How well do you know your values? Chances are not as well as you think, or at least not as well as you could…
Values are like a map for life: they help us navigate the many difficulties and obstacles of life so we can reach our destination and goals, whatever those might be.
Unfortunately, many of us end up trying to get through life without a map. We tend to wing it when faced with difficult circumstances—going with our gut and hoping for the best.
The problem is, whether it’s resisting the temptation of junk food or deciding whether to get married or not, going with your gut can easily lead to regrettable decisions.
Values are the solution.
Values are guiding principles that help you make good decisions in the face of uncertainty or powerful emotions like fear or anger.
Getting to know your values is like discovering a map when you’re lost in the wilderness. It won’t magically solve all your problems, but it will help you navigate them with confidence and skill.
In the rest of this guide we’ll explore what values really are, why it’s important to clarify your personal values, and then look at some practical techniques you can use to do just that.
Table of Contents
Feel free to jump straight to any section of the guide using the links below:
- What are personal values?
- Why values are important: 6 very good reasons to get to know your values better
- How to discover and clarify your values: 7 practical exercises
What are personal values?
Values are the ideals we strive to live by, especially when times are tough.
While this guide is primarily focused on personal values let’s start by clarifying what we mean by values generally…
What are values, exactly?
Values are easier to understand if we begin with a specific example:
Courage is a value many people share. It’s something most of us would agree is a good thing. It’s an aspiration or ideal we strive toward, even if we don’t always live up to it. If you asked a thousand people whether they would like to be more courageous, it’s hard to imagine many of them saying no!
But values like courage also serve as guiding principles for our behavior, especially when strong emotions like fear or shame are involved.
For example, suppose your boss at work asks for volunteers to head up a new project. The project sounds exciting but you’re also a little afraid of taking it on (“What if I’m out of my depth and I end up making a fool of myself?”)
In this case, your value of courage might be a helpful guide suggesting that even though you feel afraid, taking on the project would be a good thing overall so you should go for it anyway.
Here’s a good working definition for values:
Values are ideals that guide our behavior, especially in difficult situations.
And while we typically associate the term values with big universal ideals like courage, compassion, or honesty, values can also be much smaller and more specific to our own individual lives. Which brings us to the idea of personal values…
What are personal values?
Let’s start with another example:
I personally value curiosity, especially intellectual curiosity.
I love learning and learning about new ideas. It’s thrilling for me to get introduced to a new concept or way of looking at things that I hadn’t known before.
I’ve also found curiosity useful in my life as a guide for my behavior. Following my curiosity has led me to meet wonderful people, have some amazing experiences, and it also helps me a lot in my work as a therapist.
But here’s an even smaller, more unique example of a personal value…
I was talking to a client recently about her personal values and she said something fascinating:
This probably sounds silly, but playfulness is a really important value for me. Over the years, I’ve just discovered that not only is it really fun to be playful—even as an adult!—but good things tend to happen when I allow more playfulness in my life. I think it helps me be more honest, for example, especially with important people in my life. It also helps me be more honest with myself—it reminds me of the things that really matter to me, not just what I think should matter because of what other people like or value.
I thought this was such an awesome example of a personal value!
Like curiosity, playfulness isn’t necessarily going to make it on any top 5 most important values to live by lists because it’s hard to see it replacing any of those big, universal values like kindness, honesty, bravery, etc. as the most important.
But that’s okay because even though some values may be grand and universal, they don’t have to be.
Just because playfulness isn’t an especially important value for me, it clearly was for my client. And the fact that she understood that and appreciated that was incredibly beneficial for her.
While there may well be universal values that everybody agrees are good and useful (e.g.: kindness), something can still be a value for you even if other people don’t see it that way. That’s the basic idea behind personal values.
Personal values are simply values that are specific to you and your life—ideals that help guide you toward your best life.
The importance of personal values: 6 reasons why you should get to know your values better
There are many benefits that go along with getting to know your personal values. In this section, I’m going to highlight a handful of them that have the biggest impact on emotional health and wellbeing:
1. Feel more confident
One of the root causes of low self-confidence is when we constantly look to other people and things for what we should want, what we should do, or even, who we should become. When this pattern becomes a habit, we begin to feel insecure because we don’t trust ourselves to determine what we really want in life.
