Living Your Values: How to Identify and Use Your Values to Make Decisions
Updated: May 3
I recently met with a student who had a problem that most soon-to-be graduates would love to have: he had two job offers. He began by telling me a little bit about both opportunities.
80-90 hour workweek
50-60 hour workweek
Above-average starting salary
Average starting salary
Four hours from hometown
Close to hometown
Supervisor known for mentorship
Variety of tasks
Tasks focus on being precise
Opportunity to express creativity
Which job offer would you accept? How would you decide?
He didn’t want advice about which offer to accept, but instead about how to go about deciding where he wanted to begin his career. His friends were happy to tell him which offer they thought he should accept, his mentor told him to “trust your gut,” and his parents suggested using a pros-and cons list. These approaches weren’t helping.
Over the course of a few meetings, I shared with him the following valued-based decision making process that you can use to make important decisions in your own life.
Determine Your Core Values
Write down a list of your core values. If identifying your core values is difficult, consider using a list like the one I have created here. At this point in the process, don’t overthink your selections. There are no good or bad values. Focus on the values that matter most to you; not what you think your values should be. A list of 20 or more values is a good place to start.
Group Similar Values
Group your list of core values into themes. Strive for four to six groupings. The list below is an example.
Group A: Achievement, Freedom, Growth, Security, Wealth
Group B: Health, Personal Development, Spirituality, Well-being
Group C: Creativity, Fun, Humor, Joy, Optimism
Group D: Equity, Kindness, Love, Trust
Group E: Giving, Helpful, Service,Teach
Identify the Central Themes
Choose one value within each group that best represents what that group of values means for you. Bold the central theme for each group and/or move it to the top of the list.
Growth, Achievement, Freedom, Security, Wealth
Health, Personal Development, Spirituality, Well-being
Joy, Creativity, Fun, Humor, Optimism
Kindness, Equity, Kindness, Love, Trust,
Service, Giving, Helpful,Teach
Before moving to the next step, stop and consider if the way you are currently living your life is aligned with how you want to live your life.
Write Values Statements
Write a statement for each value that gives it meaning. For example, if you value joy and have other values that include creativity, fun, and optimism, your statement could be: Strive for joy by exploring my creativity, having fun, and practicing optimism.
Prioritize Your Values
Not all values are equal, so take a moment to rank your values in order of importance. This isn’t an easy task. You might begin by asking yourself what values are most central to your life or what values represent your primary way of being in the world.
Use Your Values To Guide Your Actions
Once you've identified your core values, you can use them to help you make decisions. Before making a decision, ask yourself, “How does the decision align with my values?” Not only will this process improve your decision making, it will help you:
Gain clarity and direction
Behave more consistently
Stay true to yourself
Build a more fulfilling life
Decision making isn’t any easier when you use your values, but using a list of values helps you live with greater intention by aligning your behavior with what you value and resist temptations that conflict with your espoused beliefs.
Many difficult decisions will align with some but not all of your values. For example, from the job offer example provided at the start, one offer could align with the value of security (because of the higher salary), but it could conflict with the value of health (because the hours might not provide sufficient time for exercise and sufficient sleep). This is when the prioritized list can become helpful.
Remember that how we prioritize our values often changes over time. An early career professional might value creativity, but may temporarily choose to prioritize achievement. Later in life, achievement may no longer be important or become less important - that’s when other values could become more central. Since our values do change, regularly revisit your list to see if it’s aligned with the person you want to be.
As for my student, he prioritized paying off his student loans and working in a competitive environment, so he accepted Offer A.