“You’re such an overachiever!”
I often heard this comment from friends and colleagues. I had unknowingly let it run my life — with adverse consequences.
In a broader sense, I put my non-career aspirations on the back-burner until one morning when I would magically wake up feeling “accomplished enough” (hint: that day never arrived).
On a day-to-day level, when I was faced with the choice to give myself a break or push myself to launch one more project, the decision was a no-brainer. I automatically picked the latter — but then would despise myself for it.
Achievement had always seemed valuable. So then why was I achieving and yet feeling unhappy and unfulfilled?
The reason why is now obvious to me.
Achievement was not a core part of my internal belief system. Yet Achievement was dictating my decisions like the Wizard Behind the Curtain.
Societal pressure explained part of its influence. Growing up, my parents, teachers, friends, and mentors labeled me as high-achieving, which had a nice ring to it at the time. I can see how I got stuck in a hidden script that went something like this: Achievement is what wins me attention and accolades. To keep getting attention and love from others, I’ll keep achieving.
So even if my heart was elsewhere, I kept on striving… until one serendipitous day.
A few years ago, a close friend sent me a simple, but powerful values exercise that his team director had sent him. I completed the exercise — mostly for fun — and felt shocked by the results.
The spreadsheet revealed that I had actually prioritized accomplishment as one of my lowest-ranked values. My top 5 values were: freedom, relationships, curiosity, courage, and adventure.
This insight was the seed that eventually blossomed into other major life decisions. Spending time slow traveling. Starting my coaching business. Pursuing my curiosities like learning languages. Focusing my career on doing the things I was afraid of — but would challenge me to grow. I started living a happier, more fulfilling existence.
Using tools and personal anecdotes, I’ll show you how to discover your personal values and start using them as a GPS for navigating your career and life — in under 1 hour.
The gap between you and confidently moving in the right direction could easily be bridged using a couple of straightforward, yet enlightening tools.
Step 1: Discover Your Core Values (30 Minutes)
According to the Oxford Dictionary, values are “principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”
The keyword in this definition is “behavior.” The power behind our values lies in how they help you take action. Similar to how a business may rely on a set of operating principles to make high-quality decisions, we look to concrete values to guide us toward making smart, on-the-fly calls.
If you view values as a fluffy, non-actionable concept, then I have news for you. You’ve been using them incorrectly.
Values that fluctuate like the flavor of the week are just fleeting emotions. Values that don’t make tangible contact with one’s decision-making reveals that one may be ignoring what’s important to oneself.
Assuming you’ve read this far, you believe values are worth their salt — or at least are curious to learn more. So let’s start with the tools.
Choose From a List
A quick Google search of “discover your values” returns 189K results, which is essentially a bottomless pit of possible value-finding techniques. So where does one start?
I’ll share the tool I used, which originated in the New York Times Bestseller Bury My Heart at Conference Room B by Stan Slap.
The starting point for this exercise is a list of 50 values:
- Read all of the 50 values from top to bottom and left to right. Consider whether they’re of “high” “medium” or “low” importance to you.
- Based on the ones you selected as high, pick ten that you would consider as most important among that list.
- Narrow that list of ten down to five.
Download the Tool: Would you rather use a Google Sheet version of this tool? I’ll send you a free copy (complete with all 50 values defined) to the email you enter below:
How are you feeling? This exercise can feel a bit like pulling teeth, right?
The easy part of this exercise is the simplicity behind the steps. The potential return on your time investment for essentially a prioritization exercise is massive and could even be life-changing.
The hard part — and the trick to ensuring you get actionable results — is being honest with yourself. Force yourself to stack-rank your choices.
Also time-bound yourself to 30 minutes. There’s no point pouring sweat and pulling out hair trying to pick between Joy and Stability. Make the call and move on.
Think of 3-6 People You Admire
If you’re still feeling unsure about your choices (which is completely normal), another method to the madness is discovering the values of those you admire.
Using the 50 values in the spreadsheet as a reference, identify what are the top 5 values of each of the people you admire. Then find common values across all the people on your list. You likely care a lot about these values yourself.
Think of Your Highest and Lowest Moments
In our dull daily existence, it can be hard to tease out what’s important to us because our decision-making is automatic. We go to the same office, work on the same projects, and mingle with the same colleagues as the day before. We’re rarely confronted with challenging decisions that call our values into question.
However, during the cherished and bitter moments of our lives, our values preside over the decision-making process like a court justice and cut through indecision like a hot knife through butter.