But when you learn to clarify your personal values, you begin to build trust in yourself. And once you start to trust yourself more, confidence won’t be far behind.
2. Improve your relationships
The most underrated aspect of healthy relationships is assertiveness—the capacity to honestly and respectfully communicate what you want and what you don’t want. But communicating your wants and needs assertively can be quite challenging!
One of the biggest obstacles to assertiveness is lack of clarity about our personal values. If you think about it, of course it’s hard to communicate what you want if you don’t make time to really know your values!
Once you become better at clarifying your personal values, assertiveness becomes much easier and relationships tend to improve substantially as a result.
3. Stop procrastinating so much
We all procrastinate sometimes. In fact, to some extent, procrastination is a normal and even healthy phenomenon because it can be a sign that you’re not working on the right things.
Obviously, we all have to do some work that we don’t like or enjoy or find meaningful sometimes. But when you start spending most of your time doing work that doesn’t matter to you, procrastination can be your mind’s way of shaking you and asking, “Hey is this really what you want to be doing?”
Discovering and clarifying your personal values helps you understand what kind of work really matters to you. And when you start spending more time on the stuff that really matters, procrastination has a way of taking care of itself.
4. Worry less
One of the most powerful ways to undo the habit of worry and feel less anxious all the time is to “outcompete it” with your values.
See, worries exert a kind of gravity on our attention, which is why it’s so hard to let them go. One of the best ways to not get sucked into spirals of worry and anxiety is to have clear, compelling alternatives for our attention to focus on. Which is where values come in…
If you’ve spent time discovering and clarifying your values—the things that matter most to you in life—they will naturally draw your attention toward them and away from worry. When you know your values, it’s like adding a couple extra people to your tug-o-war team!
5. Find more joy in life
Maybe this sounds obvious, but I think one of the reasons people are often so unhappy is because they don’t have much joy in their lives. And while there can be many reasons for this, here’s an idea that I think doesn’t get talked enough about: Joy doesn’t just happen; you have to actively cultivate it.
And one of the most important parts of cultivating joy comes down to whether you know your values or not. If joy comes in part from moving toward your values, that’s awfully hard to do if you don’t know which direction to reach!
When we make time to intentionally reflect on and clarify our personal values, we set the stage for more joy and happiness in our life.
6. Stick to your goals
We all have goals. Sometimes they’re very small (wash the dishes as soon as we’re done with dinner) and sometimes they’re much bigger (lose 20 pounds, be a better husband).
And as most of us can relate to, sticking with our goals—even the very small ones—can be a challenge. And one of the biggest but most underappreciated reasons why is that our personal values behind the goals aren’t clear enough.
Clear, well-defined personal values supercharge your motivation to go after and stick to your goals.
Here’s a simple example: If your goal is to exercise four times per week, which of the following values is more motivating:
- So I’m healthy enough to run around and play with my kids without getting winded in 30 seconds.
Obviously the #2!
So, one of the great benefits of discovering and clarifying your values is that they improve motivation to reach your goals and stick with them.
But how do I actually discover my personal values?
Now that we’ve talked about what personal values are and why it’s important to know your values, let’s move on to the main event and look at some practical strategies for discovering and clarifying those values.
7 Practical Exercises to Help You Know Your Values Better
Like in most areas of life, insight is necessary but not sufficient for change. A good amount of action is usually required too!
So, if you’re really serious about getting to know your values better, read through the following techniques, find one that seems interesting or most applicable, and then commit to actually trying it out.
Here are a few ways to know your values better:
Flip Your Frustrations
Often we end up avoiding our frustrations because they are… well… frustrating!
But here’s the thing: even though it can be difficult to face up to and explore our frustrations, they often contain very useful information.
When we’re frustrated by someone or something, it’s usually because, on some level, we are being thwarted from something.
Here’s a concrete example:
You get frustrated at your manager who drones on and on during weekly meetings, preventing your team from being productive and solving real problems in a timely way. Exploring this frustration could be useful because it might be telling you that efficiency is an important value for you. Perhaps so much so that it might be worth looking into switching to a new department or even company that shared that value more.
