core calues

As the Greek philosopher and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Plutarch, said, “If the ‘Know Thyself’ of the oracle were an easy thing, it would not be held to be a divine injunction.” Knowing what really floats our boat can be tricky.

Are we allowing other people to “should on us?” Are our values truly our own or what we feel others think we should care about? Are these my internal “bone-deep” beliefs or external “should” values? We may not recognize a lifetime of conditioning that’s left us with other people’s values.

Since our core values are unique to each of us, how we clarify what we value most is unique to each of us. Here’s a menu of ideas, suggestions, and approaches to help blaze your own pathways to authentic living and leading from the inside out:

  • As outlined in The Ying Yang of Vision and Values, we all have a hierarchy of values. One approach to clarifying your core values is to list everything you value. This might include career, family, learning, achievement, sports, wealth, socializing, inner peace, happiness, status, awards or credentials, autonomy, love, expertise, cuisine, artistic expression, home, making a difference, authenticity, friendships, travel, adventure, spirituality; list everything that is important to you. Cluster all your similar values until you have three to five groups. Put a heading or title on each group. Write a sentence or short paragraph defining each cluster. Examples of cluster headings could be Personal Growth, Career, Spiritual, Social Life, Well-Being, Family, or Financial. These are your core values. They’re the hub of your being.
  • Examine each core value to ensure that it is your end value and not a means to some other end. For example, wealth is seldom a value in itself. It’s usually the means to status, power, security, recognition, freedom, accomplishment, pleasure, helping others, or some other end value.
  • What are you most grateful for? What does that say about your values?
  • Through study, mediation, contemplation, talking with close and trusted friends, talking with your significant other, keeping a journal, personal development exercises, or whatever works for you, identify your four to five top principles. It can be well worth the time to agonize over writing and wordsmithing a paragraph to a page for each value. That will force you to further sharpen and clarify your thinking.
  • Have a few close friends, your manager, or your spouse give you their A, B, C ranking of what they think your priorities are on your values hierarchy. Ask them to rate your values according to what they think you value, not their own values. Discussing the reasons for their choices with each of them can be a very rich source of feedback. It’s also a great external perception of what your behavior says about what you value most.
  • Practice meditation or solitude to quiet all your external chatter and listen to your voice within. Where is your heart telling you to go? Your purpose and fulfillment are down that path.
  • Along with your joint visioning exercise, you might also go through this values clarification exercise with your spouse or partner.
  • The VIA Institute On Character provides a complementary, highly validated self-assessment with its VIA Survey. This 15-minute survey helps you rank your hierarchy of “Values in Action” around 24-character strengths clustered by six broad virtue categories. They’ll send you a personalized report with tips to maximize living and leveraging your top values/strengths.

Alignment Check: Living Your Core Values

  • Are you energized and excited or enervated and stressed by your upcoming schedule? How aligned is your schedule with your values? Do your personal and professional activities line up to your values in the right proportions, or has life slipped out of balance? Have you allowed today’s urgencies to crowd out what’s most important in your life?
  • Are core values consistent with your vision?
  • Are your current values aligned with your work? There’s a direct relationship between levels of work satisfaction and personal values. If there’s a misalignment and energy drain, you likely need to make changes to your work (such as developing new skills or taking on new assignments) or change your work.
  • Look back at key decisions and choices you’ve made. Were they consistent with your core values? If you had to make those choices again, would you make them differently now according to the core values you’re clarifying/revitalizing?
  • Use a priority and goal-setting system and a disciplined time management process to allocate your time according to your values.
  • Your values and priorities will change as you move through different stages of your life. It’s one of the reasons that regular vision, values, and personal development time is so useful.
  • Are you contributing to authentic conversations in an authentic workplace? Are you helping others (especially your peers and those above you) to address the Moose-on-the-Table.

Knowing ourselves is a lifelong quest. Coupled with visioning, we can become our own fortune teller. When done with self-compassion, we can avoid von Goethe’s predicament, “‘Know thyself’? If I knew myself, I’d run away.”