Understanding your core values

There is an exercise in Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox that asks you to imagine yourself at 100 years old on your deathbed with one minute left to live. Your great-great-grandchild asks, ‘before you die, tell me what I should do with my life?’ Pause for a moment and now try to honestly answer the question immediately within the next minute. Write down your advice to your great-great-grandchild and what ever you have written is really advice to yourself. (extract from The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters)

It’s a quick, simple and clever exercise that can have a profound effect on your outlook on life because it forces you to focus on those values that are of uppermost importance to you – your values that come from the heart.

My immediate response to this task was to state my belief that you should life to the full. I also considered other values such as honesty, trust, fighting for your beliefs, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, working on your relationships, staying true to yourself, giving opportunities to others – all principles to which I adhere – but the strongest conviction was without doubt to live life to the full.

Your values are often left unsaid: you live by them, but you don’t articulate them. Sometimes, you are not even aware of them – you simply live your life according to an unspoken and even subconscious moral code. It’s only when doing an exercise such as this that you are able to put into context not just how you live your life, but why you live it in the way you do.

Why does knowing and understanding your core values matter? There are many reasons – it can help you adapt to people and situations; it helps you be less judgemental of others if you are aware that they might have different values to your own; if you are in an uncomfortable situation it allows you to look at the cause; it helps you when it comes to relationships because you have to consider other people’s opinions; it undermines the ‘it’s not fair’ argument because different people have different viewpoints on fairness.

In other words, if you know your own values it helps you understand your place in the world – and be more tolerant of other people’s values.

I have often struggled with the demands I make on myself – I am always keen to learn new things, to seize opportunities, to make changes in my life. Conversely, I find I sometimes lack joy in my life because I push myself so hard. But knowing that my guiding principle is to live life to the full helps me accept this position – I’ve realised it’s the stuff I’m made of and I’m always going to be like this. Acknowledging that I can’t change means I have to work at making this core value both sustainable and joyful.

Having this insight helps me professionally, artistically and emotionally. When coaching and mentoring I need to be mindful of the values on my list because they could cause conflict if a client doesn’t share them. Being mindful should help me remain neutral. Similarly, when someone asks for advice, I should not base my response on my own values.

But I can encourage clients to consider their own values so that they may resolve difficulties or dilemmas themselves. For example, one of my clients is a designer who is launching a new brand. She has had problems articulating what her product is about but when I asked her to contemplate her values, it became much clearer to her – her brand is her values and with that knowledge she has been able communicate it with confidence.

Encouraging people to think about their values can be an affirmation of what is important to them – and what is not. It’s not unusual for your workplace values to conflict with your own – a company that is all out for profit can, for example, undermine your nurturing, caring side. This in turn can cause stress because what you are doing in your daily life is counter to your deeply-held principles. It’s not always easy to manage, but knowing what is at the root of your unhappiness can help you find a way through it.

And even if your own values conflict with your organisation’s, you don’t have to compromise on your principles –sometimes it is possible to bring a little of your moral code to your company. As a brand manager I have seen individuals who have had a profound influence on the marketing of a product, driven without doubt by their personal values. Invariably there is something of a person’s character that floats in every product – think about that when you next open a packet of chocolate buttons!

Steve Peters’ exercise is a quick way of building self-awareness and helping you understand your place in the world – but don’t overthink it. There may not be any surprises because, after all, you live with your values all the time. What makes you the person you are is deep-rooted and not something that is easy to change; rather it’s a question of managing it in order to manage your life.

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