This is part of my series on The Six Levels of Intentionality.
The Values level contains the core concepts behind everything we do. Taking the time and effort to identify and define our values can help us consciously build a life we can be proud of. And it can help us fight feelings of dissatisfaction and doubt around what we’re doing and whether or not it’s “worth it.”
Discovering what our values are is not a one-time task, but rather something we need to revisit periodically throughout our lives. Although the Values level is one of the most stable in the stack, it does and should change over time. After all, our values both define and are defined by how we spend our time, where we find meaning, and the things we create and put out into the world.
Keep in mind as you search, that values are concepts and not real things. If what you land on is something that can be either achieved or completed, dig a little deeper.
Figuring this out will not be a linear process. Expect to jump around between the various levels as you explore, and expect it to take more than a single sitting. My advice here is to start with what you know and work your way outwards, drawing connections as you go.
Reminder: take notes! Make sure you write down or otherwise record your thoughts as you go through this reflection process. It will make it far easier to continue between breaks, and it will ensure you don’t forget something you’ve already gone through the trouble to uncover.
Discovering Your Values Based on Your Patterns
If you’re not sure where to start, don’t have a clear picture of any of the other levels in order to help you figure this one out, then start here.
Whether or not we are aware of it, the choices we make leave patterns in our wake. Unfortunately, they’re not often visible to us without dedicated reflection. But that’s what we’re here to do.
- Think back on your entire life. (Break it up into chunks like “childhood”, “teenage years”, etc. if that makes it easier.) Write down or record to the best of your ability, all the things you’ve enjoyed most in your life. They can be events, pastimes, hobbies, media, anything. What has made you feel particularly excited or passionate? What caught your attention easily?
- Once you feel like you’ve captured at least most of it, review your list and look for connections, commonalities, coincidences. They might be things like, who you were with, types of activities, topics, themes, time of year, etc. Don’t limit yourself here, draw as many connections as you can.
- Identify the strongest patterns. Strength here could mean either quantity or quality. Look for what commonalities have the most connections or instances. Look for which connections evoke the strongest emotional responses when you think about them.
- You may find that some of those strong connections include quality time spent with friends, or hobbies that include building structures or models, or physical activities like sports or climbing. Or perhaps, like me, you find that so many of the things you’ve enjoyed and felt most passionate about are all stories.
- Refine into concepts. Each of those strong connections is pointing to something about you. Something lasting about you. Drill down until you find the concepts.
- Behind those connections you may find that you value close friendships, or building and creating, or physical activity, or team sports, or storytelling.
Discovering Your Values Based on your Ideal, Vision, Dream, or Long-Term Goals
If you’ve already started on the Ideal level, you can use what you have there to figure out what some of your values are.
Even if you haven’t started on that, you may have an existing vision board, or other long-term goal worksheet (maybe done for work, school, or coaching). Even if it’s several years old or outdated, that will be a great place to start. Or, you may have some long-term goals or dreams that you already keep in mind or refer back to frequently.
- Take some time to examine any existing materials or goals (even if you feel they’re out of date). Record how you feel about those things now. Why you chose them, whether those reasons still apply to you today, if you would pick the same goals again today, etc.
- For items that are no longer relevant to you today, ask yourself what changed. Was it your circumstances? Was it your interests? Something else? What do you think it says about you that you no longer want this thing you once wanted?
- For items that are still relevant, ask yourself why they’ve endured. What about these dreams have made them stick? What would you gain that’s worth continuing working toward them?
- Look for common threads. What do these goals have in common? Even the ones you no longer want — after all, you wanted them once. Are there any common themes or topics?
- Dig a little deeper and find those core concepts; not the goal, not anything that can be accomplished or completed, but the idea behind it that gives it meaning.
- Example: A dream for the future that includes something like “ending hunger” might point to valuing compassion, equality, freedom from suffering, or the preservation of life.
- Example: An Ideal that includes living in a small apartment may point to valuing simplicity, modest living, or social relationships and connection.
Discovering Your Values Based On Career, Education, Areas, and Ongoing Projects
Another way of identifying your values is by taking a look at what you have in motion already: what you have dedicated your time and energy to, what short-term goals you’re already moving toward, and what career choices you’ve made so far. If you’ve already worked on the Areas, Projects, or Tasks levels, or have a task or project manager you’re already using, referring to those will help get you started.
- Examine the current Areas of your life, the roles you play such as job, family, and other social responsibilities (clubs, community service, volunteer organizations, etc.). Look at where you are spending a lot of your time, and what choices and circumstances led you to do so. Ask yourself why you spend your time here. Think about those moments that make it feel like it’s worth all the work you put in.
- Reflect on how you spend your time. Do you feel at all dissatisfied? Are there things you would rather be doing over what you currently are doing? Why? Why do you want one thing over another? What do you dislike about how you spend your time? What are you lacking?
- Examine Projects you have in motion already. Why did you start these projects? What about them appealed to you? Why did you choose this project over another? Did you have to take the project on due to other commitments like your job or long-term goals? Why are those larger reasons important to you?
- Reflect on your career choices and education so far. Why did you choose to study or train in your particular field? What have you learned outside of formal education; what have you gone out of your way to learn about? What jobs have you taken on? Where did you feel most effective? Where did you feel most uncomfortable? What did you hope to accomplish at each of those jobs, beyond your job description?
- Again, take all those reflections and find the common threads. Then, drill down to the conceptual level. The reason behind the reason. The idea behind the goal.
Think of your new list of values as a guide for how to spend your time, and a reminder of why you’re doing it. But also remember that the guide can and should be re-written when it no longer serves you. You’re allowed to grow out of it. You’re allowed to change your mind. When it starts to feel wrong or incomplete, maybe it’s time to take another look.
Always feel free to ask questions in the comments, and make requests for future posts via my Ko-Fi page.