Know Thyself: The Importance of Core Values

Why (and how) I work so hard on this type of self-discovery.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Our core values are those non-negotiable principles we aspire to live by. If I asked you to name yours, could you?

I came face-to-face with my own core values during a recent career transition. After working as a doctor for a few years, I began to sense a deep stirring within — it was time to move on, and I knew it. But this instigated a monumental clash in my value system.

Although I prized commitment and mastery, the idea of uplevelling as a clinician didn’t spark any excitement. I wanted to base my decisions on authentic inspiration, joy, and self-compassion.

After an agonising period of reflection, I left medicine and surrendered to the tractor-beam of my burgeoning creative interests. Recognising my core values gave me confidence to make that call.

But my story lies in a sea of millions. Some transitions happen without warning, as with unexpected illness. Others are more insidious, as when it dawns on someone they’re in an abusive relationship.

Each transition asks of us something notoriously difficult: reinvent yourself. To become the hero of our story, we need to stop, reckon with our inner truth, and take a stand for it. One aspect of this truth lies in our core values.

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do.” ~ Elvis Presley

In this article, I dive into the importance of core values. Consider it a guide to not only the ‘why’ of identifying your core values, but the ‘how’ as well. But before getting into it, let’s define a core value. That way we’ll be on the same page.

What Are Core Values?

Each action you take is an expression of your personal values. Most of the time, this is all very unconscious. You don’t head to the supermarket because you journalled about your values beforehand. You go because your survival equipment demands that you value ‘sustenance’.

But it doesn’t end there. For instance, will you choose a loaf of white bread, or brown bread? The paradox of choice rears its ugly head, and in such cases your core values might enter the fold.

Core values represent your most cherished principles. They signpost those sacrosanct truths you choose to stand up for each day.

There are many ways to classify core values. Here’s one way. In The Nature of Human Values, psychologist Milton Rokeach distinguished between terminal and instrumental values.

  • Terminal values include desirable states of being: happiness, peace, connection.
  • But instrumental values identify how we get there: courage, compassion, curiosity.

Here’s a more metaphorical way to think about core values: knowing them is like navigating the ocean using only the night sky. The tapestry of stars is your framework of values.

But you wouldn’t reference every star to stay on course; that would be unnecessary. You’d pay attention to certain constellations, made up of the brightest stars. These points in the sky are your core values:

A sailboat underneath the starry night sky. Some stars are brighter, and they’re labelled “courage”, “growth” and “integrity”.

Note, a core value is an abstraction, which means we can never ‘reach’ it. Kind of like how we can never arrive at ‘North’, because it’s only a direction. In the same way, core values are fixed points of truth that remind us how to live. They aren’t concrete destinations.

You might value self-awareness, for example. But can we ever finally know ourselves? No, because valuing self-awareness sends us on a never-ending journey.

Now that we’re speaking the same language, let’s explore why core values are important in more depth.

The Importance of Core Values

In business circles, the importance of core values is no secret. And practices that work well in business often work well in our personal lives too.

Think about it: we ourselves resemble an organisation. With each of their competing desires and needs, our multitude of internal ‘selves’ go to battle each day. It’s a miracle we get anything done! But often we get stuck, or blocked. This is where importance of core values can function as a much-needed unifying force.

However, it took me almost 10 years of heading the wrong way to do this work. I can think of two possible reasons:

  1. I was afraid to see myself clearly — on some level, I knew this would lead to changes I wasn’t ready to make.
  2. Examining my core values felt a non-urgent ‘nice to have’.

There’s some truth to these points. It isn’t always fun seeing what you want and who you are. Especially when it runs against the grain of the life you’ve built.

And unless you have critical decisions looming soon, I also won’t pretend this is an urgent task. It’s important for sure, but not something to approach with a sense of urgency.

That said, here are 5 positive outcomes I continue to experience as a result of clarifying my core values. Hopefully, they’ll show you why this inner work is worth prioritising.

1) Laser Focus

I used to rely on superficial methods for optimising my focus. Methods like Eisenhower Matrices, Kanban boards, and Pomodoro timers. Don’t get me wrong; these are wonderful productivity hacks. They just couldn’t change the fact that I felt disconnected from myself.

The truth is, self-knowledge is the most sustainable path to productivity.

And in a world with paralysing freedom of choice, we need core values to narrow our focus. Commitment isn’t a prison — it’s freedom.

