In 1942, the U.S. merchant ship SS Alcoa Guide was attacked while carrying supplies from from New Jersey to the Caribbean.
During the night, a German submarine surfaced and opened fire on the ship. As a merchant ship, the Alcoa Guide had no way to defend itself.
As the ship began descending to the ocean-floor, it’s crew managed to escape in two lifeboats and a raft.
They had survived, but were far from safety, floating in the ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of North Carolina.
Instead of sitting still and letting the currents of the sea take them where they may, the crew made a plan.
It started with the idea to navigate towards established shipping lanes. There, they’d be likely to be spotted by another ship or a plane from shore.
But how to get there? Take a guess at what direction is right and hope for the best?
No! The crew used a reliable tool, a magnetic compass, to make that decision.
Like many explorers and navigators before them, the compass helped them point their boats in the right direction. A little over three days later, the two lifeboats were rescued.
When they were stranded at sea, the crew of the Alcoa Guide could have gone in an infinite number of directions.
But of that endless pool of directions, only a few were likely to lead them to safety.
The same challenge is true in life.
You have unlimited possibilities for how to act each day. But a relatively small number of those options will get you in the direction you want to go.
Since the odds of your best life spontaneously coming to fruition are not in your favor, you can’t leave it to chance. Living your best life takes deliberate action.
Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
A life is made of days. Days are made of moments. And moments are made of decisions.
The closer your decisions each day align with the big-picture view of what’s most important to you, the more likely you are to create the future you want for yourself!
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re so zoomed in to the details of every day.
But what if, like sailors on a ship, you had a tool you could rely on to help make decisions of which way to go?
Defining and documenting your core values gives you a reliable tool to re-orient with your best self on a daily basis.
What are Core Values?
In short, your core values are the beliefs you hold about what is most important in your life.
Although it’s possible that you’ll the same core values as somebody else, this is a deeply personal exercise.
This isn’t about what your mom taught you, what your best friend says, or what you’ve read online. It’s about what you care about most.
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
And what results from the process of defining your values is a valuable tool that can impact your life in numerous ways.
Why Bother to Define Your Core Values?
Your values are like a compass: a reliable tool that can help you out when you’re trying to figure out which way to go.
To continue the metaphor, the map you navigate with is made up of your dreams, and your vision for the future you want to live. The compass doesn’t tell you everything along the way, but it does help keep you pointed in the right direction.
To break things down more deliberately, defining your core values brings four main benefits:
- They Keep You on Track: Defining and documenting your values solidifies your self-identity. And how you see yourself determines how you’ll act each day.
- They Simplify Decision-Making: When faced with multiple options in life, what should you do? Instead re-inventing the wheel every day, knowing your core values helps you make the decisions that align most with what you care about.
- They Help Prevent Mistakes: Building something great (like good health) takes discipline and patience, but one toxic mistake can bring it all crumbling down. Your values help you avoid those toxic decisions or behaviors before you pursue them.
- They Help Create Meaning in Everyday Life: It’s inevitable that you have to do difficult things and face discomfort in life. But looking at these challenges through the lens of your values can shift your narrative. (e.g. Instead of complaining about the hassle of driving your sibling across town, you can reflect on how if aligns with something you value: building deep connections with your family.)
5 Steps to Defining Your Core Values
It’s clear that defining your values is a worthwhile exercise.
But where to start with such complex topic?
There are lots of approaches to take when defining your values. But the underlying framework tend to be the same.
Here is the 5-step structure you can use to define your core values:
- Prepare yourself for deep work
- Brainstorm to explore resonant options
- Select 4-5 values that are most important to you
- Prioritize your top values in order of importance
- Document your values to refer to later
(Before we dive in, I wanted to let you know that I created a free downloadable guide to simplify this process for you. Simply enter your email below to get the guide!)
1) Prepare Yourself for Deep Work
Defining your values isn’t a spur-of-the-moment activity to do between meetings.
You need to set the stage for deep, focused inner work. The results of this exercise aren’t permanent, but it’s worth doing it right the first time around.
Here are the key elements to preparing for focused work:
- Give yourself time. Deep work requires a consistent period of undivided attention. Book a chunk of time on your calendar. Plan ahead for this so you don’t feel rushed.
- Give yourself space. Find a physical environment that will help you get focused and stay focused.
- Prepare your mind. Clear any attention residue from what you were doing earlier in the day. (Meditation, a workout, or a cold shower are good activities for this.)
- Eliminate potential distractions. Turn off your phone, or put it in airplane mode. If you’re using a computer, turn off your WiFi. Resist the urge to get swept into other tasks, even for a minute. Distractions pull you out of the depths of your work to the surface of something else.
