Discover what your core values are and why they’re so important in this complete step-by-step guide.
What do ‘core values’ mean?
Core values are principles, qualities or standards that we find important.
They make up our fundamental beliefs about what’s wrong or right, and direct our behaviour in all the decisions we make, even if unconsciously.
For example, if you’re someone who values honesty, you’ll likely say what you really think when asked your opinion on a friend’s bad haircut, even if it may hurt their feelings.
However, for someone else who values harmony, they’re likely to act differently in the same situation and may prioritise avoiding conflict than giving the truth.
Why are core values important?
Our core values affect the direction of our lives. If you value security over growth for example, then your decisions from where you work (big, stable company vs start-up), where you go on holiday and how you manage your money are all affected.
What’s scary is that for something with such monumental impact, most people aren’t even consciously aware of what their core values are, so they go through life unaware of the forces shaping and directing their lives.
Living by our core values leads to greater happiness and fulfilment
When our core values and our external life aligns, we experience integrity and harmony within ourselves.
If you’ve ever felt disillusioned after achieving something you’re supposed to want or feel like something’s ‘missing’ in your life, chances are you’re not living by your core values.
Sometimes we make decisions that go against our core values because it’s easier, less scary or we’re externally influenced by our family, peers or society.
For example, you may value growth. However, after a long day at work, you may default to vegging out in front of Netflix for several hours because it takes less effort than picking up a book or learning a new skill.
Taking the easier route may be more gratifying at the moment, but in the long-term, you’re going to find much more fulfilment by choosing an activity that advances your value of growth.
Knowing your core values then, gives you a guidebook to how you want to be in your life. You can consciously shift your life to be more in line with your core values, which will increase your overall life satisfaction and fulfilment.
Knowing our core values helps us make better decisions
If you’re struggling to make a choice about your future, knowing your core values can help you clarify which direction to go.
Usually, the choice that most aligns with your core values is going to ultimately bring you the most satisfaction.
For example, maybe one of your top values is adventure.
You’re given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a crew sailing around the world. Sailing is your passion. Do you leave your stable, high-income, corporate job to pursue this experience?
Even though it may not seem like the most rational or sensible choice to others, if you know one of your deepest values is adventure, you’ll know that the choice most likely to bring you happiness is taking the leap.
Thus knowing your core values can act as a map to help you make big decisions and to choose the ones that will impact you positively in the long-term.
How are core values formed?
Values are usually formed unconsciously through things like
- our upbringing
- work environments
- tv shows and movies
- personal experiences
- and many other factors
For example, growing up in Chinese culture, I noticed that family was a much more important value than in Western culture which tends to emphasise individual autonomy.
Hence someone who grows up in Chinese culture may put family higher up on their list of core values than someone who was brought up in a Western culture.
Values, however, are not static and research shows that they can change over our lifetimes, as our priorities and life stages change.
Find what your core values are in 5 simple steps
Now that you understand the importance of core values, how do you find what your core values are?
These 5 steps will help you identify your Top 5-10 core values, which are the values that are most fundamental to your happiness and most important to you.
Step 1: Brainstorm
The first step is to brainstorm a list of your values. We’re going to start with a big selection and then progressively narrow it down.
You can look through a core values list to get some initial inspiration and then add your own ideas to the mix.
a) Core values list
I’ve compiled a list of common core values below. Put a mark next to, or write down, any values that resonate with you.
If it’s easier, this core values list is also available as a pdf download.
b) Add your own ideas
After you’ve had a look at the provided core values list, it’s also important to consider your own experience.
What values are missing from the list that might also be important to you? Add these to your shortlist too. Below prompts may help get ideas flowing.
- What were some of the happiest, best or most memorable moments of your life? What was happening? What values were you living at that moment that made you feel that way?
- Write down a list of people, things or places that are important to you right now e.g. your holiday to Costa Rica, new car, family, job. Now go through each item and think about what benefit each gives you. Why is it important to you? E.g. Maybe Costa Rica provides an opportunity for adventure and your new car provides excitement in your life.
- Lastly, what’s always drawn you? What must you have in your life to feel fulfilled or happy? E.g a creative outlet, being in nature, being surrounded by people you love.
Step 2: Group similar values together
Once you have your initial shortlist (don’t worry if it’s quite long), it’s time to start whittling your core values down.
Group any similar values and see if you can select one word that summarises that group.
See if you can cut your values down to 15 at most.
Step 3: Select your top 5-10 core values
Now from this list, it’s time to select your Top 5-10 core values.
The lower the number the better as these are your core values after all, so they have to be your most essential ones. If you have too many to focus on, your attention is going to be spread too thin.
Select the minimum that can capture who you are and provide a good representation of your different facets.
