Every single last choice we make is based on our values. Whenever we decide between alternatives, we invariably choose the alternative what we value the most. Whether we acknowledge it or not, everything we do is a demonstration of what we consider most important at that moment.  So, knowing our values and organizing them in an order of priority is the starting point of personal strategic planning. It is only when we are clear about what we value, and in what order, that we can effectively organizing and plan our lives. Back in 2013 ( I know ancient history) in anticipating Hurricane/ tropical storm Irene, federal and state government entities all over the east coast had to choose between spending money during a time of fiscal scarcity and keeping people safe. They chose safety, no doubt with the memory of Katrina in mind. Of course, there was the inevitable media dissection afterwards but few – even the tea partyers—could deny that the value of life and safety had to be top priority.

What are Values?

Values are the principles upon which we base our actions i.e. they are an internal reference point for determining what is good, beneficial, important, useful, ethical.

Values are often lumped together with honesty and “integrity” (as in what is “right”) but can also be associated with what is personally meaningful – art, beauty, laughter.

Three accepted distinctions of value[1] are:

  1. What you find most important
  2. Intrinsic worth
  3. Your standards for judgment and appraisal.

The opposite of values are negative drivers[2] . . . the closely held beliefs that lead us down a negative path: resentment, control, need to get even, proving oneself, martyrdom, the desire to generate sympathy and the need to look good in the eyes of others. Since we can’t be in two places at once, finding our true values can often save us from our worst selves.

Know Your Values

There are many reasons it is helpful to know one’s own values. Values shape our choices and can guide us when we have to chose between two conflicting paths (work/family is a common one of those) . When we go against the grain of our values it erodes our self-esteem and can lead to more bad choices. Most importantly, values help us find our true purpose in life. . . what we believe in, stand for, would sacrifice for but, ultimately, what will fulfill us and make our lives truly worthwhile.

Value are typically not taught in school (although they should be!)  I, for one, never thought about mine until I became a coach even though they always influenced me from behind the scenes. Looking back, I might have made a number of different decisions in my life or, at least, not taken so long to find my true purpose.

Widely Held Values

It probably comes as no surprise that some the most commonly held values are: loving my family, compassion, making a difference and personal integrity.

Values Clarification

There are a number of ways to determine one’s top values. I usually suggest, narrowing down your list to 3-5. Usually values are captured in one word or a short phrase. Here’s a pretty complete list:

Accomplishment/ Results , Achievement, Adventure/ Excitement, Aesthetics/ Beauty, Altruism, Authenticity, Autonomy, Building things, Clarity, Commitment, Community, Compassion, Connection/ Bonding, Creativity, Developing others, Ease, Emotional health, Environment, Excellence, Family / family first, Financial freedom/ wealth, Fitness, Freedom/ Independence. Fun, Health/ Well-being, Honesty, Humor, Integrity, Intimacy, Joy, Leadership, Love, Loyalty. Making a difference, Mastery, Openness, Orderliness/ Accuracy, Partnership, Philanthropy, Power, Privacy/ Solitude, Recognition/ Acknowledgment, Religion, Risk taking, Romance, Security, Self-expression, Sensuality, Service/ Contribution, Spirituality, Success, Trust, Vitality and others we may have overlooked.

To do your Values Clarification first narrow down to 10 from this list, adding any you find missing. Then, you can choose one of the two following methods:

Method 1.  Prioritize those 10 first in order of importance to you and then according to how you actually live them.

Method 2. I call this one “Sophie’s Choice.”  For all of you familiar with the very sad movie starring Meryl Streep who had to make an impossible choice to keep only one of her two children with her in the concentration camp, this method involves prioritizing all 10 by asking yourself “if I could have one but not the other . . .” This provides an opportunity to be crystal clear about if you are ever in conflict. [3]

Either way, once you know your values, you can take a look at your life and/ or business and see if there is a relationship between what is and isn’t working and make necessary adjustments. Don’t worry if those adjustments need some time to make . . . they just may. At least, you’ll be on your right path.

Means and End Goals

Make sure you differentiate between “means” goals and “ends” values. For instance “money” is a means to get to something else. The “end” value might be power, freedom, security or luxury/comfort. Always try to state your values as “ends” and not “means.”

You might also examine each value  to make it active, precise, and meaningful to you. For example, the value “Freedom” may mean “freedom from oppression”, “freedom to be myself”, “expanding freedom”, or some other phrase that more precisely describes your particular values. Finally, ask people close to you if the list agrees with how they know you to be.

Your Values and Goals and Choices

Values ultimately can evolve into high level goals. People may value freedom or hold freedom and social justice as “an important goal that I work to achieve”. . .

When our values and what they lead us to are clear we can then plan accordingly (This is true for individuals and for businesses.). When we have a conflict and two divergent things are tugging at us, knowing our values can help make a difficult decision.



[1] http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/values.htm

[2] Ditzler, J. Your Best Year Yet: Ten Questions for Making Your next Twelve Months the Best Ever, New York: Warner Books, 2000. p.111.

[3] I learned this from executive coach, Steve Lishansky, CEO, Optimize International