2) Brainstorm to Explore Possible Options
Start your values exploration by considering a wide range of potential options for your values.
Exploring a range of options helps build conviction in your decisions, because you know you’ve looked at many options.
Below are three exercises to help with this. Try approaching it this process from multiple angles! Or, just pick one exercise that you feel most drawn to.
Exploration Exercise 1: Inspiration via Admiration
This exercise uses people you admire as inspiration for what you think is important.
- Identify People You Admire: Who do you admire most? Write them down. This could be family members, coworkers, close friends, famous people, fictional characters, or anyone else in your life!
- Identify Traits That you Admire in These People: What specifically do you admire about each of these people? Take time to jot down as many traits as you can think of. If you notice overlapping traits, write them down for each person! That’s valuable data to know.
- Connect these traits with your life experience: How have these traits played a role in your life? Reflect on how the traits of those you admire have showed up in your personal experiences. Are there any important life moments or decisions where these traits have shown up? What do these traits mean to you? Why did you pick them?
- Select Resonant Traits: Which of these traits feels most important to you? Pick the traits that resonate most strongly with you.
Exploration Exercise 2: Self-Reflection
This approach comes at it from a blank slate.
- Reflect With These Questions
- What do I care about most? Why? What traits show up when I act in-line with those things?
- When am I at my best? What qualities are present when I’m in that state?
- What have been some of my biggest “wins” in life? Why were they so important to me?
- What are some of the most important insights/learnings in my life? Why did they leave such a mark?
- What have been the inflection points in your life? What caused those times to be so significant?
- Identify Possible Values From Your Answers: What traits come to mind as you think through these questions? Write them down.
- Identify what resonates most: Which of the traits you identifies feels most strongly in-line with you? Make note of these.
Exploration Exercise 3: Use a Reference
Below is a list of common values that you can use as an additional source of inspiration.
Definitions of these values are purposely left off. Everyone interprets things differently. What matters most is that you understand it deeply.
Follow these steps as you use the list below:
- Take a first pass through the list, making notes of which values feel important to you.
- Go through the list a second time, more intentionally considering the values.
- Take a look at the group of values you noted As you read through the list, make note of which feel important to you. Do this on Make note of
66 Common Values
- Inner Harmony
- Meaningful Work
3) Select 4-5 Core Values
After going through any of the exercises in step 2, you should have a range of values that feel important to you. (When I did this exercise, there were a dozen or so qualities that felt important.)
But to make your values an effective tool, it needs to be focused. Take time to go deeper and identify your top 4-5 values.
Which of the values you identified are most important to you? Of the values you identified, which 4-5 of them outshine the rest?
To help with this process, group any similar values together. Each core value you select should feel distinct from the others.
This part of the exercise can feel intimidating. Be honest with yourself and trust your gut!
There’s no one best way to do this. It’s all about what you believe for yourself.
4) Prioritize Your Core Values
The final level of clarity you can define with your values is prioritization.
Of the core values you’ve defined, which is most important to you right now? Then what?
It’s important to note that this is not saying “This will be my prioritization for forever.”
People change over time. You will too. So your values, and their prioritization can change too.
But at this point in time, understanding how your values stack up against one another gives you greater clarity to work with.
5) Document and Define Your Core Values
Solidify your commitment to your core values by writing them down, along with what they mean to you, and a couple “gut-checks” to see if you’re on track with it.
For example, one of my core values is Authenticity.
What it means to me: Living a life that’s true to what I care about.
- Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with my priorities?
- Am I in-tune with what matters most? Am I taking time to reflect and connect with myself on a regular basis?
These definitions don’t need to be perfect. All that matters is that it resonates with you.
Let Your Values Guide you to Your Best Life
Life can be difficult to navigate. There are endless options of where to go and what to do, and constant demands for your time and attention.
Changes and challenges that pop up unexpectedly. There’s no way to prepare for everything that life will throw your way. And relying on your mood of the day, or what happens to be around you to make decisions is an unreliable approach.
One way to overcome these challenges is by defining your core values. These core values are a trustworthy tool to help you align your daily decisions with the big picture of what you care about.
Knowing your core values helps you find meaning in daily life, live with integrity, and stay on track with what matters most to you.
So block off some time in the next week to define your core values. Your future self will thank you! 🙂
- Thanks to Smithsonian Magazine, where I learned about the SS Alcoa Guide
- HT: Kelly McGonigal for sharing about a Stanford study on the impact of values in her book “The Upside of Stress”.