When we think of how our lives are measured, we recall the experiences that felt meaningful to us. But these experiences alone do not define your core values. It’s the qualities underneath those peak moments that define us. That bring us fulfillment. That are the secret sauce in understanding what we need to sustain ourselves during times of uncertainty. Going back to our core values can help us identify what’s missing in our lives, and often living out those values doesn’t require large shifts.
For most of us, the past weeks have brought a shift into a very different life. We’ve lost our routines and in-person connections. We’ve let go of important plans and milestones that we thought would be a part of these months. More deeply, we’re grappling with a new kind of daily fear, grief, and uncertainty. For some of us, there has also been the pain of great loss or of the lives of our loved ones at risk.
All of this can bring a sense of the ground beneath our feet being shaken or even fractured. Where can we look for a new sense of grounding? And where do we find our sense of agency, when so much that’s happening is outside of our control?
Breathwork, meditation, movement, and nature can all help. Being of service helps, dramatically. Grounding in the sensory, in the moment—whether it’s through cooking or dancing or a tickle fest with a toddler—helps, too.
Another tool that can be transformative during this time is core values work, the potent process of identifying one’s unique values and orienting around the north star of living those values.
What are core values?
For the moment, suspend any past associations you have with the term. Think about core values as the particular qualities or energies that bring you the most fulfillment. They are also those qualities that are the very essence of you, the qualities you are expressing when you feel most at home, in your authentic self.
Each individual’s composite of values is different. For example, my core values are what I call connection/circles, creativity/making, and spirituality.
Most of us were taught that there’s a general prescription for happiness: relationships we cherish, work we enjoy. But thousands of coaching conversations with clients have shown me that we must get far more specific than that in understanding our individual set of emotional and spiritual nutrients for well-being. We can’t simply follow the general prescription, and we don’t have to use endless trial and error (did I like this job? that hobby? that way to spend my day?) to figure out what will nourish us most. We can take steps to identify our emotional and spiritual thumbprint and find the qualities or kinds of experiences that bring us joy.
An example: Richard was getting lost in the news and on social media each day, riding the huge waves of emotions that the headlines brought. Plus, he had a picture in mind of what he thought homeschooling should look like, and he was spending a lot of energy unsuccessfully trying to get his kids’ behaviour to match that picture. Even with all the demands of work and parenting during this time, he was managing to exercise and meditate most mornings. For social connection, he was regularly meeting up online with a group of friends for drinks and hanging out screen-to-screen after the kids’ bedtime. Yet he was feeling increasingly empty and angry, even though he knew he had so much to be grateful for.
We looked to his core values, using the process I’ll guide you through below. As we pored over his peak experiences to discover Richard's core values, a few phrases kept coming up for him: deep conversation/connection, newness/adventure, and hard work/challenge.
These, it turned out, were Richard's core values—the ingredients that made life most fulfilling for him, the qualities that felt most like what he was all about in his authentic self. We can also think of these as the qualities of the sacred that he is meant to make manifest.
We looked at Richard's day-to-day life right now. How much were these values of deep conversation/connection, newness/adventure, and hard work/challenge getting honored? How much were they being expressed?
Richard quickly saw that the answer was not very much at all. On a scale of one to ten (ten meaning the value was fully expressed, one meaning it was totally unexpressed or even getting trampled on), Richard found that he wasn’t honoring any of those values at higher than a three. This helped us understand the growing irritability and emptiness he was feeling, and it also highlighted why the self-care things he was consciously doing weren’t having a huge impact. He still wasn’t getting the energies of his core qualities in his daily life.
We brainstormed ideas for how he could more fully live and honor his values. How could he build in some deep conversation and connection? The group gatherings with friends and cocktails he’d been doing online weren’t actually providing that; he needed one-on-one time with just a few key people in his life. So he reached out to them and got regular phone dates in the calendar.