If you’re having trouble identifying your personal values, try flipping your frustrations:
- Make a list of 10-20 things that frequently frustrate you in your life.
- For each frustration, ask yourself, What goal am I being thwarted from achieving? and then write that down.
- Finally, for each goal, ask yourself What might this tell me about my values?
A personal value doesn’t have to be valuable to other people—just to you!
The reason many people struggle to identify their values is because they don’t think they’re valid or important enough. Or they think it’s silly that they get so frustrated or worked up about something “small” or “unimportant.”
Instead, try respecting those “little” preferences and see what they can tell you about getting to know your values.
Write Down Your Bucket List
Chances are you’re familiar with the concept of a bucket list. Basically, it’s the list of things you want to do before you die (before you “kick the bucket” as they say).
- Run a marathon
- Reconnect with my estranged brother
- Speak Italian fluently
- Learn to play the guitar
- Visit Machu Picchu
- Start my own business
- Write a novel
Now, the funny thing about bucket lists is, while just about everyone has heard of one—and gets excited about theirs—almost no one has actually written one out!
Isn’t it strange that most of us haven’t taken the time to simply write down the things we want to do in life more than anything else?!!
Well, like most challenges, the fact that you likely haven’t actually created a bucket list may just be an opportunity in disguise…
And the reason: Creating your bucket list is a powerful way to uncover and get to know your values!
For example, let’s say you spent a good 20-30 minutes jotting down your biggest goals and dreams in life. And let’s say you ended up with 30 or so items on your bucket list. Then after scanning them over, you see an interesting pattern: more than half of them involve travel. This suggests that traveling and exploring new locations might be an important value for you.
Or, suppose you’re scanning your newly crafted bucket list and you realize many of the items are pretty solitary in nature. This might suggest that solitude is actually an important value for you. And while you don’t necessarily need to go backpacking in Southeast Asia by yourself for a year, making more time to be alone in your regular life might be beneficial.
So, if you haven’t already, take a half an hour one Saturday morning, sit down with a pen and paper, and start brainstorming items for your bucket list.
Once you’ve got a good number, scan your list for themes and patterns that might be clues to unrealized or ignored personal values in your life.
Ask Yourself the Peter Thiel Question
In his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel opens his first chapter saying this:
Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
I just think this is an endlessly fascinating question. And while I’ve never used it in a hiring process, I frequently use it myself and with clients as a tool for values discovery.
The reason this question is so powerful is because it encourages you to distinguish between inherited values from more personal values.
Wait, what’s an inherited value?
Right, good question. An inherited value is a value like any other but it’s one that you take on because it was passed down to you from another person or your society/culture more generally. Furthermore, it’s a value that you just sort of accept without too much reflection or deliberation.
For example, polite speech is an inherited value for me. I was taught from a young age that saying please and thank you was the right thing to do. So I did (mostly) and continue to do so. I inherited this from my parents, and because it’s generally seemed to work out well for me, I keep doing it. But if I’m honest, I’ve never really done any major philosophical reflection on why being polite is an important value for me.
Now, here’s the thing: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with inherited values. In fact, all our values are inherited to some degree.
However, it can be dangerous if your entire value system is inherited and assumed without much deliberate reflection.
For example, I was working with a client recently who described how, in her family growing up, obedience to authority was a very important inherited value. And how she had never really questioned this value that was now leading to some major difficulties with anxiety and assertiveness in her adult life.
As part of our work together, we started examining this inherited value to see how it was working (or not working) in her life now. The end result was, she did some major upgrading of that value—meaning, through a lot of reflection and experimentation, she deprioritized obedience as a value in her life which made it far easier for her to work on communicating her needs more assertively and building self-confidence.
Got it. So how, exactly, does this Peter Thiel Question help you know your values?
The Peter Thiel Question—What important truth do very few people agree with you on?—forces you to really look at how many of your values are simply inherited without much conscious reflection or consideration.
What many people who spend some time with this question discover is that they don’t have many—if any—beliefs that most people disagree with them on. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can be a sign that you’re overly conventional or deferential to other people.
And when this is the case—when all or most of your values are inherited without much intentionality—you can end up unhappy and unfulfilled because your own needs, preferences, and desires don’t have a way to be expressed and cultivated.
