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Most people crave living a life that feels purposeful, meaningful and like the full expression of their talents and desires. You hope to arrive into old age feeling as though you made the most of your one precious life. You want to feel truthful and like yourself. You want to know that you left an impression and that your life mattered, that you were successful.

The problem is that we often don’t have the tools for understanding how to live fully or how to measure if the way we are traversing the landscape of this lifetime is in line with these hopes and dreams.

The first step in embodying your fullest potential is to discover what actually matters to you. You need to understand what is authentically most important to you to know whether you are living in alignment with yourself.

Surfer looking out, living out her values.

In other words, you need to know your values.

Once you understand what your personal values are, then you have a meaningful framework for measuring success. Without this understanding, you might quantify success by the size of your bank account, the approval of your family or the pace at which you climb the corporate ladder. You look outside yourself for signals that you are “doing it right” or that you are perceived as successful, rather than grounding yourself into a genuine understanding of your own measures of success.

Success = living in alignment with your values.

So what are values?

They are your heart’s deepest desire for the way you want to interact and relate with the world, people and yourself. 

They describe how you want to behave on an ongoing basis. Values are like a compass that guides the direction of your life.

They differ from goals in that they can never be accomplished or achieved. 

An example of a value is creativity. Creativity can never be accomplished or finished, though creative projects can. Creativity guides the types of activities one chooses to engage in (photography, painting or writing, as examples). While a writing piece can be finished, creativity cannot. A person can live their value of creativity throughout their entire life, though the intricacies of how creativity is expressed may shift and evolve as one’s life does.

5 Key Points about Values

Values are here and now.

They occur in the present moment and are something you identify or choose for yourself in the now. If you start looking into the future, you might be making a goal for yourself, rather than cultivating a value.

Values never need to be justified.

Your values are yours. They are for you and by you, and therefore, do not need to be explained or justified to anyone else. There doesn’t have to be a significant reason behind identifying a particular value as important to you, it can just be that it is so.

Values often need to be prioritized.

Even if you know your values, you might shift away from living them out daily, as the realities of life unfold. You may have to come back to them again and again. 

For example, you might hold adventure as a value, but after having a child, you haven’t been able to go mountain biking and rock climbing in the same way that fulfilled that value pre-parenthood. You might have to prioritize adventure again and find new ways of fueling your adventurous spirit. 

Or you may realize that you simply haven’t been prioritizing a value of yours and it is time to start now. For example, you determine that friendship is a value of yours, but truthfully, you haven’t been tending to your friendships meaningfully and you notice how this lack of alignment makes you feel down, sad and perhaps even angry or frustrated with yourself. As soon as you take steps to be in alignment – you call a friend that matters to you or write a loving note – you begin to feel more like the best version of yourself.

Values are best held lightly.

They are not meant to be dogma or rules. Values feel expansive, exciting and possibility opening. When we begin to treat our values as black and white rules, they feel constrictive and like “shoulds”. 

While some values stay consistent throughout your life, you also might find that they evolve as you evolve. When you are younger, you may have values that are more closely related to the values of your family or the culture you grew up in. As you have new experiences and discover a deeper understanding of who you are as an adult, your values might change to reflect more authenticity.

Values are freely chosen.

We are taught values from outside sources throughout our whole lives; parents, religions, cultures, media, educators, friends and others teach and impose their values on us consistently and almost constantly, whether consciously or not. However, your personal values are freely chosen. 

It is possible that your personal values confront or oppose the values that have been taught to you. A religion might value celibacy, while you might value openly expressed sexuality. Regardless of how they interact with the values of the people and systems around you, your values are freely chosen by you.

Surfers value adventure, fitness and outdoor experiences.

Values and Motivation for Change

Values matter because they offer you a guide for how to spend your time and measure success. Understanding what is truly important to you gives you clues for how to spend your days and make choices about where to allocate your limited resources of time, money and effort.

Values also provide a framework for nurturing motivation and encouraging yourself to do the activities that create meaning in your life. 

You have probably found yourself amidst the start and stop process of making a meaningful change many times in your life – you might be trying to eat healthier, exercise more, connect with family better or shift careers, as examples.

And, as you well know…

…every change has its challenges.

You will inevitably and certainly be met with obstacles as you try to better your life. Unfortunately, it is far too often that even with all the right intentions, you slide back into old habits and lose the thread of positive change that you were pulling.

It is possible that the missing piece is connecting your intentions to your values.

