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5 steps to discovering your core values10 min read

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck quote Mark Manson

Did you know that you make thousands of choices every day?

How much sugar to put in your coffee. Which coat to wear depending on the weather. Where to park. What to have for lunch. Which email to answer first. What to buy at the grocery store.

It’s estimated that the average adult makes around 35,000 remotely conscious decisions every day. Researchers at Cornell University reckon that we make 226.7 daily decisions related to food alone.

Each decision carries with it consequences – consequences that range from good to bad.

So, how do we make these decisions?

There are several decision-making styles and strategies that guide the process through which we make decisions.

  • Impulsiveness: you pick whichever option at random because you just want to be done with it.
  • Compliance: you pick the one that will be the most pleasing, comfortable and popular option for everyone involved.
  • Delegation: you choose to let someone else make the decision.
  • Avoidance/deflection: you avoid or ignore a decision in an effort to avoid taking responsibility because of the impact it will have or because you’re simply preventing it from overwhelming you.
  • Balancing: you study your options, weigh the pros and cons and use the information to make the best decision at that moment.
  • Prioritisation and reflection: you put the most energy, thought and effort into those decisions that will have the greatest impact.

But why do we make the decisions we make?

If you stop to think about why you chose the career path you did or the place where you live, you can see that your core values play a big part in those decisions.

Core values are our fundamental beliefs. They are the guiding principles that shape our behaviour. They are our internal ideas that define how life should be lived.

They are broad concepts that can be reapplied many times over in your life in different situations to guide your actions.

Our core values are not something that we really choose for ourselves. Rather, we learn and absorb them from the environment that we grow up in and from the people that we spend the most time with.

Most of us have our values instilled in us by our family and our culture. You may already live by strong values without realising it, or you may live by values that you, in fact, disagree with.

You discover what your values are through life experiences and through the process of building self-awareness.

Why does knowing your core values matter?

Knowing your core values is important for personal development. It will help you make intelligent decisions: decisions that will work in your favour by playing into your strengths, wants and needs.

If you don’t spend some time reflecting on your personal core values, you’ll simply react to circumstances by making impulsive decisions that will hold you back in the long run.

By keeping your values in mind, you can more effectively achieve your goals in life. You will also experience a greater sense of fulfilment when you live by your values. When you don’t honour your values, your mental, emotional and physical well-being suffers.

Values vs. Core Values

Your core values generally remain the same throughout your life, while a secondary set of values are variably emphasised at different points in your life. Your secondary values are more fluid and typically change with time and experience.

When people talk about why they fell in love they often mention sharing values. What they’re talking about are the core values.

Sharing core values makes it easy to align your life and your goals with someone else’s because the core values won’t usually change much over time (even if people and circumstances do).

The same thing can be applied to deciding on a new job: you can evaluate if you’d like to take that job by looking at the core values of the company.

If they don’t sit right with you, then you might have a hard time reconciling yourself with the work you will be doing there. The core values will drive what the company does and how it works — and especially dictate its behaviour in situations when it really counts.

The only way to find out if you’re living a life worth living is to ask yourself the hard questions

Knowing your core values and what genuinely matters to you facilitates self-knowledge, crucial insight and enables happiness.

Understanding your core values can help you understand yourself and your behaviour better, and help determine if you are on the right path to achieving your goals.

Discover your personal core values with this simple game

  1. Take a blank paper and tear it into six pieces (or six sticky notes, whatevs, dealer’s choice).
  2. On each piece of paper write a personal value.
  3. Lay them out in front of you so you can see every value.
  4. At each turn of the game (below) crumple up the chosen piece of paper and throw it away — don’t just move it aside, the physical act of crumpling and discarding the paper makes it more visceral.
  5. Go through the scenarios in order and one at a time. Don’t skip ahead! Really use your imagination and consider how you’d truly feel if it happened to you.

What value were you left with?

  • How do you feel about the value?
  • Were you surprised or was it expected?
  • Why is this value the most important one to you?
  • Where did you learn this value from?

What do we do with this information?

In order to find satisfactory answers that propel us forward and help us develop, we have to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions is a creative process that is refined in repetition.

When I first played this game I didn’t have a clear question in mind. The initial introspection that it led to left me with more questions than answers.

You just have to start with whatever rough idea you have and get that initial response. Then accept and embrace the new questions that follow. Rinse and repeat.

This feedback loop will — over time — formulate more precise questions that give better answers and get you the answers that you need in order to do the next thing.

What can I say? Life is a journey and not every little thing is gonna turn out to be something significant. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like

A lot of our time, energy and wealth is spent in creating and maintaining a public image of ourselves.

To really appreciate the truth of this, we can use Professor William Irvine’s Last Person Alive thought experiment to examine how our behaviour would change if everybody else vanished.

Imagine that you wake up one morning and everyone else has disappeared. All the buildings, cars, streets and shops are still as they were before, just all the people have vanished.

Naturally, you’d be very lonely, but ignore the emotional aspects of being the last person alive, and focus on the material aspects instead.

In this new world, you can satisfy all your material needs and desires. You can pick any car to drive – you can have a showroom full of expensive cars if you like – and you can have any house to live in – just walk into any one of them, they’re all open to you.

You could wear the most expensive clothes available and you could acquire as much jewellery as you want and have the grandest phones and computers ever made.

But would you want any of these things? What changes in terms of what you will acquire for yourself?

You probably wouldn’t bother having a great, big house, but instead, settle for something that’s practical and comfortable for you (just like Goldilocks). You probably wouldn’t bother with fancy clothes, because who’s around to judge how you look?

When you really follow this thought through, it’s amazing how much we acquire and want simply to impress other people.

Final thoughts

To get a sense of your core values, ask yourself which things bring you the most joy:

  • What can’t you live without?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What gives your life meaning or when do you feel useful and needed?
  • Doing [blank] makes you feel like your life has meaning and purpose.

When you can articulate the answers to these questions, you’ll probably begin to see a pattern that you can distil into a life concept, such as using your creativity to make the world a better place, using your skills to develop something new or deciding to acquire the skills you need to start doing something different.

In my case, it boiled down to making life more enjoyable by using my creativity – and subsequently pursuing a creative career. Since I’ve chosen work that aligns with my own core values, I find that it’s easier to stick to it even when the going gets tough.

When I did jobs only for the money, they usually caused me more trouble than they were worth, and I woke up every day uninspired and stressed out for having to go to work.

“Your talent belongs to you and, weirdly, your reputation belongs to other people.

Like, other people will decide when you are cool, uncool, finished, relevant, irrelevant, want a selfie, don’t care.

It’s none of your business. Don’t think about that shit. It’s a disease, you can’t control it.

Focus on the talent you have in front of you and you’ll always be okay. That’s what I learned.”

– Vir Das, Losing it
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