Your values affect every aspect of your life. When you feel stuck, they can help get you out of a rut; when you’re not sure what to do next, values help lead the way toward a meaningful life. There’s only one problem: Many of us draw a blank when it comes to actually defining our values.
That’s partly because values are complex. They are collection of your personal experiences, trials, and triumphs, along with everything that’s influenced your belief system. This includes your friends, family, culture, and education to name a few. Even the books you read and the entertainment you consume actively shape how you define yourself in relation to the outside world.
When I work with clients, it’s my job to help them articulate exactly what drives them. A vague understanding won’t suffice here; we need to really dig in and undertake a discovery process. Ultimately, the work — which has the power to impact the rest of your life — is well worth it.
4 proven ways to discover and define your values
To help you get started, here are four strategies to begin the process of discovering and defining your values.
1. Find what makes you happy with a values assessment
There are a number of different questionnaires that can help you articulate your values. The one I recommend the most is 15-minute Values in Action (VIA) Survey. Unlike other assessments, the VIA is grounded in decades of research and highlights positive traits as opposed to harping on weaknesses. In other words, it help you embrace great qualities you never even knew you had.
After taking the VIA, one my clients, Jean, was delighted to find out Beauty was one her top values. She finally understood why her drab cubicle left her feeling anxious and depleted while others around her seemed less affected. With this new self-awareness, Jean put her value into action by spending more time in nature and at museums, adding greenery to her workspace, and generally investing more time in appreciating the beauty around her. They were simple changes, but they produced a massive shift in her happiness.
2. Explore past experiences for answers
As you consider what’s important to you and what actions propel your long-term ambitions, you have an entire lifetime of experiences to mine for data.
Try asking yourself questions like:
- What are my most redeeming qualities?
- What types of environments inspire my best work or feelings of satisfaction?
- What, if I had my choice, would I never do again if I didn’t have to?
- What do I consider my peak experiences? How, if at all, are they linked?
When you self-reflect, look for central themes and patterns that emerge. Don’t underestimate the power of looking back to power the forward.
3. Use a word inventory tool to clarify and categorize values
It’s difficult to define core values off the top of our heads because we don’t always have a great vocabulary to do so. That’s where a word inventory comes in. Using the long list of common values, circle the words that pop out to you. Once you’ve done that, you can go a step further and group any values that seem similar.
Are these values that you’re implementing in your current everyday life? If not, what habits need to change? What actions do you need to take to find greater alignment?
4. Watch how you spend your time
Your priorities are a reflection of what you value. By watching how you spend your time, you can get a grasp on what you put first day after day.
For instance, if you clock 14-hour days at the office, there’s a good chance that values associated with professionalism and personal growth make your list. If you consistently make time for your significant other or a close group of friends, your values probably skew towards connection and intimacy.
It’s important to remember that your values aren’t fixed. They change over time, sometimes crystallizing more sharply or sometimes shifting into new territory. If you’re feeling stuck, it’s worthwhile to retest your values using these exercises and watch for new patterns.
Once you’ve defined your values, you’re armed with a brand new tool to measure your actions and priorities. Decisions will come easier, and you’ll be able to say “no” (guilt-free) to the things that aren’t important, and confidently say “yes” to the things that do matter.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.