No, not the list you made at work. Your REAL values.

We behave, it is said, in accordance with our values.

That’s a disturbing thought, given my all-too-human propensity to act in ways that blatantly conflict with those attributes which I profess to value most highly.

For instance, I might choose an evening on the couch with an episode of my streaming-obsession-du-jour over more intellectually or spiritually rewarding pursuits. It appears that in those moments—which, lately, are alarmingly frequent—I value the ease of entertainment over my commitment to lifelong learning and growth.

When I give in to my tendency to put off difficult conversations, I am exposing my preference for comfort over doing the often-challenging work of deepening relationships.

Generally, I’d rather stick a seafood fork in my eye than show vulnerability. 

Sometimes, you’ll find me on the abovementioned couch eating a handful of Oreo Thins as a zero-sum reward for eating my veggies, or as a sweet comfort amid the chaos.

They’re lemon-flavored.

I could natter on endlessly about how much I value my health, my deep connections with people I care about, and my sense that there’s still so much I want to learn. And you’d be forgiven for challenging these declarations based on my behavior. 

I’ve noticed that if I’m not mindful of my day-to-day connection with what’s truly important to me, I default to habits of comfort and defeat rather than growth and optimism. 

The irony is not lost on me, considering that among the basic coaching tasks I do, helping clients define and refine their values is a big part of highlighting the path to their best lives. 

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about why I sometimes behave in ways that are contrary to my values: it’s neither a weak spirit nor lack of intention. I simply can’t bring my aspirational values into being if I don’t remember what they are.

How is it possible to be so “forgetful” of the things that I say matter most to me?

I believe that part of the issue is that most methods of uncovering what’s truly important fall short, as they’re a little too generic to resonate deeply with me. 

Most value-defining exercises ask you straight up to “list your values” or use a coaching framework that suggests questions like:

  • “What parts of your life or work mean the most to you?”  
  • “Why are you committed to your vision?” 
  • “What are the most important values inherent in your personal and business philosophies?”

But my experience with questions like these is that it mostly leads people to come up with a list of the “right” values—the ones we all know are important, like integrity, respect, excellence, accountability, teamwork, diversity. 

In fact, you can search the internet for examples of core values and see long lists of words from which to choose. These words are so aspirational that you’ll want to choose them all! 

Yes to reliability! 

Yes to open-mindedness! 

Ten times yes to authenticity, compassion, community, courage, justice!

Here’s the crux of the issue: I’ve discovered that choosing from a list of curated words tends to lead to a list of values we all believe we “should” have, even if they lack inspirational resonance. We make lists of values that have no connection or alignment with what really lights us up. 

No wonder we don’t remember them.

Everyone’s lists tend to look alarmingly similar, which is especially ironic for those who have diversity on their list.

If an exercise in articulating values is going to have any utility, it’s far better to look for values by observing our own experience. 

If we assume that when we’re in “flow,” we’re doing what we’re meant to do, living out our purpose, then it follows that it will be more inspiring, and far more useful, to uncover what’s truly meaningful based on the qualities you experience during those times when you’re as close as you’ve ever been to living your best life.

I was introduced to this “peak experience value-mining exercise” in an Engagement Coaching course at my local community college, and it has been a powerful reminder of the most important qualities to keep front and center in my life. By imagining and mining a moment of bliss (in my case, snowboarding in the Alps), I discovered that I am living in alignment with my best life, and the things I most value in that life, when I have these three things:

  • An appreciation for my good fortune in being able to experience extraordinary things (like a European winter vacation, and excellent health) which I labeled “gratitude
  • The feeling I got from riding under a broad, blue sky in miles of untracked snow, and from taking in huge breaths of the freshest possible air, which I call “expansiveness
  • A sense that there was nowhere on earth I’d rather be than where I was in that moment, which I interpreted as “presence.”

Those three things—gratitude, expansiveness, and presence—are my benchmarks. If I’m about to say or do anything that doesn’t bring me closer to feelings of gratitude, expansiveness or presence, I now have an opportunity to question the wisdom of continuing down that path. 

Conversely, those things which bring me closer to those attributes are clear indications that I’m headed in the right direction.

So give this a try: fully imagine a time in your life when you believed, “Life doesn’t get much better than this!” It can be a moment, a day, or any other time period in your life when you were content, joyful, ecstatic, or quietly in love with life. Remember it with all your senses.

Tell the story to a compassionate witness or journal it out. From there, you’ll be able to identify the qualities you value and use them as a compass to guide your decision-making, alleviate stress, and re-ground yourself when things go sideways.

My clients have been surprised by the results. One client said, “I was so sure that my values would turn out to be integrity, honesty, things like that.” Instead, she connected with her desire for serenity, gratitude, beauty, and weightlessness. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t have or value integrity; it simply means that her path to integrity includes being aware of what brings her home to herself.  From there, she can do her best work in the world. 

Reconnecting to what matters most to you will help you weather tumultuous times, and bring you closer to living your unique values, as only you can envision them. 

Use them as your personal best-life-benchmark, and witness how much easier it is to make decisions, and stay connected to your highest self, even in troubled times.

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