How could he give himself some dose of that core value of newness and adventure right now, even while so much was monotonous on the surface level of his experience? Could it come through reading something wildly different or by taking a bold risk in her work? What about doing service in his community in a way that was genuinely new for him? And what would give him expression of his third value of digging deeply into hard work on a project to meet a challenge?
He continued to use an evening check-in time with himself to see how much room his values had for expression during the day and to make tweaks for the following day accordingly.
Knowing and living our values is always important, but it’s particularly so right now, when so much in our lives is out of our control and when our usual sources of comfort and autonomy may be unavailable. The question “Is the world going how I want it to go right now?” may not have our desired answer for a while. But alongside that question, we can also ask: “How do I want to show up in this time?”
Here’s the process to identify your own values and figure out how to design your days to live them more fully.
Write down three peak experiences from your life. What experiences have been the most fulfilling to you? What experiences have left you feeling like you got to be true to the essence of yourself? A few things to consider as you answer this question: You might find your mind immediately going to the big, external wins (things like getting a promotion or getting your best time in a race). Make sure you are in fact feeling into your own experience—not a cultural narrative of what’s supposed to be a peak moment. Especially look for quieter peak experiences: an amazing hike with a dear friend or a special conversation with a loved one that was imbued with curiosity and respect. Often, women feel they have to go way back in time to recall an experience that felt joyful and authentic. That’s okay. Write down those experiences even if they were decades ago.
Next, look at your peak experiences and notice what values of yours were being expressed through them. For example, a peak experience of hosting an amazing birthday gathering for a friend might have honored your value of creativity or community. An experience of completing a difficult hike might honor the value of connection to nature or of meeting a challenge. Reflect on your experiences to identify what it is about each one that made it so rich and fulfilling for you: Which of your values were being honored or expressed in the experience?
From there, hone your list of three to five primary core values, choosing words or phrases that resonate for you. You might find there isn’t quite a word to describe your value of working really hard with a team to overcome a challenge together. Perhaps it feels like “teamwork” doesn’t quite capture it, nor does any single word. So you might want to then invent a phrase that captures this value for you, like “teams/challenge” or “teamwork/hard work/mountaintop moment.” This is also the time to reduce any redundancies. In your writing above, you might be using two different words to describe the same thing, for example naming “freedom” and “choice” when referring to the same quality. Choose one as your working term for that core value. Then list your three to five core values.
Now comes the application of this to your daily life. On a scale of one to ten, rate how expressed each of these values is in your life. Ten being fully expressed, one being not expressed at all or even getting trampled on. If you are seeing some low numbers here, that gives you some clues about what may be feeling off or depleting in your life. We need to be expressing our values to feel vital and well.
Next, journal about how current circumstances are impacting your expression of your values. Perhaps some of the ways you used to express your values aren’t available to you now, like honoring a value of “connection” by heading to your beloved coworking space or honoring your value of service by showing up to teach kids music every week. If some of your opportunities to express your values are on pause, identify new ways you can express them under the current circumstances.
Finally, explore how the current pandemic circumstances present new pathways for you to express your values, more boldly or more meaningfully than before. How could this be a particularly powerful or growth-inducing time in terms of your journey of living values?
From there, put into practice some simple ways to live your values more each day. Here are some ideas:
Brainstorm and write down ways you can express and honor your values more, day-to-day, in the midst of pandemic reality. Put those activities into your calendar if they are things that will take time. But also think about how you can do routine tasks in new ways or with a different intention to more fully embody your values as you do them. How can you live your value of “fun” or “caring” or “trust more” in what you already do?
Post your core values somewhere you can see them and be reminded of your own unique recipe for a satisfying day.
When you wake up in the morning, take one minute to consider how you can live your values that day. In the evening, check in to see how you did and what shifts you’d like to make for the next day. Now you have your orientation point: Did I live my values today? How boldly? How fully? And what can I do tomorrow to live them even more?
Let me know if this exercise has worked for you to help you identify your own core values. If you would like to share them below it may help another community member who is going through the same. Thank you so much for reading.