Let’s look at an example. You make a goal of meditating for ten minutes every morning. The first couple of mornings, you follow through, but then it starts to slip away from you. You get into your work emails and meditating feels less important, or you snooze your alarm so you have to rush to get your coffee and start your day. It is totally understandable; new habits take effort to form and in those early morning moments, you are choosing other priorities.

If this goal of meditating isn’t connected to a value of yours (something genuine to your heart’s deepest desires) and was just something that someone told you to do, so you thought you would try it, then you are going to have a hard time prioritizing this change. However, if you connect your meditation practice to your values, like perhaps having vibrant health or being a present partner, then it starts to matter to you on a more significant and relevant level. 

When something matters to you, then you can cultivate motivation for the changes needed to embody that value. You are connected to your why. 

It is imperative that the change you are seeking is connected to something that actually matters to you. If you only have so much time, energy and money, then why don’t you hope to spend the majority of it doing something connected to your heart?

We have limited time on this earth and it is essential that you spend your precious time doing what feels worthwhile and purposeful to your unique self. This doesn’t mean that every daily activity will be enjoyable, but I hope it will eventually all be connected to your values. I don’t necessarily enjoy business accounting, but I remember that it is part of my values of freedom and entrepreneurship and, so, I find the motivation to complete those tasks.

Values not only guide the direction of the changes you would like to make, but they help you motivate to make those changes. So how do you figure out what your values are? How do you know what is genuinely important to you?

Perhaps you have reflected on this topic before and have a clear understanding of the concepts that hold the most importance in your life. Or perhaps, you haven’t given it much thought and realize now that there is opportunity to come into deeper alignment in your life. Maybe you have defined your values in the past, but have had growth experiences that have shifted your baseline and it is time to redefine your values now.

Start with looking at a list of values, like the one below, and circling the ones that hold the most importance.

The key is to remove “shoulds” and outside pressures. Before you do any values discovery work, pretend you can wave a magic wand and the opinions and judgments of everyone in your life no longer exist or matter. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to express YOU. Practice going with your gut, knowing there are no wrong answers and nothing needs to be justified. 

On your first pass through the list, you may circle a ton of values. There are likely many concepts that feel important. See if you can go through the list a few times, continually choosing the most important, until you arrive at your 5-7 principal values.

After selecting your most important values, take a moment of reflection.

What surprised you about your final selections? What didn’t surprise you? Do these values feel true to you or are someone else’s values creeping in?

And then, most importantly, ask yourself which values feel alive and expressed in your life, and which ones have been on the back burner. Do not shame yourself here! You are simply getting clear on where there is opportunity for positive growth. We all have values that feel integrated and expressed and others that haven’t been given their deserved attention.

Choose one of the values that feels like it needs attention; then identify 1-3 actionable steps you can take to fulfill that value more fully in your life.

For example, through the above exercise, I discover that community is a top value of mine, but don’t feel like I am in a community that feels positive and integrated. An actionable step could be calling the acquaintance I have been curious about meeting or researching a class that is related to my interests to meet people I might enjoy. When my fear stories about putting myself out there come up and want to stop my progress, I remember that community is of top importance to me and it is worth some vulnerability or discomfort to create it in my life. 

This is how an understanding of your values relates to your motivation. When challenges arise, you ground back into your sense of values, so that you can motivate yourself to move through the hard parts of change. 

Anyone with a fitness routine knows that your mind will regularly and consistently tell you all the reasons not to go to the gym or hit the trail for a run. However, if you know that health and wellness are of top priority to you, then you move through the resistance and workout anyway. It is in service of something higher than the workout right in front of you.

One more journal prompt:

Imagine you are in your elderly years, contemplating your life. As you look back, you feel a deep sense of joy, contentment and satisfaction. Life wasn’t always easy, but it has felt meaningful and you managed to stay true to yourself. Which core values did you live your life by that gave your life meaning? What actions and behaviors made your life meaningful?

Remember that values are how you want to behave as a human. In our goals-driven society, we often find ourselves thinking in terms of what we can accomplish, achieve or obtain. Instead, values offer guidance for how you want to act on an ongoing basis. 

I hope this conversation about values has offered you the opportunity to take stock of what areas of your life feel in alignment and what areas may deserve some attention. Comment below and let me know what you learned 🙂

Want to practice infusing your values from the start of your day? Check out How to Create A Morning Routine that Will Change Your Life.

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