Your values are at the core of who you are. They influence the decisions you make in your life and, therefore, the path on which you find yourself. They develop over time and become ingrained. They may morph as you have new experiences, and sometimes one or more of your values may take a backseat to others. The more aware you are of your values, the more insights you will have into your needs and motivations.
Recently, reflecting on my values led me to a strong desire to reconnect with several of them, particularly FREEDOM. Now my husband and I are planning a year-long sabbatical, days on end of adventure and time to do so many of the things we have talked about doing for years.
Once you identify and articulate your values, it suddenly becomes easier to do a lot of other things, like making big changes (sabbatical, anyone?). But also defining goals and priorities, prioritizing commitments, even finding the right job. Most of my values overlap with the values of the organization for which I work, and that’s why I have stayed for nearly a decade.
The process described here will help you identify your top five core values. It’s a great process to go through with your team at work, with your spouse, your friends, your kids. Knowing another’s values helps you understand what motivates them so that you connect in a meaningful way.
The process described below is adapted from the Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner if you want more information.
Step 1: Sort values by importance
Look through the following list of values and divide them into three categories: Important, Somewhat important, Not very important. If there is a value that you hold as important that is not listed, write it down on your list. Set a timer and only give yourself 5 minutes to do this exercise. The point is to do it without giving it too much thought; use your gut response. If it’s easier, print them out as little cards you can flip through.
- Risk Taking
Step 2: Narrow down the Important values
Take the important values and sort them into those you can’t live without and those that you can. Take only 2 or 3 minutes this time.
You may find that you can give up one value because it is captured by another. For example, I had both open-mindedness and equity, but I felt like open-mindedness was related to equity, so I let open-mindedness go at this point and kept equity.
Step 3: Choose your top 10
Take the final group of important values and narrow them down to the top 10 that most resonate with you. Again, you will find that you can capture some values with others, and then it’s easier to let some go. Just a few minutes for this step.
Step 4: Choose Your Top 5 (or 6 in my case)
Narrow the ten down to five, or six if you must. Another few minutes. Now you have your core values, those that define how you see your world and your place in it.
My Core Values
Step 5: Reflect, and confirm your values
The next step is to reflect on those values and confirm that they really feel right. You can always refine them if not. Think of five to ten pivotal moments, trends, events, or decisions in your life.
Consider the span of your lifetime, but make sure that you think about recent experiences, not just ones from a long time ago. I find the most clarity about what I value when I reflect on moments of intense stress or joy, but you should be able to identify your values even in the more mundane stories of everyday life.
Answer these questions.
How did you feel during the experiences you chose? What key words or themes do you see? What makes those moments or decisions so important that you chose them? What were your motivations at the time the events occurred? How did you respond? How do you feel thinking about those moments or decisions now?
If the themes that arise when you reflect on these times in your life line up with the values you chose, you are probably right on. If something new arises, you may consider amending your values. I added a sixth just this moment in reflecting on my own stories again.
Here are a few of my own experiences, with some key words highlighted, which helped me identify corresponding values and themes:
- When I was a teenager, I got locked out of my car while I was volunteering at a homeless shelter. I was crying when some of the residents approached me and offered to help. I’ll never forget the profound sense of gratitude that I had for those men, or the lesson that I learned about kindness and service to others. I was there to help them, and they ended up helping me in ways that have shaped who I am for more than twenty-five years.
- As I was approaching college graduation, I made the bold decision to move from my home state of Texas to Boston, Mass. I didn’t have a job lined up. I didn’t have any friends there. I sent fifty letters to arts organizations asking if they would take me on as an intern, and one did, so I packed my VW Jetta and drove across the country with a few thousand dollars and a sense of adventure. My family thought I would be back home within a year or two, but I wanted to live my own life by my own rules. I ended up staying for almost 8 years, going to graduate school, meeting my future husband, and making some of the best friends of my life.
- My first serious love was a military man that I met through some of my community work in Boston. Sometimes someone comes into your life with whom you connect in a way that no one else can understand, even yourself sometimes. But it’s powerful and it’s meaningful and you would do anything for that person. I felt a deep sense of commitment to this person who made me laugh ALL THE TIME, who seemed to understand me in a way no one else did and vice versa. He was deployed to Iraq before ever expressing the same sense of commitment that I felt, and things ended. Ironically, some good friends that he introduced me to before he deployed eventually introduced me to my husband. Maybe things happen for a reason.
- One of my first jobs in Colorado was working for the State of Colorado on an education initiative to promote college to students throughout the state. I loved traveling around the state, meeting all types of people, talking to young people and their parents about their potential. I believe education is the most transformational process we can experience and the one that can break a lot of terrible cycles in our society (poverty, crime, ignorance, injustice). I am VERY passionate about this work. One day, in discussing an important decision about the program, my boss uttered “screw the kids.” As long as there are people in power who lack the compassion and fortitude to do what is right, I will be fighting for equity.
- I surround myself with people who share a common goal or passion, people who love to laugh, people who work hard and recognize the hard work of others, people who feel a commitment to others, people I respect and learn from, people who ultimately are my family. I became involved in the theatre in high school and again in college because it offered a chance to be accepted by a fascinating group of diverse and creative individuals. We worked together–actors, crew, stage managers, directors–to produce something new that would inspire people, and we had a blast doing it. When I transitioned to another career, I jumped around every few years until I landed in a job that offered an opportunity to experience that same team dynamic toward achieving a community service mission. I’ve been with the Denver Scholarship Foundation for almost ten years. Being a part of close-knit group is important to me.
- Recently I decided to take a year off of work and reconnect with myself, my husband and some of my values that I haven’t paid much attention to in a meaningful way lately. For the last ten years or so, I have been very focused on equity and responsibility via my work in social justice and education. On sabbatical, I look forward to embracing my freedom and sense of adventure, the fun and humor in every situation, and overwhelming kindness to myself and others that I meet along the way. This process of planning for sabbatical is reminding me who I am at my core and helping me to find new ways to express that to the world.