Can you recall a “peak experience” - a time when you felt truly “alive”? When you felt connected to the best and truest version of yourself? What were you doing? How were you being? Who was there with you?
It is more than likely that your values were being honoured and expressed in that moment.
What are ‘values’?
Values are the very essence of who we are. They are principles that we hold to be of worth in our lives. It’s important to note here that they aren’t who we want to be or who we think we should be. They are also different to morals. We do not choose our values, but rather, they come from within.
Values drive many of the decisions we make, often in the deep recesses of our subconscious. The decision we make to take a day off work to be by our friend’s side when they’re struggling because we value ‘friendship’. Or the hours we spend on a video game, because ‘mastery’ is important to us. Values are what make us leave our jobs because it lacks ‘growth’ or ‘autonomy’, and what drive us to report (or not) our colleague for unethical behaviour.
The concept of values is not a new one. You’ve probably read about them before. But are you identify what your top personal values are?
Why is it important to know your values?
Our personal values can be thought of as the needle on a compass that helps us navigate the complexities of our lives.
If we do not know what our values are, we may be prone to finding ourselves stuck and uninspired. We can’t quite put our finger on what exactly is making us feel so unfulfilled. It’s like driving around a new place without a navigation system. It’s blind chance whether you end up where you wanted to go. Or chasing after ‘success’ without knowing what you truly consider to be successful. This is why there are so many unfulfilled corporate professionals around the world (who may look successful to you from the outside).
However, when we are clear on our values, we know ourselves better, know what will fulfill us, and are able to trust ourselves to make decisions based on this.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, Google Maps didn’t yet have a navigation function for the country. You know, that voice that tells you to “turn left in 500 metres”. Driving somewhere took twice as long as it should, because I had to constantly check if I was going the right way. I was constantly doubting my decisions. I would often end up driving 10 minutes down the wrong road and have to drive all the way back.
When the navigation function finally came to the region though, life changed. I knew at every junction which direction I needed to go. Gone was the constant self-doubt. Sure, sometimes I misheard the instruction, but I was able to get back on track much faster than before.
Likewise, once we know which direction we need to go, we can stride confidently forward without second guessing ourselves. We can proceed without worrying about whether we’re going the wrong direction.
So how do we figure out what our values are?
“Values are like fingerprints. Nobodies are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.” - Elvis Presley (apparently)
It seems a daunting task to try and figure out what makes us, us. However, it’s this very personal nature of values that makes discovering our values quite simple. As Elvis Presley is credited with saying, “Values are like fingerprints. Nobodies are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.” If that’s true, we can examine our lives and decisions for clues as to what our values are.
Some great questions we can ask ourselves (or even better, get a coach or a trained mentor to help you) are the ones we started off the post with.
1. Peak experiences
Peak experiences - moments when we felt most alive and truly ourselves - can be a great source of information to gaining clarity of our values. As I've already mentioned, values are the very essence of who we are. When we express our truest selves fully, we are in “resonance” - our bodies feel it. Our hearts come alive. Our soul jumps.
These peak experiences are often moments of very positive emotions, but not always. I remember attending the funeral of my friend’s father a few years ago. I never knew my friend’s father and the friendship was still very new, but it felt so right to be there to show support for my friend. To be in that moment with her. I can’t quite pinpoint the value (or values) that was being honoured in that moment, but I know for certain that my values were being expressed. It was far from a very positive experience, but it was nevertheless a moment in my life where I felt like I was expressing my truest self.
Can you recall a time when something happened or someone did something and you got really angry or upset? Like disproportionately over-the-top angry or upset? It is likely that your values were not being honoured at that moment. That whatever was going on (or whatever the person did to you) was trampling over what is important to you.
We already looked at how we can discover our values through our ‘peak experiences’. Moments of great joy and resonance. A feeling of being truly alive and truly ourselves. Surprisingly, we can also use moments of great upset and anger to discover our values.
A lot of the time, when we have such negative experiences, we ignore, avoid thinking about or get too absorbed in our emotions. But there is value in digging deeper into our reactions and reflect on what about that experience was really causing us upset.
Let’s imagine a young woman by the name of Jane. She really wants to pursue freelance journalism as a career but her parents are not happy with this idea. They insist that she finds a stable job at a bank with a stable income and avoid taking any perceived risks in her career. Jane is greatly upset about the situation. She’s obviously upset because forcing anyone to do something tends to have that effect. But if we look a bit deeper, we might discover that "security" is not what she's looking for in her life. She is the type of person who loves to experience new things, explore and loves the challenge of the unknown.
Having a secure job doesn't honour who she really is. Her parents’ suggestion doesn’t sit well with her because she values "exploration" much more than “security”.
So let’s try the exercise together now. Think of a time when someone did something that really pissed you off. More pissed off perhaps than an average person would be in that situation. What was it? What triggered that anger? What values of yours do you think were not being honoured at that moment?
3. Other experiences
So we’ve looked at how moments of great emotional intensity or resonance (whether positive or negative) can be great starting points to finding out what our values are. But they aren’t the only ways.
As we’ve discussed already, values are what make us who we are. As such, they are reflected in every single part of our lives. In the movies we love. In the music we like to listen to. In the places we like to go on holiday and in the things we like to do once we are there. Even in the way we choose to dress.
Let’s explore the example of choice of clothing. I have a “friend” who likes to dress well. Appearances matter a lot for him. He doesn’t necessarily go after expensive clothing and shies away from the latest fashion trends, but he always likes to make himself presentable. Perhaps he values “beauty”. He’s not flamboyantly dressed, though. He could be honouring “tradition” or “timeless” or “understated”. And perhaps there’s a value that’s being honoured in how others perceive him when he dresses well.
There are a lot of clues here, even in what might seem like a shallow area such as the way we dress, with which we can explore further some of our key values. Sometimes, looking at less “serious” areas of our lives can prove just as fruitful as more intense areas.
I want to emphasise here that it’s important not to judge our values. There is a temptation to want what may be considered “nobler” values, like “love”, “self-sacrifice” or “family”. We may also find that, due to our upbringing (societal, family, religious), we have lost touch with our own individual values. So sometimes I have to work with my clients to dig deeper and embrace their values without judgment, whether the values are “modesty” or “luxury”.
That said, values are not necessarily expressed in the healthiest of ways. You know that “friend” I mentioned before, one of whose values may be “beauty”? His value of beauty, if expressed in unhealthy and unbalanced ways may come out as “vanity” or “pride”.
I believe that discovering our values is one of the key first steps to leading happier lives of purpose. What follows then is an exciting lifelong journey of making decisions that allow us to live lives that honour those values and express them in healthy ways.