We all operate based upon a set of values that guide our behavior.
A set of things that we think are important in the way that we live our lives and interact with others.
However, for many of us, and myself included at one point, our values can live in our subconscious. Or at least not intentionally be ordered and prioritized.
And when we’re living and working out of alignment with our core values, whether they’ve been consciously defined our not, it can often lead to a feeling of being lost in life. Like something is not quite right, but we don’t know what, and we don’t know why.
So throughout this article, I’m going to talk about why defining your values is an essential starting point to finding your best fit work.
From there, I’ll walk through a few exercises that you can go through to define your values for yourself. Let’s get started.
Why Defining Your Values is Important
For many of us, our natural instinct is to want to the pick a work path that provides the most opportunity for money, status, and upward mobility.
And that’s fine if those are things that you truly value.
But money and status tend to be more extrinsic motivators. And often, when truly evaluated, are not at the top of most people’s core values list once our basic needs in those areas are met.
Now, to reiterate, the pursuit of money and status are perfectly normal and fine things to do. But when they tend to get problematic is when we pursue them in such a way that we can’t live a life according to our core values.
For example, you may go through one of the recommended exercises below and come to find that autonomy is the thing that you value more than anything else.
However, if that’s true for you, but you’re also a lawyer that is on that path because you can make a lot of money, it’s likely that you’re going to be miserable.
The reason that you’re likely to be miserable is because lawyers tend to make money based upon the billable hour. Meaning that income is a function of time. And if you want to maximize your income, then you need to put in more hours (and lawyers are notorious for working loads of hours), thus limiting your personal autonomy.
So an essential part of feeling like you’re in your best fit work is that it must align with your core values. And defining your core values helps to frame the type of work that you are likely to enjoy.
In fact, I believe it’s the core starting point of defining the type of life that you want to live, and thus the type of work that you want to do.
With that context in mind, let’s dive into some exercises that you can use to clarify and prioritize your own personal values.
Three Great Exercises for Defining Your Personal Values
1. Personal Values Card Sort
In my experience, the best method for defining your personal values is a value card sort exercise.
At a high-level, all you do is look at a list of possible values, and then prioritize them based upon what is the most important to you.
It sounds simple, but I find it to be quite eye opening to go through the process of actually intentionally making decisions between a set of values to determine what is the most important to you.
The best resource that I’ve found to complete this exercise is the Personal Values Card Sort by W.R. Miller, J. C’de Baca, D.B. Matthews, P.L. Wilbourne from the University of New Mexico.
You can find the instructions for their value card sort here.
Now, the exercise is more built to be done in-person with a dedicated counselor, and I unfortunately haven’t found a great tool to enable you to do it online.
However, here is a recommendation for a quick way to work through the online PDF on your own and without having to print everything and/or work with a career counselor:
- Grab a pen and paper
- Go through the list of values in the PDF and write down anything that you would consider “very important” values to you.
- Once you have your list, distill it down to no more than 10 values by crossing out anything you don’t think would be in your top 10.
- When you have your list down to 10 or less, go to this prioritization tool, and input and prioritize your list according to the instructions.
- Once complete, you’ll have a list of your most important values
A screenshot how the output should look (using sample data) is below:
2. Listing and Ordering Your Top of Mind Values
The second exercise here is similar to the first, but quicker and simpler. If you’re looking for a quick and dirty you can use this exercise rather than the first (but I would recommend doing the value card sort instead if you have the time).
Basically, all you do is take a pen and paper, sit down for five minutes, and write down all of the most important values that you care about.
Just write down the ones that come to mind during that time, no need to overthink it.
The idea is that the ones that immediately jump to mind without much thought are going to be the ones that you find to be more important.
Once you have a list, then take five minutes to review your list and put a checkmark next to your five most important values.
Once you complete that quick exercise, you’ll have a list of your most important values.
If you want, you can quickly rank order the top five to assess which of those are the most important. But I find just knowing the top five is enough to help provide some high level direction for what you want to pursue in your life and work.
This article here by Julian Shapiro provides a nice review of how he walked through this exercise to help make a key life decision about what he wants to focus on.
3. Determining Who You Admire & What Causes You To Take Action
There is an article by SoulSalt that has a couple of the more unique exercises to defining your values that I’ve come across.
My recommendation here would be do one of the first two exercises and then compliment them with the exercises here. These offer a different approach than the first two and could potentially trigger you to think of some values you hadn’t previously considered.
The first exercise is to think of who you admire.
What you want to do here is to think about positive role models that inspire you.
From there, you list what it is about that person that inspires you, their admirable qualities, and what you would like to emulate.
From your lists, you extract the values embedded within.
To be honest, I went through this exercise and found it interesting, but not particularly helpful for me personally.
Ultimately, what I found was that I had a lot of wonderful people whom I admired a lot and they had a lot of wonderful qualities.
But just because I admired them, it doesn’t mean that their values were my own values.
I found that I can really respect someone for a certain trait, but also recognize that’s not who I am and I shouldn’t expect to necessarily have that trait myself.
That said, I did find it to be a unique and interesting exercise, and could totally see how it could be helpful for people, so I wanted to call it out here.
The other valuable exercise from that article is to think about what inspires you to take action.
So basically what you do here is just think about a situation where you felt so strongly that you took a stand on something.
Generally, the best issues here are ones where it was uncomfortable, or you stood to lose something by speaking out.
In those cases, that’s an indication that you placed such a high value on something that you were willing to put yourself at risk to advocate for that value.
To me, that is a very powerful statement that you value something very deeply if you’re willing to step out like that. So this exercise is one that I like and definitely recommend that you go through to help define your own values.
Note that on inspires you to take action exercise, it’s perfectly ok if you haven’t had something that inspired you to take a risky action before. Not all of us may have had an experience like that and, if you haven’t then just skip past this exercise.
Evaluating Your Personal Values
Now that you have your list of values, the final step is to, as Tim Urban from Wait But Why says, “Search for Imposters.”
Basically, what that means is that you want to go back through your list of values, and determine why you value each of those things.
The goal is to figure out if each of your most important values are truly your values. Things that you yourself value intrinsically.
If you come to find that something on your list is a value that you’ve internalized from somebody else, then that would be an imposter and you may want to eliminate it.
Anit Amini offers a great method for searching for imposters in the “Ranking Our Drivers” section of her Power of Knowing What You Want course.
She suggests that you associate each of your top values with one of the following groups, based upon who or what is motivating you to have it on your list:
- Your parents
- Your friends
- Your partner
Any of those that are not your own, should be removed from your list.
This exercise helped me when going through possible values that came out of the “who you admire” section above. It helped me discovered that even though I respected many of the values that came from the people they admired, they were not necessarily my own and so did not make my own personal list.
Identifying your personal values is the critical starting point for discovering your best fit work. Heck, for ordering your life more generally.
It can help provide direction, as well as help you to understand why you may feel may struggling with feeling lost in your life.
There are multiple methods that can help you to identify and order your values. And once you’ve gone through them, make sure to evaluate that the values are truly your own.
From the place of knowing your core values, you can then go out and find the work and build the life that you truly want for yourself.