Fill in the blank in each of the following sentences with one of the 50 values:
- I’ve had big troubles in relationships because this value was in conflict: __________. (e.g. Stability)
- My most treasured accomplishments have to do with living this value: __________. (e.g. Freedom)
- The worst decisions I’ve made for myself violated this value: __________. (e.g. Adventure)
- On the days I feel life is too short, I resolve to live this value more fully: __________. (e.g. Adventure)
Use your answers in the above exercises to decide what values ought to make the cut for your top 5 list.
Write the list on a sheet of paper, take a photo, and pin it up on your wall. Do whatever it takes to see and think of your values on a more regular basis.
Now that you have some clarity around your values, let’s talk about how you can use them to make decisions in your career and life.
Step 2: Apply Your Core Values to Your Career (30 Minutes)
When crafting your career map, I recommend using your values like a GPS to guide you towards one direction or another.
Check-In: Are You Living Your Values?
If you perceive your work and lifestyle as being aligned with your values, then you’re on the right track. Chances are, you’re happy where you are.
On the other hand, if you’re out-of-sync with your values, then you might be feeling unfulfilled — like something is missing. This is a good time for an honest reflection.
One easy-to-use tool for checking in with yourself is the Values Dashboard.
- Add your top 5 values as column headers to a table.
- For each of these values, grade yourself on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is not aligned and 10 is very aligned, how aligned are your life decisions with your personal values.
In this example, you’ll notice that curiosity has a significantly lower score than the others. Upon observing this data, I would want to dig deeper into what’s keeping me from feeling like I am fulfilling my curiosity.
In addition to scoring yourself, I recommend diving into the ‘why’ to reveal more insights about how you process your values:
- What is the reason I put down 5 for curiosity and 7’s and 8’s for my other four values? Where am I getting stuck in expressing my curiosity (work, relationships, hobbies/play, health)?
- What score do I want for curiosity? What would I need to do to make a shift from 5 to this ideal score?
A Software Engineer Yearns For a Challenge
One of my coaching clients, let’s call him Will, is a software engineering leader for a small startup. When we completed the Values Discovery Exercise together, he realized that Intelligence was one of his top 5 values. Digging a little deeper, we also helped him see that his day job wasn’t satisfying his thirst for knowledge.
Eventually, he observed that he would either need to better align his day job and his values (potentially by making a job switch) or find outside projects that could challenge him to grow and learn new skills. He ultimately chose the former path, so we’re currently helping him navigate towards new, more fulfilling opportunities.
With that said, many of us may find good results by taking the latter path (and a shorter one!). It’s up to you to decide.
Identify Your Next Career Path Using Your Values
If you’re at a crossroads, use your core values to help you prioritize which career direction to move towards.
One tool we can employ here is a Values to Criterias Exercise, which helps you translate your top 5 values to criteria you can use as a filter when selecting between different career paths.
For each of your values, answer the following questions:
- What actionable criteria(s) does this value translate into?
- Create an “If… Then…” plan for how you would make a decision based on possible results from your criteria.
In Search of Flexibility
For example, one value that a few of my clients and peers have is Freedom. From my observations, Freedom as a value translates into a very different set of criteria for each person.
For my parent clients, Freedom means building in more flexibility into their day-to-day schedule so they come home at a reasonable hour for their family. For my nomadic clients, Freedom means setting up a lifestyle where their work affords them the ability to travel for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Both groups have Freedom as a top value but express it very differently.
For the former group, they may form a plan like, “If I can work from home 1-2 days a week, then I will feel fulfilled in terms of my Freedom.” Or perhaps, “If I have to work evenings during my family time, then I will feel unfulfilled in terms of my Freedom.”
Get a better sense of what you’re excited about and where your boundaries are in your next career path, based on your set of criteria.
Once you’re finished with designing your criteria, you can answer the following questions:
- Which of your top 5 values was the most challenging for you to convert into criteria? Why?
- What criteria did this exercise surface for you that you weren’t aware of before?
- How are you going to use these criteria to help you navigate your next career decision?
In this article, we covered a few straightforward, but impactful tools for discovering your values and putting them to use as a GPS for your career and life decisions.
Values have played a deeply influential role in my career — both as a career coach and product manager. I hope you find them to be just as meaningful on your journey.
Which step did you find more difficult to do, discovering your values or applying your values to your career and life?
Share your response in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Also if you enjoyed this resource, download the accompanying Values Discovery Exercise, which you can find in Step 1: Discover Your Core Values.