignment with your values (that’s a great sign by the way!). But one of my findings was that there were areas where I was living the complete antithesis of my values.
For instance, I prioritised a comfortable, safe and predictable life. So one of the more surprising values I identified in the people I admire and the person I really wanted to be was ‘Courage’.
This is particularly important to me because fear ruled my life for such a long time with mental health issues like OCD, so it’s something I have to constantly push myself with and work hard at. Basically, it’s not a natural behaviour for me.
What I’m trying to say is that you may have been living by all sorts of other values rather than the ones you’ve defined, so they may feel inconsistent or jarring with how you currently live your life. But this doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of change, or even becoming a different person.
I barely recognise myself some days when I look back on my past self, but that’s because I have my own personally-defined set of values to guide me now.
Don’t worry too much if there are areas where you’re currently not living by your values. Have the self-awareness to identify this, and then sincerely question how you can move more into alignment with them.
Are Your Values Fixed Forever or Can They Change?
Your values may remain fairly stable throughout your life, but they can also change. This is completely natural and not something you should be too worried about!
In our example earlier of ‘Freedom’ vs ‘Family’, you may find that your 20s are characterised by free-spirited travel. But moving into your 30s, establishing firmer roots with family life is overtaking this as a new priority.
I’d say it’s worth revisiting your personal values every few years or so, but pay particular attention if you’re feeling out of kilter or unhappy in certain aspects of your life. Going through a major break-up or some other unexpected life event may also prompt you to re-evaluate.
When this happens, come back to the core values exercise and look for any clues as to how your answers have changed from last time. It might just be a case of rejigging the order of your list, or it might be that an entirely new value has made its way to the forefront.
Listen to your intuition and then articulate this as best you possibly can to determine ways in which you can course-correct moving forwards.
Experience Deep Fulfilment Living by Your Own Values
Without a doubt, defining my core values has been the biggest catalyst for change in my life.
Science shows that the human brain starts to solidify at around the age of 25, so it’s likely that your belief systems and habitual behaviour are hard-wired. Redefining your core values is an exercise that can undo old and unhelpful systems.
Everyone wants to make positive changes to their lives, but what they don’t realise is that you have to literally rewire your brain. Lasting change can only happen when you fundamentally challenge your unquestioned thoughts and beliefs, which translates into your value systems, actions, character and overall life trajectory.
So if you’re striving for happiness, then stop wasting your energy. Happiness is the by-product of a life lived by your values. And it’s time to take back control of the wheel.