As a life strategist, I’ve come to appreciate the power of values.
I’ve observed that individuals experience greater fulfillment when they live in accordance with their values. And when individuals don’t honor their values, they don’t feel too good.
I’ve noted this in my own life as well.
Why Are Core Values Important?
Values are a part of what we are. They highlight what we stand for. They can represent our unique, individual essence. They guide our behavior, providing us with a personal code of conduct.
When we honor our personal core values consistently, we feel fulfilled. When we don’t, we feel incongruent and are more likely to escape into bad habits to feel better.
Knowing Your Values Changes Your Behavior
I still remember going through my first values discovery process when I was 22. I was attending an intensive 4-day seminar devoted to learning about what drives you. Core values were a central theme of the event.
One value that quickly rose to the top of my list was health. Physical health, energy, and vitality were and are very important to me. I spent a great deal of my childhood sick, and I saw how it affected my development and life experiences in deleterious ways.
I was committed to cultivating a strong foundation for my physical health and wellbeing in adulthood.
Clarifying this value as a top priority shifted many things in my young life. It influenced what I ate, drank, read, and did.
When you strongly value health, you don’t have to wrestle with your will as much. If you know a particular food or activity isn’t good for your body, you simply don’t want it.
I made a practice of paying attention to how different foods made me feel after I ate them. If something made me sleepy or drained my energy, I took note.
I consciously sought to create a way of being that supported a healthy, energizing lifestyle.
Many people highly value comfort. Consider what happens when you value comfort over your health and you’ll begin to appreciate the power values hold in your life.
Discovering Your Personal Core Values
The challenge is that most of us are not clear about our values. We don’t consciously know what’s most important to us. Instead, we are more focused on what our society, culture, and media values.
Can you clearly articulate your top 5 to 10 values that are most important to you?
Without undergoing a discovery process, it’s challenging to know your personal core values. It’s easy to intellectualize and idealize what you should value. But knowing and accepting what you do value takes effort.
While the following process is best done with a qualified coach, you can do it on your own if you apply self-honesty, patience, and determination.
Ready? Take out your journal, a notepad, or a note-taking app. And let’s get started.
Here are 7 steps to creating distinct and meaningful core values that will serve you in every area of your life and work:
STEP 1: Start with a Beginner’s Mind
It’s too easy to presume that we know the answer at the start and to, therefore, never truly embark on a creative, personal discovery process.
Adopting the mind of a beginner—someone without any preconceived notions of what is—gives you access to inner truths to which your conscious mind is yet unaware.
Simply take a deep breath and momentarily empty your mind. Remember that your conscious mind doesn’t know all of the answers. Create a space for new insights and revelations to emerge.
STEP 2: Create Your List of Personal Values
Arriving at a concise and short list of values can be a daunting task. You can find lists online with almost 400 values to choose from. However, I don’t advise using any predetermined lists.
Why? Values aren’t selected; they are discovered and revealed. If you start with a list, your conscious mind will begin evaluating which values are “better” than others.
That said, if you’re not familiar with working with values, you may want to quickly scan a list of values to get a sense of your range of options.
For example, here is a list of core values that start with the letter “C”:
To help you uncover your own personal core values, here are three processes you can try:
1) Peak Experiences
Think of a meaningful or rewarding moment in time—a peak experience that stands out in your mind. What was happening to you? What was going on? What values were you honoring in that moment?
2) Suppressed Values
Now, go in the opposite direction; consider a time when you felt angry, frustrated, or deeply upset. What was going on? What exactly were you feeling? Now flip those feelings around. What value is being suppressed?
3) Code of Conduct
What must you have in your life? Beyond your basic human needs, what must you have in your life in order to be fulfilled? Creative self-expression? A strong level of health and vitality? A sense of excitement and adventure? Being surrounded by beauty? Always learning? What are the values that you must honor or a part of you withers?
STEP 3: Chunk Your Values into Related Groups
Combining all of the answers from step 2, you now have a master list of values. If you take this process seriously, you may have between 20 and 50 values.
Obviously, that’s far too many to be actionable and memorable.