For instance, compassion is one of my core values. So each day, when planning my tasks, I ask myself: is this schedule consistent with self-compassion?

And when making bigger decisions, I may consult more of my core values. Do I take the job which pays better, or the one consistent with my need for creativity, empathy and growth?

Being cognizant of my core values has allowed me to say “No” with conviction. I can now focus on the people, projects, and hobbies that best align with my core values. The cacophony of internal voices can breathe a sigh of relief — their reign of terror has ended.

2) Inner Harmony

“Ultimately the search for identity is, in essence, the search for one’s own intrinsic, authentic values.” ~ Abraham Maslow

When we hold inconsistent beliefs and values, the result is anxiety. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. The word dissonance means ‘lack of harmony among musical notes’. This is a fitting description of what happens inside when we don’t know who we are — our lack of clarity is like a noisy din.

Since making my core values explicit, I’ve noticed something: I have a better sense of what I do and don’t want. My intuition is sharper, and I’m somehow more ‘together’. Life is still confusing, but self-knowledge is my anchor amidst the turbulence.

I also used to struggle with feelings of alienation and loneliness. When I clarified my core values, I understood why — I had been pursuing acceptance from people and groups with very different values. When I realised this, I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It became more of a joy to see — and be — the person I truly am.

3) Blossoming Self-Acceptance

Following the theme of acceptance, here’s a habit I’m still trying to unlearn: beating myself up about the past.

Somewhere in my teen years, I began to berate myself over ‘wrong’ decisions. “I should’ve known better!”, I would tell myself.

I’ll give an example — one I’m hesitant to share, because there’s still a residue of shame around it. But the bigger shame is missing an opportunity to be real with my readers. So here goes…

In my formative years, I was very shy. Especially with girls. So in my late teens, I chose to rebel against my nature and dive head-first into the pickup artist community.

Instead of seeking relationships based on love, vulnerability and openness — which I now value — I closed off to women. And at the time I didn’t have the self-awareness to understand why I was doing what I was doing. I felt like a complete weirdo, in fact.

The better I got at pickup, the deeper my shame grew.

Only recently have I begun to understand this phase of my life. Circumstances coalesced such that my wife learned about it on my wedding day, no less. So I had to explain my past. And to explain my past, I had to process it.

This ended up being a blessing; the pain of re-confronting this period forced me to grow. And my present-day awareness around values helped open up the gates to self-compassion.

I saw a boy with very real needs — a need to experience confidence, empowerment, and control. I realised it had little to do with the women themselves; I was seeking to meet my needs the best way I knew at the time.

Do you also feel shame or guilt around past life decisions? Or wish you could erase certain aspects of your history?

If so, try this experiment: imagine reliving the moment, or phase of life. Consider whether you’d take the same course of action this time. Really give it some thought.

If you wouldn’t act the same, then congratulations are in order: you’ve evolved. While you may think your past self should’ve known better, they clearly didn’t. In the space this realisation cracks open, allow self-compassion to bloom.

Knowing your core values is a beautiful catalyst for this work. By reevaluating the past through this lens, you’ll see the truth. You’ll see that you were just doing your best to meet the values and needs you probably didn’t even know you had.

This insight is one path to greater self-acceptance. Yes — even for the most embarrassing, painful events in your life.

4) Deep Connection

I touched on the idea of ‘needs’ in the last point. And as I learned in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg, there’s a lot of overlap between what we need and what we value.

This is crucial to understand when building healthy human relationships. The real test of a relationship is how both parties navigate the tension of conflict. Because you have no control over the other party, all you can do is master the art of gentle, respectful, and accurate self-expression.

Bringing consciousness of your core values to the table is a great start. By explaining not only what you want, but why you want it, you create understanding. This is also the path to create genuine emotional intimacy.

I used to be terrible at this, but I’m learning to be a little less terrible. Here’s an example of the combative, closed-off communication style I resorted to in the past:

  • Me to my partner: “Hey, would you mind tidying up the desk? It’s looking cluttered.”
  • My partner: “Yeah, sure. I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll get around to it.”
  • Me: “That’s vague… please let me know when you plan to tidy. Then I can get on with my day.”

You can see where that conversation was going… nowhere fast! Here’s how I’m more likely to communicate these days — watch out for the core values being articulated:

  • Me to my partner: “Hey, would you mind tidying up the desk? It’s looking cluttered.”
  • My partner: “Yeah, sure. I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll get around to it.”
  • Me: “Thanks. I notice you didn’t mention a specific time, and I’m worried you’ll accidentally forget. It’s just that when the desk is untidy, I find it hard to focus on my work. I love having an ordered, minimalist working environment. Would you be able to declutter the desk in the next hour, before I start work?”

