This post picks up where the other one, My Winding Arrival Search for Values left off. After some contemplation during the 2018 new year holidays, as I returned to daily routine, I set off on a path to “find my center,” or more specifically, make the focus of my life be something a bit more wholesome and healthy than working for work’s sake (yes, I am a recovering workaholic). The first good chunk of 2018 involved mostly meandering through various topics/ideas and using the weekly reflection hour to process what I was reading and thinking. Eventually, I arrived at the conclusion that what I needed was to put all my concentration eggs into a personal core values basket.
Before we get into “the how” of that process, let’s start with “the why” and “the what.”
From the moment we wake up to the time when we hit the pillow at the end of a day, we are involved in a great deal of various activities. Sometimes, we happily go through the motions of the day. Sometimes we continue to go through the motions while beginning to get a sense that what we are doing seems to be losing its meaning. And sometimes after spending years (or even decades) on autopilot, especially in those quiet moments when we are stuck with our thoughts on a bus, a plane or a hiking trail, we think to ourselves, “WTF am I doing with my life? Does any of it even matter?”
Without a clear and conscious definition of what is important to us, we are in danger of veering off course. When that continues to happen year after year, we may one day find that existence has just become about eating, pooping, sleeping, keeping yourself numb with TV and/or social media and going to work to support the first 4 survival habits, while the dreams of becoming who we’ve always wanted to be are nothing but a distant mirage. Granted, this doesn’t happen the same way to all of us to this extent (or at all), but without the clarity of why we do what we do, the danger is still there.
On the other hand, when we take the time to define what is the most important to us, we can begin to view all other activities, no matter how trivial, as something that supports that which we find meaningful and purposeful. And if we continue to keep our values in mind when making choices in life, little by little, we bring ourselves back into alignment with that which gives us meaning. Just like the North Star has helped explorers for centuries to find their way, having explicitly defined core values and using them effectively could do the same for our own journeys through life.
As Stephen Covey wrote in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book everyone should have on their bookshelf, we all have a center. I mentioned above that my center used to be work. Other centers from his book, which I also mentioned previously can include friends, family, money, power, religion, entertainment, self or anything else that the default loop in our minds keeps coming back to again and again. A center is our foundation. It is a place we come back to when the world swirls around us and we need to get grounded. When our center is destabilized (e.g. the work center doesn’t like it when the leadership changes a direction of a company), we lose that last island of safety and stability and then it starts to feel like our entire existence descends into chaos. Unfortunately, most centers we typically gravitate toward are external; their stability depends on factors we do not always control. On the other hand, what makes values/principles center so valuable is that it is completely internal. When we establish it, we end up with a solid foundation that nothing and no one could ever shake.
The word “values” or the phrase “core values,” elicit different reactions in many of us. Those who spent a good chunk in the corporate world almost instantly begin to smell BS, and how can we blame them when so many companies pay meaningless corporate lip service to this term? For others, the term is simply too abstract (I started off in this camp). In a recent conversation with an individual who just set off on their own discovery path, they asked “why do I even need values? Can’t I just live without them as-is?” Well, bad news... Whether you want to have core values or not, whether you think they are BS or not, you already have them and there is nothing you can do to get rid of them. You may not be able to name them and write them down, but that doesn’t make the fact that you have them any less real.
To make this concept a bit less abstract, we could start by acknowledging that for all of us there are specific things/activities/attributes/actions/qualities in our lives that some find more important than others. And what some of us find important, the rest of us wouldn’t even give a second glance. Each human being is unique. What is important to me may not be important to my spouse and vice versa. Ultimately the things that we care about and where we choose to put our energy is what makes us who we are.
The exercise of defining our values is simply taking the time to identify and write down those attributes of existence that we find most important; nothing more and nothing less.
But there’s a catch: we are multidimensional; we have many responsibilities and even more interests and dreams of the future. At first glance, it seems there are plenty of things that are important to us. This is where the "core" comes into the picture. The real challenge and the goal of the exercise is to keep going deeper into the cluster and identify just a few (2 to 5) focal points that are at the very center, at the very core of who we are. Yes, the other things around the core are also important, maybe even very important, but when we find the core and are able to explicitly name it, we discover our foundation.