Your next step is to group these values under related themes.
Values like accountability, responsibility, and timeliness are all related. Values like learning, growth, and development are related. Connection, belonging, and intimacy are, too. Group them together.
STEP 4: Highlight the Central Theme of Each Value Group
If you have a group of values that include honesty, transparency, integrity, candor, directness, and truth, select a word that you feel best represents the group.
For example, integrity might work as a central theme for the values I just listed.
You can keep the other words in the group in parentheses to give your primary value more context. You’ll use them again in step 6.
STEP 5: Determine Your Top Personal Core Values
Now comes the hardest part. After completing step 4, you still may have a sizable list of values. Here are a few questions to help you whittle your list down:
- What values are absolutely essential to your life?
- What values represent your primary way of being in the world?
- What values are essential to supporting your inner self?
You can’t be all things to all people. You are unique. You have certain strengths and weaknesses. Your values are what matters most to you.
How many core values should you end up with? Too few and you won’t capture all of the unique dimensions of your being. Too many and you’ll have trouble remembering them and keeping them functional.
While the number of core values differs for each person, the magic range seems to be between 5 and 10.
Rank them in the order of importance. This is generally the most challenging part of the process, so please be patient with yourself.
You may need to do this step in multiple sittings. After doing one round of ranking, put it aside and “sleep on it.”
Revisit your ranking the next day and see how you feel. Then, go through the process again.
STEP 6: Give Your Core Values Richer Context
Now, creativity really comes into play.
Highlighting values into memorable phrases or sentences helps you articulate the meaning behind each value. It gives you the opportunity to make the value more emotional and memorable.
Here are a few tips and guidelines for crafting your values statements:
- Use inspiring words and vocabulary. Our brains are quick to delete or ignore the mundane and commonplace.
- Mine for words that evoke and trigger emotional responses. They will be more meaningful and memorable.
- Play to your strengths in crafting your values.
- Make your value statements rich and meaningful to you so they inspire you to uphold them.
You could use other words from the groupings you made in step 3 in your description.
For example, let’s say you’ve identified a core value of health to represent other values, like energy and vitality.
Your values statement might be: “Health: to live with full vitality and energy every day.”
STEP 7: Test the Ecology of Each Value
Once you’ve finalized your list of core values, walk away from them and revisit them the next day after a good night’s sleep. Review your list:
- How do they make you feel?
- Do you feel they are consistent with who you are?
- Are they personal to you?
- Do you see any values that feel inconsistent with your identity (as if they belong to someone else, like an authority figure or society) and not you?
- Check your priority ranking. Do you feel like your values are in the proper order of importance?
Nothing is set in stone. Feel free to make any tweaks and changes as necessary.
Are You Living Your Core Values?
Now that you have a prioritized list of your top 5 to 10 core values, let’s see how well you’re living them.
Assess how well you’re honoring each value by scoring each one on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 represents optimally living the value.
What’s your level of satisfaction with each value?
Record your score for each. You can set up a table in Excel or on Google Drive.
Put a date at the top of the column. Repeat this exercise once a month or quarter to assess your progress.
If you score below 7 in a particular value, what changes do you need to make? What has to happen for you to better honor this value in your life?
Here’s where self-coaching comes into play. Define your goals. Create a plan. Actualize it.
Check in with your values again. Notice if you feel a difference in your level of fulfillment in life.
How to Use Your Core Values to Make Decisions
Knowing your personal core values and their order of priority is incredibly helpful in making difficult decisions.
Start by scoring your values as described above. Then, imagine your life several months or years in the future having made the decision.
For example, what will your life be like having started a new business or a family?
Step into this future picture as much as you can. Have it come alive in your mind.
Now, score your values while keeping the vision alive in your mind. Does making the decision elevate your values score? Does it cause friction with one of your higher values?
This process will help bring a new level of clarity to your decision-making process.
P.S. If you’re a business leader or an entrepreneur, be sure to check out The Ultimate Business Course on Core Values on the Cult Branding Blog. It’s an in-depth article and workshop to help you establish core values to create a thriving, unified culture.