Here, I took care to focus on my core values — focus and order. And I did so without resorting to criticism or blame. This isn’t just more persuasive, it’s also more illuminating. The listener has a window into my soul, and we can emerge from the exchange feeling more connected.

5) Authentic Leadership

Humans are a tribal species. Whether enormous (e.g. nations) or tiny (e.g. romantic bonds), all tribes must align on certain values to stay alive. We call this process ‘culture’. Culture is a good thing — it prevents humanity unravelling into anarchy.

It’s also true that human beings do well in hierarchical systems. Hierarchy brings a level of cohesion not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom. We need leaders to enforce culture and rally people around a vision.

But I’m not just talking about business moguls, executives, and politicians. You’re a leader. I’m a leader. If you’re a parent, you’re a leader. If you notice an elderly man who needs help crossing the street, and you stop to help, you’re a leader in that moment.

Having recently gotten married, I’ve noticed a shift. It feels as though my wife and I are co-leaders, charting a course for our lives and deciding what we want to stand for. There are plenty of decisions to make — Where will we settle down? How will we raise our kids? What’s our long-term vision?

Being clear on our joint core values brings these conversations to life. The alternative — remaining unconscious of our values — would leave us groping for answers in the dark. It would be the blind leading the blind.

3 Steps To Identify Your Core Values

Now we’ve established the importance of core values, let’s consider how to identify them. Here’s the process I follow:

  1. Unlearn Fake Values
  2. Create a Values Master List
  3. Articulate Your Core Values

Step 1: Unlearn Fake Values

Time to revisit the metaphor from earlier. You’re a sailor navigating the ocean using only stars — your values. But what happens when clouds are in the way? How are you supposed to find your way?

These clouds are your fake values — all the “shoulds” you’ve adopted throughout life. You know fake values are driving your life when you feel lost, confused, and directionless.

A sailboat at night, with the stars in the sky obscured by clouds. Question marks surround the boat.

When this happens, I know it’s time to get back into my body. Fake values live up in my head, so that’s not where I want to focus my attention. When I broaden my consciousness, the clouds of “should” begin to disperse.

But I also want to get curious about those clouds. Where did these fake values come from? It’s like monitoring weather patterns and storm fronts. Looking back at my decisions, which ones weren’t authentic? How do I know?

We all face social pressure. We can let it dictate our choices, or we can cultivate our own principles. Even something as basic as kindness must be intentionally chosen. Does it live in your head, as a “should”? If it does, you’re probably detached from it — kindness lives in you as an idea, an abstraction.

Whereas when you learn to feel the truth of kindness in your body, it transforms into a consciously-held conviction. That’s the difference between following the crowd and creating your own path.

Step 2: Create a Values Master List

This leads onto Step 2, which is all about accessing inner truth. Once we’ve seen through the fog of fake values, the aim here is to create a master list of resonant personal values.

Create this list in any format you want. The main thing is that you have space to add and remove items over time.

There are infinite ways to uncover your framework of values. What works for me is straightforward reflective inquiry. Take a few weeks to work through these 5 prompts at your own pace:

  1. Good Times/Bad Times: Think back to a happy time in your life. Notice how your body feels. Does it soften? Is there more energy? Now journal about what you were prioritising back then. Which values were you honouring? Conversely, think back to an unhappy time. Again, notice your body’s reaction. Who were you with? What choices were you making? And what values might you have been neglecting?
  2. Energy Uplifters/Energy Drains: What situations, activities or people leave you feeling physically, emotionally or spiritually depleted? For each, consider why this might be. What can you learn about your values? Conversely, what situations, activities, or people leave you feeling energised and uplifted? What can you learn about your values?
  3. Envy: Who triggers envy in you, and why? Can you reframe your envy as authentic desire? If so, what can you learn about your values?
  4. Anger: What do you wish were different about society? Which causes rile you up? What do you stand for? Now look for patterns: notice the values underlying your anger.
  5. Inspiration: What fascinates you about the world? Which ideas light you up? What do you believe with deep conviction? How are all these things linked together?

Notice the above prompts all ask about the way emotions manifest in our body. Our body expresses the truth of who we are. And so when it comes to building self-awareness, this makes it an excellent portal of inquiry.

