Do you have a prescribed set of values that you live by? Most of us have an underlying ‘code of ethics’ that we adhere to but have you ever set aside some time to evaluate and consider what values are truly important to you?

What are Personal Values?

Values are a set of words that represent ideas and beliefs that (should) explain the ‘why’ behind a company or a person's motives. Companies are big on defining their values as they create purpose however words like integrity, empowerment and diversity seem to lose their power when expressed in framed posters in the staff room.

I fully appreciate that companies need to work from an agreed set of principles, however in my limited corporate experience, I feel like it's lip service rather than an actual embodiment of the values. I believe the reason companies struggle to align all employees to their values is that each individual has their own set of values that will ultimately override any corporate values that they need to adhere to at work.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this is merely an observation. I’m not alone though of course. You’ll find most progressive companies, companies that truly believe in and want to uphold their values, prefer to hire people on a cultural match rather than a skills match. Culture is a set of ideas and behaviours that we all agree to live by which is basically the same definition of values.

So how do we define our own personal values and why should we bother?

How do I find my personal values?

Defining your own personal values is something that needs to be done when you are ready to give it 100% of your attention. There are literally thousands of methods to distill your values on the internet. There are so many apps, tests and quizzes out there. I’m sure you would’ve done some kind of work team building exercise that had you listing core values.

The kind of reflection required to discover your core values must be deep and done without fear of judgement. The method I used was basically a combination of lots of peoples methods remembered poorly and stitched back together! It worked for me though so it may work for you.

You start with this monster list of values. I’ve made you a PDF here so you can print out for yourself. Now depending on who you're reading (James Clear or Brené Brown for example) you need to whittle these values down to 2 to 5 key values. Personally I landed on the number 3 which I like to think works as a kind of moral GPS, triangulating your position in life.

In order to get to these three values you need to go through the list and start selecting values that you want to live by. There are a few questions you can ask yourself if you're struggling to get started: What are the values of people you admire most? What values do you think you couldn’t live without? Once you have a list of about 15 you can then start to break them down into categories. Chances are you’ll have a few that could come under the same umbrella.

Once you have condensed your values as much as possible you then have to stack them against each other and remove the ones that don’t make the cut until you have three left. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to live by the values that don’t make the top three (I no longer believe in ‘Ambition’ because it didn’t make that cut!) but if you have more than three then you might as well have none at all. No one can focus on 5 things at once and I should know! I’m a working mum with 2 kids, 2.5 companies and more extra curricular activities than I have time for. 3 values to live by is plenty.

Once you have your three values locked in you can fill out the following to help the “operationalizing of your values” making sure they become behaviors rather than BS as Brené Brown put it in her book “Daring to Lead”.

These are your personal values and not a company team building exercise so leaning into them and making them an integral part of your own being is incredibly important, otherwise what’s the point?

To help think through operationalizing your values ask yourself:

  1. What are three behaviours that support your value?
  2. What are three slippery behaviours that are outside of your value?
  3. What’s an example of a time when you fully lived into this value?

The second part of this exercise is another series of questions that I think are even more important because it asks you to think about someone who knows and supports your values. This step is missing in most of these value exercises - this step creates accountability. I can tell you I’m ‘courageous’ until the cows come home but until there is someone who understands that's a core value for you then who’s to keep you accountable?

I recommend once you’ve these questions, sit down with this so-called “someone” and read through your answers. I did this with Matt (obviously) and even though he knows me better than anyone else, it was still the first time he’d heard the values that are important to me and that I want to live by.

My values, by the way, are curiosity, usefulness and abundance.

Now that Matt understands what my values are it has opened up more conversation about why I do the things I do. For example I’ve been really trying to spend time with people when I say I will. How often do you run into someone and say ‘yeah, let's totally catch up for a drink’ and do nothing until you bump into each other again 12 months later.

Curiosity is something I like to practice with others so I say yes and I take action. This isn't me avoiding my family, which it could’ve looked like from their perspective. These ‘catch ups’ give me the opportunity to be useful outside of my immediate family, it's like working out at the gym to get stronger. Abundance is my value that I don’t fully own yet but it made the list because it's something I’m working towards in therapy.

Abundance is something that is taught best by my kids. They have no concept of finite - their energy, their ideas, their amazing ability to be so incredibly sad that you confiscated the Nintendo then, in the same breath, be so full of joy that we are having jam sandwiches for lunch. It’s truly inspiring!

Why do we need Personal Values?

The reason we need values is because we all need help. When life is going along swimmingly we tend to get comfortable and forget our underlying purpose. When things aren’t going well we need to have our values ready to go front and centre. That’s why I recommend working on them when you can give them 100% of your attention. Otherwise it’s like learning to swim when you're drowning.

Whenever we aren’t living into our values you can normally feel it - physically. Feelings are feelings after all. My alarm bells are in my stomach. I feel the anxiety cloud spending like an incoming storm in the top of my belly. If I ignore it, the storm can fill me with dread and left unchecked a full blown anxiety attack washes through me.

Having my values clearly defined gives me the opportunity and tools to change direction quickly. The other day I was in a furious rage - I forget what about but I was definitely pissed at Matt. I just got in the car and stormed off, tears welling up in my eyes. As I was driving I did the ‘tactical breathing’ exercise (Inhale deeply for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, slowly exhale for a count of 4, hold the empty breath for a count of 4) and the lump in my throat started to subside, another 4x 4x 4x 4x and my stomach started to calm.

As I was driving up the street, the traffic was heavy, a man had been waiting to pull in for about 10 cars and the shitty drivers weren’t letting him in. I stopped and let him in, channeling my power value of usefulness. The old guy looked at me and gave a massive two handed wave and a thumbs up as he took full control of the steering wheel again and pulled into the traffic.

I was back. I was calm and I felt centred again.

I don’t know if this situation may or may not have helped if I haven’t defined my own personal values but by knowing and therefore being about to lean into them, I was able to do something! So often in these moments of doubt, sadness, rage or loneliness we just don’t know what to do.

I hope you give this exercise a try. It has really helped me find clarity and reason. Some smart person said if you can’t put your purpose on a t-shirt then how can you expect anyone else to rally around your cause! With that in mind I’ve mocked up my values t-shirt. I’m happy to do the same for you! Why not wear them proudly?

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