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Six Strategies for Finding and Applying Your Core Values

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Core values are those beliefs, principles, and convictions that guide you through life and keep you strong during adversity. They help you decide between right and wrong. Core values differ from one person to another; they may conflict with the values of the company or team where you work or with those of family and friends; they may draw from or ignore the foundations of religion, politics, and philosophy. But they are important to you.

Core values fall into the area known as ethics. They help answer tricky questions (“is it worse to stay silent or to speak up when I disagree with someone’s actions?”). They guide your decisions and the way you solve problems every day of your life. They are your conscience.

So how do you determine your core values? The following six SMaRT strategies will help.

Whittle Down a List

One way to determine your core values is to start with a list of core values; the internet is loaded with sample lists of values. Then follow these steps:

  1. Select the values that are most important to you.
  2. Create five or six major groups of similar core values (for example, wealth, security, and freedom might all be grouped together).
  3. Circle the one word that best represents that group for you—let’s say security.

Now you know that achieving and maintaining security is a core value for you. The same technique works with team values, such as transparency, customers first, and accountability.

All your choices and groupings are your own. For example, you might also form a group of wealth, security, and freedom but choose wealth as the core value. Or you might group freedom with happiness, personal development, and love and find that your core value is freedom.

TIP: You may have to add to the original list—lists vary in length and in detail.


Take a Quiz

VisualDNA has a free quiz that establishes some of your core values, such as your emphasis on relationships with people or on planning ahead. You might also discover your values by taking quizzes on relationships, interests, politics, or other subjects.

Quizzes may point you to areas in life where you experience stress between your core beliefs and your current situation or choices. For example, let’s say your core belief is that failure is not an option. Your fear of failure may keep you from acting and cause you to face failure because you refuse to act. That tension (damned if you do and damned if you don’t) may result in nearly unbearable stress. 

Observe Yourself

For one week, write down everything that happens to you that prompts joy, anger, stress, or gratitude. Once you have the list, look for patterns. Are you always joyful when you can share your expertise or your lunchtime with someone else (making “sharing” a core value)? Are you always angry when someone criticizes you or excludes you from a group (making “kindness” a core value)?

You might also look back over your life for incidences and people that prompted positive or negative feelings. What types of core values are represented by people you admire? What incidents seemed to be turning points in your life and what core values did they involve (for example, love, trust, pity)? 

Test Your Values

You need not find someone to wave a million dollars under your nose to test how honest you are. Instead, as you go through the day, keep aware of how closely you are acting to your core values.

How are your values holding up day-to-day? If one of your core values is family, yet you find yourself constantly at odds with your own family, you need to address the disparity. Suppose one of your team’s core values is kindness, yet a particular team member is always criticizing and spreading gossip about the others. Now suppose you ignore the situation: you are not only violating the team’s core values, you may also be violating one of your own core values as a leader.

How will your values affect the future?  When you need to make a decision, imagine how your core values will hold up after the decision is made. You may find two of your core values in conflict with each other: you want to change jobs, for example, but your relationship with your team conflicts with the need to advance your career. Going through such scenarios help you to come to decisions in line with the core values that matter the most to you—and to discover exactly what those values are.

TIP: Sometimes you have to let go of a core value (supporting your team) at least temporarily to satisfy a greater core value (supporting your family with a new job). That doesn’t negate the value; it merely determines its priority at that moment.


Consider How You Adapt Your Values

Core values may change depending on our role. Your core values as a friend may differ from your core values as a leader or a parent or a spouse. But they should not directly contradict each other. For example, as a friend you may value kindness over honesty; but as a leader you may value honesty over kindness. However, neither one is a true core value if you can completely abandon them—lie to your friend “because they won’t like me if they know the truth” and act unkind to your team “because leaders have to be firm.”

Core values may change over time. As you become more successful in your career, you may find that love trumps security as a core value. As your family becomes more independent, taking care of family may become less of a core value than maintaining your own health. As you age, your core values regarding the quality of your life and death may receive more attention. That type of change is a reflection of your changing circumstances.

Core values may also change as you learn more about yourself. Social changes, such as those that arose from the pandemic, confront us with some of our most deeply held ideas about ourselves. For example, the coronavirus prompted some people to wear masks to safeguard the lives of strangers, friends, and family; it prompted others to refuse masks in the name of personal freedom or because they trusted in religion more than science. The Vietnam War led some people to protest and some to join the armed forces and others to accept whatever happened in the lottery. Challenges bring your core values to your attention regardless of what you thought they were.

Your deepest held core values tend to stick with you the longest regardless of your role, the passage of time, and the challenges you face—but they may eventually change and that is normal. A growth mindset will help you navigate those changes.

Ask Questions

Most engagements with other people involve core values. Sometimes, a choice as simple as where to eat out reveals a core value: the most expensive restaurant in town, the most exclusive, the most convenient, or the one with the best food?

Before you marry or take a new job or—for example—loan money to a friend, you may want to discuss core values because major differences will affect your future. Listen closely to their reasons for disagreeing with you and consider whether and how much their core values will adversely affect your peace of mind and stress level. Do not try to force agreement. You are very unlikely to change someone else’s core values; that is the reason they are called “core” values.

Which core values are you committed to defending and which can you compromise over? For example, if one of your core values is freedom, are you willing to surrender some individual freedom to share your life with a significant other?

Many people find that talking with a spiritual leader, counselor, or other professional helps them to determine their core values and how to react if they two core values conflict.

TIP: If you find your core values are in conflict with someone else’s, you must decide whether you can find common ground, are able to embrace (and even enjoy) the difference, are mutually fine with not discussing the difference, or need to end the relationship.

Key Takeaways

Your core values guide you in decision making, problem-solving, and your daily actions, though you may not recognize them or think about them. To achieve clarity about your core values and how they are affecting you, try one of these six SMaRT strategies, from list-making to asking questions.

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