For example, I recently reflected on an ‘energy drain’ situation at work. A colleague grabbed my ear and started gossiping about another colleague. Forgetting myself, I indulged. This triggered a guilty twinge in my gut, and my energy subsequently dropped.

Why did this happen? Because one of my values is integrity — and when I breach my own integrity, it’s hard to stand tall and proud. My body always tells the truth, and so does yours.

So tune in, and feel your way toward insight. On your master list, note down any values you unearth along the way. One practical tip is to keep a list of example values handy, like this one. This list will help you find just the right word to capture the insight.

However, don’t be selective for now — this is only a brainstorming step. If a word resonates, throw it down. In Step 3, we’ll turn your master list into a Core Values Document. That’s where the magic happens.

Step 3: Articulate Your Core Values

With your master list complete, it’s time to articulate your Core Values. Remember, these are your highest principles in life. Here’s how to identify them:

  • Take a deep breath and centre yourself (we want to calm your rational mind for now)
  • Pencil in hand, read through your values master list
  • Pause on each word, observing how deeply it resonates
  • When a word lights you up, put an asterisk next to it

Each time I do this, I usually end up with 10–20 starred words. I transfer those to a new document titled “Core Values [insert year]”. On that document, I polish and play with them further.

The first thing I do is whittle the list down to 5–10 values, by clustering related themes. Last time, for instance, I merged “kindness”, “compassion” and “patience” into “compassion”. I chose this word because it hit the right emotional spot for me. Notice which words do the same for you, and use them as parent themes.

This is no time for dictionary definitions. If a term doesn’t tap your inspiration, get creative. Be as abstract as you like! For instance, I wanted a single word to convey themes like surrender, openness, and vulnerability. After toying with a few ideas, I landed on the metaphorical term “heart”, which really spoke to me.

When you’ve formed a consolidated list, it’s time to articulate what each core value means to you. Why this value, at this particular moment in your life? To get the most mileage, it’s critical to dig deep here.

Here’s an example from my own personal list:

Researchers call this process ‘values affirmation’, and the benefits can be surprising.

In 2005, psychologists David Creswell and David Sherman ran a study: one group wrote short essays on their core values, while another group wrote about random topics.

Afterwards, they were put in stressful situations, like solving mathematical problems in front of unfriendly judges. Those who wrote about their core values showed significantly lower levels of cortisol. What does this suggest? That writing about your values can make you resilient to stress.

So start with a single sentence. Add another if you need to. Spend quality time on each core value, working towards accurate self-expression. Make your descriptions hum so that when you read them back, you feel the truth deep in your bones.

Bonus Step: Repeat Until Death

My Core Values Document is a ‘Living Document’. I mean two things by this…

First, if something is alive, it radiates vital energy. My list of core values is no different. Because I invest so much of myself into it, the document takes on a life of its own. Reading it mindfully in the morning, or in a confusing moment, is a powerful way to stay connected with my best self.

Second, things which are alive are subject to growth and change. Documenting your core values isn’t a ‘one and done’ process. It’s iterative! At least once a year, I review my core values in the light of recent experiences and fresh insights.

My reasoning is simple: authenticity isn’t a permanent achievement. In fact, at best, we can only touch on authenticity. This is because we’re always in flux, along with the world around us. We might set sail in one direction, then later find we need to shift course entirely.

What Next?

Core values serve as a unifying force. In this sense, they’re linked to your purpose; your raison d’etre. In fact, they’re a main ingredient for it. So after working on your Core Values Document, maybe you’ll be ready to clarify your life purpose.

Your Core Values Document also gives your purpose some legs to walk on. This is vital — it isn’t enough to know where you’re going, or even why you’re going there. You must also live your values, and live your purpose. How? By designing some robust habits, policies and commitments.

Living in such a complex world only underlines the importance of core values. If we don’t consciously reflect on our principles, outside forces will impose them on us. And we’ll find ourselves on a path we didn’t choose.

To some, this might not sound like a tragedy. With more choices than ever, being told what to do (and who to be) is a relief. But if you’re reading this article, I’m guessing that’s not you. Is it time to look within, and unleash your truth?

Originally published at https://purposeuncaged.com on July 14, 2022.

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Doctor turned writer & personal growth coach. Passionate about living with purpose. Newsletter: https://purposeuncaged.com/newsletter/

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