What are core values, and why is it worth getting to know yours?

How to have a sense of purpose and satisfaction in life by acting in alignment with your values.

Wouldn't it be great if every time we had to make a difficult decision, we knew exactly what choice would give us a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life?

Most of us have, at best, a vague idea of what that would be. Even if we already believe our choices must be guided by our values to achieve satisfaction in life, we rarely examine our values in any organized or intentional way.

And so, we find ourselves paralyzed by ambiguous choices. Or worse, make decisions we regret later. Even when all the signs are telegraphing to us, "Run, don't walk." Simply because we don't have clarity about what will and what won't make us content with our choices.

Don't need more convincing? Skip to “How to discover your values.”

What's a core value?

Let's start with a definition. Because, honestly, we're all pretty jaded by corporate fluff values professing that "we act with Integrity" or "we think outside the box."

A core value is a fundamental belief that guides your behavior, decision-making, and overall perception of the world.

It's not how you believe you should behave—that's called aspiration. It's good to have aspirations, but they are not values.

And it's not what others say you should do—that's an external expectation. Again, it's fine to want to meet the expectations of others, but not at the expense of your values.

In other words, your core values are quite simply what you personally already value in life.

Where do values come from?

Core values are deeply ingrained in a person's psyche and are usually developed early in life.

They can come from a variety of sources, including your family and cultural background, religion, education, personal experiences, and societal influences.

Your nature undoubtedly plays a role as well. Sometimes in not-so-obvious ways. (I have ADHD. I value punctuality. It's complicated.)

Life experiences can reinforce or diminish your values depending on how you interpret and respond to them.

Positive experiences that align with your values can strengthen and reinforce the importance of those values in your life.

For example, if you value kindness and experience the positive impact of showing kindness to your peers in middle school, you may become even more committed to being kind to others.

On the other hand, negative experiences that conflict with your values can cause you to question or even abandon those values.

Continuing with the previous example, if your middle-school classmates bully you because they perceive your kindness as a weakness, you may be tempted to hold back kindness in the future.

Life experiences can also lead to large and sudden shifts in values. For example, if you previously valued financial prosperity, you may re-evaluate your priorities after experiencing a significant loss or hardship. And may develop an appreciation for friendship, building a community, or spirituality.

Life experiences can have a significant impact on your core values. But ultimately, it's up to you how you reflect on those experiences and integrate them into your value system.

How does knowing your values help with decisions?

Knowing your core values can serve as a kind of compass to guide you in making decisions, shape what is most important in your life, and even explain why you see the world in a particular light.

For example, if you value punctuality (like I do), you're more likely to react strongly when people are late to a meeting (or school, like my son, who also has ADHD). Perhaps even say something you'll regret later (no comment). Knowing that about yourself can help you choose a different response ("I'm sorry, son, that came out very wrong! Can we start again and see if we can find something that will actually help you be on time tomorrow?").

You might also feel external pressures, like other people's opinions and expectations of you.

That's one of the reasons you might find it difficult to make decisions. "Do I feel compelled to accept this role because it's a good fit for me? Or because it will please my mother?"

Knowing your values can help you navigate challenging and ambiguous situations more effectively. When you are clear about your values, you can make decisions with greater confidence and clarity, and you are less likely to be swayed by external pressures or the opinions of others.

How do you know when you're in alignment with your values?

When your actions are in harmony with your values, you are more likely to feel a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction in your life.

On the other hand, when your actions are out of sync with your values, you may experience a sense of inner conflict, confusion, and even shame. Or anger and annoyance if others are acting out of sync with your values.

For example, if you lose your temper and say something you regret later, it could be because you value humility and feel ashamed for acting arrogant at that moment. Or maybe it's because you value financial stability and are afraid your outburst could cost you your job. Maybe it's because you value belonging, but after the incident feel estranged from the group.

How to discover your values?

To summarize, understanding your core values is important because it helps you align your actions with what is most important to you, navigate life's challenges with greater clarity and confidence, and live a more fulfilling and purposeful life.

So, how do you discover your values?

To help you through this process, I’ve broken it down into five steps.

Step 1: Brain dump. In this step, you'll recall the key moments of your life. What have been the peak experiences of your life? What are you most proud of?

If you're having difficulty with those questions, it might help to flip the script around and think about the negative experiences. What makes you angry or annoyed? What was the least fulfilling moment of your life?

Think about those moments and write them down with as much detail as you can.

Step 2: Find the implicit values in your brain dump. Look at everything you've written so far and analyze it. Why did you enjoy that moment? What made that behavior annoying? Write it down.

You should start seeing some patterns that will point you to your implicit values. To make it easier to identify your preliminary values, refer to this list that I use in my practice.

Step 3: Identify and prioritize your values. After step 2, you should end up with 7-10 preliminary values. Now sort them in the order of importance and narrow them down to the top 3. (Yes, I know it's hard. I've struggled with it myself.)

To help you choose the most important ones, pit your values against each other. Say, you discovered that you value financial prosperity and belonging. Imagine a situation, in vivid, colorful details in which you are forced to compromise between the two. Which one wins?

Most people find this step difficult. Don't worry, nobody's gonna see this, and nobody's gonna judge you. Be as honest with yourself as possible—you're not deciding what's most important for the world; you're choosing what's important for you. And remember, if you value everything, you value nothing!

Step 4: Translate your values into a set of guiding principles. This might be the most time-consuming step yet. And I expect many of you not to go through with this step. I will not hold it against you.

But those of you who do commit your time and effort to this step will end up with something you could, without exaggeration, call your Operating System for Life.

This step will help you turn all those nearly meaningless nouns like "integrity" and "responsibility" into clear, actionable principles.

For each of your top core values, see if you can create 2-3 guiding principles.

To give you an example, an acquaintance recently shared one of theirs: "I disappoint early and explicitly, rather than late and implicitly." It's easy to remember and so much more actionable than the nebulous "responsibility" and "concern for others" that it represents. Would you agree?

Feel free to make your guiding principles quirky and funny, too, if that's your thing.

Step 5: Review and iterate. Finally, look at your guiding principles and try them on. Imagine yourself responding to different situations with your guiding principles in mind. Imagine explaining your behavior with a guiding principle to somebody, a friend, or a colleague. How does that make you feel? Do you feel content, whole, and happy? Great, you're on the right track!

If you find that one (or more) of your guiding principles doesn't feel authentic—don't be afraid to discard it. Or go back a step or two and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

Often it helps to step away from this process for a few days after step 4 and let the paint dry, so to speak. Then when you come back, you’ll be able to look at your guiding principles with fresh eyes. It helps to spot anything that might have been guided by aspirations or external expectations rather than your core values.