Now, here’s the thing: This is a question to reflect on over time, not simply ask yourself once. A great practical way you can encourage yourself to really consider this question in a deep way is to write it down on a sticky note and stick it somewhere prominent. On the side of your computer monitor, for example, or your car’s dashboard.
Again, I want to reinforce that there’s nothing wrong per se with inherited values. The trick is to have a good balance of values that you inherit and ones that you discover and construct personally.
Create a Personal Vision Statement
There are a lot of ways to think about a personal vision statement, but the basic idea is this: Sketch out a compelling picture of your best self.
In other words, your personal vision statement is a manifesto for the kind of person you aspire to be.
While the Bucket List Brainstorm was about creating a specific vision for things you wanted to do, a Personal Vision Statement is about creating a specific vision for who you want to be.
And similar to the Bucket List Brainstorm, a personal vision statement can also help you discover patterns and themes that help you know your values.
You can approach the personal vision statement however you like, but here are a few helpful tips to get you started:
- What qualities in yourself do you want to cultivate? Be more patient with my kids. Be a better listener with my friends. Be less judgmental and more compassionate with myself when I make mistakes. Etc.
- What habits do you want to build? Exercise regularly. Do an annual retreat. Stick to one serving of food at dinner. Floss every night. Make time to call up old friends at least once a month. Etc.
- How do you hope other people would describe you when you’re not around? Kind. Helpful. Thoughtful. Decisive. Cheerful. Brutally honest. Compassionate. Gentle. Funny. Supportive. Etc.
- In the story of your life, what are the main obstacles to overcome? My habit of negative self-talk. Being afraid to speak my mind. Pushing away my romantic interests when the relationship starts to get deeper and more emotionally intimate. Etc.
- Who are your personal heroes? Uncle Frank because he’s always taken a genuine interest in me and treated me like an equal, even when I was a kid. Ms. Kidder, my 9th-grade geometry teacher because she always saw the best in people. Etc.
Note: Don’t overthink this or get perfectionistic about it.
- Your personal vision statement can look however you want. It could be half a page long or 20 pages. It could be typed out on an old typewriter, handwritten, or illustrated as a graphic novel. It could be written in a fancy leather journal or typed out in the notes app on your phone.
- You can always update, revise, and revisit your personal vision statement. There’s no “getting it right” when it comes to your personal vision statement. This is something you should just do and then revisit from time to time and update.
In short, creating a personal vision statement just means making a little time to clarify and get specific about who you aspire to be and who you are at your best. When you do this, you can’t help but see all sorts of personal values jump out at you.
Dig Deeper on Your Values with the 5 Whys
The 5 Whys is an old technique used by coaches, therapists, analysts, and many other professionals to get at the root cause of something.
The basic idea is that our explanations for things tend to be rather superficial. Which means we often have to push beyond the superficial explanation to get at the real one.
- Why did the report not get turned in on time? Because Donny was slacking.
- Why was Donny slacking? Now that I think about it, Donny was covering for Julia, so I guess he had a lot on his plate…
- Why was Donny covering for Julia? She said she needed a mental health day.
- Why did Julia need a mental health day? It looks like she’s taken 3 in the last month… Because she feels overworked.
- Why does she feel overworked? Because there’s no system in place to determine what a normal amount of work is.
So, we went from a relatively lazy and superficial answer to a problem (laziness is almost always a pretty lazy explanation) to a much more deep-seated and structural explanation.
Now, the key idea is that we apply this same process to our values. And this is important because often we have pretty superficial answers to what our personal values are and why they matter.
Here’s an example:
- What’s one of your most important personal values? Being healthy.
- Why is being healthy so important to you? Because my doctor says I need to be healthier.
- Why do you think you need to be healthier? Because I don’t want to die young like my dad.
- Why don’t you want to die young like your dad? Because he missed out on so much of life that he could’ve experienced?
- Why is experiencing as much of life as possible so important to you? I want to spend as much quality time with the people I love as possible.
- Why is spending time with the people you love so important? Gosh, I don’t know… I guess I just love the feeling of having a good conversation with my daughters or joking around about the NBA with my best friend.