There are a number of various approaches to this discovery process. The most common one that I found is to start with a large list of qualities/attributes and whittle it down by thinking through what personally resonates. As I am writing this, I just typed “identify core values” into Google search and the very first search hit is exactly this exercise. It is not a bad starting point.
For me, another source of inspiration was Trent Hamm’s article which I discovered in the beginning of my own journey. His approach was to sit down and “find flow,” which was to identify the times and activities in his life when he felt genuine fulfillment, those moments that caused him to lose track of time and space. And then look for common attributes/patterns in what he wrote down.
Yet another approach is to think back to your own childhood. Back to the time when our lives were not burdened by the accountabilities of having to be responsible, mature adults. What were the things we enjoyed doing? What were the hobbies and activities that brought us joy? What were our personalities like back then? Somewhere in those memories might be hiding significant patterns.
I did all those things.
However, the one thing I haven’t seen many sources mention is the total amount of time and effort one might expect to invest into this search. Even the list exercise I linked to above might leave you with an impression that you can sit down, look at some words, cross some of them out, then cross out some more and by the next morning (or next week) you have identified your core values and you are done! Maybe that happened for someone out there. If you’ve done it in less than a week and found it meaningful, I’d love to hear from you. My initial discovery path where I began to feel that I had a somewhat well-defined and thought-out set of values took me from Spring of 2018 well into October of that year.
During that time, there were few things that helped catalyze the process:
The book was, A Pragmatist’s Guide to Life. It is not an easy read and at times can be somewhat dry and extremely analytical. First part of that book guides you through defining your personal “objective function,” which is their term for defining a set of attributes which maximize the intrinsic value one gets out of life. The book has many terms with examples and most of them are presented with arguments that both support as well as refute them, and it never gives an answer; that’s left for the reader. I also liked the thought experiments the book presents to help think through various questions. For example, if one believes happiness in itself has intrinsic value, would they agree to live out their entire life in a test tube if they could feel happy any time they want by simply pushing a button? I spent many hours talking through some of the ideas and questions in that book with my spouse as I reread parts that first section multiple times.
In July 2018, for almost unrelated reasons I decided to try journaling. Never had a diary or a journal in my entire life. Never attempted to start one before this. What triggered me this time was a human experiment to get myself to wake up early. While researching improving sleep, I came across an article that suggested daily journaling 15-30 minutes right before going to bed. The premise was that if you step away from a glowing screen right before bed (a plus in itself) and instead take that time to process your thoughts by writing them down, it helps to quiet the mind which in turn leads to falling asleep faster and having a better night’s rest. While improved sleep was the primary desired outcome, a welcome side-benefit ended up being that I could use the journal to write about the value discovery. The article was not wrong; writing helps thinking; who wooda thunk? Quick sidebar: that experiment indeed had a positive outcome. As I’m writing this post two years later, I still journal virtually every evening and my average wake up time is hours before it used to be.
Lastly, I’ve attended two meditation retreats that year. First one was a 2-day non-residential retreat in August near Boston. Second one was a 5-day silent retreat in Jefferson, ME. Although 5 days of silence just for this exercise would probably be excessive, there is something to be said about taking a good chunk of time just to be with yourself and your thoughts. It was on the second day of the August retreat, as I journaled during lunch and the smaller breaks in-between meditation sittings when all those data points from the word exercises, childhood memories and the Pragmatist’s Guide began to crystalize into something tangible and articulable.
This was not an easy path and if there are shortcuts, doesn’t feel like I found any that I can share here.
I have my very own set of core values, which I’ve listed on the homepage of my website, and I feel they do an excellent job of defining who I am. Those 5 values truly have become foundational.
I can’t claim that I am completely off the work center as once in a while I still manage to fall off the wagon. However, having gone through the motions of identifying the values, I feel it has been one of the most impactful and meaningful exercises within my own journey as it allowed me to establish a more balanced and solid foundation from which I show up for myself and others. It is the place I keep coming back to as I climb back onto the wagon every time I fall.