Discovering your core values
Updated: Apr 11
Including workbook with exercise and step-by-step instructions
What are core values?
Simply put, your personal core values are your fundamental beliefs. They reflect what you stand for, what’s important to you. Your core values guide your behavior and your decisions. The emphasis here is on YOU; we're not talking about values in a sense of morality or social norms.
Why core values are important
As a career coach, personal values are one of the most important tools in my work with any client, and one of the first things I want to get clarity on. For me, those values form the base for all subsequent work, such as creating a personal mission statement, building a vision or setting career goals.
If our goals are not set in line with our values, we’ll have a much harder time mastering the challenges along the way. Similarly, if your job does not satisfy your personal values, you’re more likely to experience a lack of motivation and fulfillment in the long run. Knowing your values can therefore help you make the right career choice.
And there are other reasons why identifying your core values is beneficial, such as
Making good decisions
Knowing your personal values is one of the best tools to make difficult decisions. If you’re crystal clear about what you want and what’s important to you, you can eliminate a lot of inner dialogue and arrive at decisions more efficiently and with more confidence. Or put the other way around, I believe the best decisions we make are the ones based on and aligned with our values.
Experiencing more fulfillment
People who live by their values tend to experience greater fulfillment and happiness. In other words, if we neglect our personal values, we suffer mentally and emotionally. I have experienced this in my own life too. Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, claims that our values are even more important than our goals, because "we might not reach our goals, but we can always choose to live by our values".
Becoming an effective leader
Getting clarity on your own values is also a critical step in becoming an effective and authentic leader. Studies have shown that leaders who are seen as inspiring tend to have consistent values that they display every day. It seems that people become effective leaders when they are rooted in who they are and what matters most to them.
Are you ready to discover your personal values? Scroll down to find an exercise that will help you discover yours.
Exercise - Discover Your Core Values
Download the workbook or follow the step-by-step instructions below
Before you start
Approach things with an open mind. We’re often quick to presume we know the answers before we even start. As a result, we are missing the opportunity to embark on a creative self-discovery process. Adopt a beginner's mind by letting go of any expectations about what will happen and instead develop a curiosity to understand yourself more deeply.
Core values are discovered, not selected. Your core values are an integral part of you and the point of the following exercise is to help you become consciously aware of them. Core values are not the same as aspirational values that express who you want to be, what you aspire to.
To do this exercise, all you need is a piece of paper, a pen and an undisturbed place. When you're ready, start by following the instructions below.
Step 1 - List up
Things you enjoy
Make a list of things you enjoy - What are your interests and hobbies? What are you passionate about? How do you spend your free time? List up everything that comes to your mind.
Think about why you enjoy these things - This is a crucial element of the exercise. Two people can have the same interest, let’s say they like playing tennis, but their WHYs can be very different. One person might enjoy the competition and the challenge, for them it’s about winning and seeing who’s the better player. The other person might play tennis to get some exercise and keep in shape, for them it’s part of a healthy lifestyle. Take some time and carefully think about your motivations for the activities you listed.
Assign values - Go back to your list and try to determine what values lie behind each of the things you enjoy. In some cases the values already became evident when you thought about your motivations. In the example of the person that likes to play tennis in order to win, their values might be “Challenge” or “Recognition”.
Think about people that inspire you - These can be people you know personally or indirectly or even historical figures. List them all up. Again, the important part is to ask yourself why you respect or admire these people. What do they stand for, what values do they represent?
Same as before, list up the reasons and determine the underlying values.
Think about negative experiences - Another way to discover your values is by remembering situations in which you were frustrated, upset or sad. What did you feel in those particular situations and why?
What values were being violated or suppressed? Write them down.
If you need help to come up with values, you can refer to a list of the most common values
below (page 6 in your workbook). The list is by no means exhaustive so don't restrict yourself to those values only.
Step 2 - Group together
By now, you might have a long list of personal values. Maybe there are 10, 20 or 50 values on your list. The next step is to group similar values under related themes.
For example, compassion, empathy and understanding are similar. Or independence, freedom and individuality are related. Group them together.
Step 3 - Find a common theme
Look at each group and select a word that best represents the whole group. It can be one of the values within the group or a new word.
For example, I might choose “self-reliance” as the word that best describes my values of independence, freedom and individuality.
Step 4 - Determine top values
After completing step 3, you may still have a considerable list of values. Now comes the time to determine which values are most important to you.
You want to end up at somewhere between 5 to 10 values. If you have too many, you won’t be able to remember them all and to use them effectively, for example when making difficult decisions. Picking just a few forces you to get to the root of who you really are and what you stand for.
Ask yourself: What values are essential to your life? What values represent your primary way of being?
Step 5 - Rank your values
In this last step, we want to rank your core values in order of importance. This is usually the most challenging part but also a crucial one; you may have core values that are in conflict with each other, for example, growth and stability. Or there might be situations where not all your values can be met. So it’s important to know which of your values are non-negotiable.
In order to do this, write down your core values in no particular order. Then look at the first two values and ask yourself, "If I could satisfy only one of these, which would I choose?" Go through the whole list and compare all values with each other until your list is in the right order.
Step 6 - Review and adjust
Congratulations! You’ve completed the exercise. It's time to take a break and clear your mind. I recommend to “sleep over it” and come back to your list the next day.
With a fresh mind, review your core values list.
Do these values “feel right”? Do they resonate with you?
Do these values represent things you would support, even if your choice wasn’t popular?
Would you be comfortable and proud to tell your values to your friends and family?
Don’t hesitate to make changes to your list, nothing is written in stone.
Step 7 - Observe yourself
Over the coming days, be mindful of the choices you make and keep reviewing your list regularly.
Whenever you make a decision, consciously put a label on the values behind. Are the values on your list reflected in your daily life. If not, are there other values that you are living by as you go through your day? Keep working on your list (removing/replacing values, changing the order, finding a better word to describe a specific value, etc.) until you are satisfied with it.
Knowing your core values is only one step on the path to an authentic life. Learning to apply them daily is a major component to happiness and success.
The key, especially in the beginning, is to keep your values top of mind. Put them where you can always see them, for example on post-it notes or on your screensaver or desktop.