Look, there’s nothing wrong per se with being healthy as a value. But if you think about it, it’s a little vague. And one of the downsides to vague values is that they’re not very motivating.
Exercise more regularly is almost always the #1 New Year’s resolution people make. And yet… Very few people follow through. Why? I don’t think it’s because they don’t really value being healthy. I think it’s because they haven’t clarified that value enough.
Being healthy isn’t going to exert enough motivating energy to get you off your warm cozy bed to go run in the cold. But imagining 30+ more years of wonderful conversations with your daughter or good times with your buddies watching basketball just might do the trick.
So, once you’ve identified some core personal values, you can get to know your values even better—and clarify them—by asking them 5 whys and trying to drill down to more specific reasons for why those things are in fact valuable.
Describe the 3 Happiest Days of Your Life
At this point, you’re probably catching on that a key idea when it comes to discovering values is looking for patterns. Because the truth is, you likely already have many values—at least in some basic form. We just need to learn how to see them more clearly and then clarify them a bit.
One useful source of ideas for values discovery is your past—specifically, the best times in your past.
One of my favorite exercises I “prescribe” my own clients is to think about the three happiest days of their life. Then try to remember as much as possible for each:
- Sometimes this involves looking through old photo albums to see what those days were like.
- Sometimes it involves calling up one of the people you spent that day with to get their perspective on what happened and what it was like.
- Sometimes it just means writing down the story of that day (it’s amazing how many details you start to remember when you put a day in story form).
In any case, your very happiest days can often tell you a lot about what you value most.
For example, if all three of your happiest days involved doing something new or creative, that might suggest that creativity is a bigger value in your life than you think.
Or, if all three of your happiest days were noticeably free from time pressure or scheduling constraints, that might be a hint that spontaneity or personal freedom are underappreciated values for you.
Ask a Friend
The final technique I use regularly to help people discover and clarify their personal values involves recruiting close friends and relatives to help you out.
As individual as personal values are, sometimes it takes the outside perspective of someone else to help us realize them. Which means that simply asking other people in your life who know you well might shed some light on your values.
And you can keep it really simple and straightforward. Here are a couple example scripts of how you might ask a friend you help you know your values a little better:
- Hey Tim, I’m taking some time lately to think more about the stuff that really matters to me and my values… This might sound weird but, based on what you know about me, what would you say some of my most important personal values are?
- Hey mom, obviously you’ve known me longer than anyone… This might seem like a funny question but what would you say are some of my biggest or most important values? From your perspective, what matters most to me in my life?
Quick note: depending on the person, they may be able to give you a good, high-quality answer off the top of their head. But it’s likely that some people may need to think about it for a day or do. If the person you ask seems like they’re struggling to answer, give them the out of taking a few days to think about it and let them know you’ll follow up later.
A final thought about values updating
Keep in mind that values are rarely completely static unchanging things.
With a few exceptions, most of our values—especially personal values—can and should change or adjust over time and in different contexts and areas of life. Maybe adventurousness is a really important value in your 20s but as you settle down and start a family, industriousness or intimacy becomes more important. Or maybe not! Maybe precisely because you’ve “settled down” adventurousness becomes even more important than it was when you were young, single and carefree!!
The big implication of this is that discovering and clarifying your personal values is not something you do once and then are done with it. It’s an ongoing process that, ideally, should be a regular part of our lives.
So, in addition to discovering and clarifying your values, I think it’s important to regularly update your personal values. That is, make time to revisit your values and determine their relative importance given where you are personally in your life.
By definition, values are relatively stable things—certainly more stable than passing thoughts, emotions, moods, or preferences. But that doesn’t mean they don’t change or evolve at all.
Everything you need to know
Personal values are the guiding principles that help you navigate your life well, especially when times are tough.
When you know your values and are clear about them, it becomes easier to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty, confusion, or difficult emotions like fear or frustration.
So whatever your particular goals or challenges are, make a little time to reflect on your personal values and get specific with them.
The sense of purpose, clarity, and motivation that comes from knowing your values well is well worth the effort.
UPDATE: If you want to see a really great example of someone applying many of the concepts in this guide, check out this article by Nick Costelloe.