Step 4: Prioritise
Now prioritise your final list from most important to least.
If you’re struggling with where to place a couple of them, try taking the ‘problem’ value and running it side-by-side against each of the other values on your list.
Now for each pair ask yourself if you would rank the ‘problem’ value above or below the value you’re comparing it to.
Ask yourself if you had to choose only one of these values to keep in your life, which one would you pick?
Step 5: Define your core values
You should now have your Top 5-10 core values in order of importance.
The last step is to define what each core value means to you so there is no confusion in your mind.
A value like ‘Respect’ can mean completely different things to different people. It helps to get specific and capture exactly the version you have in your head so you’re absolutely clear when, and when you’re not, living by that value.
For each core value, write a brief definition of what living by this value looks like to you.
I like to use the structure ‘I am experiencing *insert value* anytime I…’
To ensure you’re giving yourself as many chances to win as possible (and therefore as many opportunities to feel good as possible), keep these points in mind when writing your definitions:
- Make sure your definition puts you in control of whether you’re living the value or not. E.g. If one of your core values is ‘Love’ and you write ‘I am experiencing love anytime I receive appreciation from others’, then your experiencing love is dependent on what others are doing. A more empowering definition would be ‘I am experiencing love anytime I express appreciation for others and receive their appreciation graciously’ so it puts you in charge.
- Make sure your definition isn’t overly hard (or impossible) to achieve. Ideally, you want to have the opportunity to align with your core values every day! For example, if you can only achieve your value of love if you find your soulmate, then it might be hard going. Whereas if you can experience love anytime you show kindness to others, then that’s a much more manageable thing to achieve regularly.
As an example, here are some of my core values and my definitions of them.
Health: Anytime I am moving my body and increasing my strength, flexibility or endurance. Anytime I am nourishing it with healthy food, sleep and good practices. Anytime I show kindness to myself and look after myself mentally and physically.
Gratitude: Anytime I focus on all the good things in my life and all the riches I have, especially the little things.
Challenge: Anytime I seek new experiences, get out of my comfort zone or try new things. Anytime I face my fears and challenge boundaries of what I am capable of. Anytime I embrace the unknown. Anytime I feel the fear but do it anyway.
Keep your core values close!
Now that you have your core values list, print it out and stick it where you can see it, on your wall, in front of your mirror, on your fridge or carry it around with you so you always have it front of mind.
This is so that when a defining moment comes i.e. reacting with kindness vs anger, eating a salad vs doughnut, staying to work late vs going home for family dinner, you can take a look at your list and remember to take the decision that aligns with your core values.
And don’t forget to review them regularly
Remember that values aren’t static and can change over your lifetime so review them regularly (every 6 months) to ensure that they still align with you.
Putting your core values to the test
Here are some questions to ask yourself once you have your core values list.
Are you living by your core values?
Looking at your list, are you living by your core values?
A quick way to check is to give yourself a rating for how well you’re living each core value.
To do this, create a table with your values on one side, and give yourself a rating from 1-10 against each for how well you’re living the value in your life right now – with 1 being ‘not at all living this value’ and 10 ‘completely aligned’.
|Making a difference||5|
For any core value you score 6 and below – think of 3 actions you can take to increase the daily experience of that value in your life and go do them!
Do your core values advance your goals and help you become the person you want to be?
Our values are a powerful force in our lives and influence all the decisions we make. It’s imperative then to understand whether they are supporting us in the direction we want to go
Looking at your current core values – are they supporting you in reaching your goals? Are they supporting you to become the person you want to become?
For example, perhaps you have a goal of becoming an entrepreneur, or your dream is to work in another country. If you currently value security and comfort, these values are not going to be very conducive to you achieving your goals, as both the mentioned goals involve a certain amount of risk.
Similar to how you can choose your beliefs, you can also choose to replace values that aren’t supporting you with values that advance the kind of life you want to have.
There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ values, but there are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ ones to help you achieve what you want to achieve. If you want to become fit and lose weight, if you don’t value health, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining the type of lifestyle that’s going to get you there.
Choose to put the values that you need on to your list, and get rid of the ones that may not support you in the direction you want to head.
The bottom line
Core values are the beliefs, principles, ideas that we find important. They work in the background to shape our decisions and the direction of our lives.
Most people aren’t consciously aware of their core values, even though they’re so essential to our happiness and fulfilment.
When you know your core values, you can use them to guide your decisions and align your life to your values, so that you can experience a happier and more meaningful life.
Our values don’t have to be static and you can use them as a tool to help you achieve your goals. Choose to prioritise ones that advance and support you to get to where you want to go, and downgrade the ones that don’t.
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash