As a society we constantly talk about our values—as if we actually know what those values are.
If you had to take a pop quiz right now that asked you to name your top three values in life, would you have your answers ready? In my experience, most people confronted with this question feel quite unsure of their response.
Rarely do people take the time as adults to inventory their values thoughtfully and identify the ones that matter most to them. And even more rarely do people align their daily life activities with their most cherished values. As a result, identifying our own personal values is one of the best first steps to cultivating authentic connection to ourself.
Our reflexively stated values probably include things we’ve inherited from our parents, spouse, teachers, and mentors, as well as things that we think we should stand for, but that don’t necessarily reflect our real priorities. Or they may just be relics from another time, when that was the most important thing to you in life ... and now, you have different priorities.
For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic and other dreadful 2020 events changed our lives and our outlook on life in fundamental ways. Have you taken the time to collect, examine, and reflect on your values as you feel them today? If you haven’t already, I hope you will. This simple exercise can give you greater clarity of purpose and a more useful understanding of yourself and your needs as we begin to rebuild the world and our day-to-day lives within it.
Discovering your inner truth is not about being struck by all-encompassing clarity and insight. It’s a process of peeling back the layers of an onion to discover your real self. Writing things down is incredibly helpful for flushing out our unarticulated thoughts and feelings. Try setting aside 30 to 45 minutes to focus, with no smartphone, no computer, no TV or music on in the background.
Start by writing down all the different things that matter to you in life. Don’t hold back—you want to list everything you think of. Need some examples? Family, good health, financial security, empathy, honesty, creativity, freedom, safety, fairness, achievement ... there are as many sets of values as there are people on earth. (The website Live Bold and Bloom has a long list of values that might be helpful.)
When you run out of ideas for your values, look at your list and look for themes or patterns in your answers. You may find that some items are part of another value; for example, honesty might be considered part of integrity. Condense thematic families of values if you can.
Once you’ve consolidated the list according to any themes, ask yourself honestly: Which of these are the most important? Identify your top three—the things that matter most. Rank these top three in importance, too.
It won’t be easy, but by winnowing down your list you can see the areas of your life that you are least able to ignore or in which you are least able to compromise. You gain a clearer view of the values you should be living by every day, which helps you make choices about the types of work, friends, and lifestyle that will make you most fulfilled. Once you’ve thoughtfully ranked your values, you also know where your highest priorities lie, so you can more easily make the right choice for yourself when two or more of your values conflict—as will inevitably happen at some point.
Your top three values (and their order of priority) will almost certainly change as your circumstances and experiences change. There is no shame or pathology in this. Don’t cling to values that no longer matter to you just because they once were important. Be honest about what you stand for today and build your life from there.
Personally, I’m prioritizing being less busy, living more simply, and doing things that help me feel part of my community—volunteering with the local food bank, making food with my family, and staying close to home (and out of my car). Checking in with myself helped me to prioritize my own need to connect with friends and to spend some time in nature each day.
Self-knowledge is power. When you know what matters to you, you’re better able to make choices that honor your priorities and avoid those that don’t. Nothing feels better than operating from a place of knowing and honoring your real self. That kind of authenticity cultivates incredible confidence, certainty, and life satisfaction.