The process that I teach for creating a set of core values is simple. It includes five basic steps to take you from all the values in the world—freedom, authenticity, collaboration, stability, adventure, discipline, and so many more—to your personally tailored core set. Give yourself about an hour to complete this exercise. And remember you only cheat your- self by not being honest here. Own where you are in your life right now, and get clear on what really matters to you. Only then can you hope to live a life and career that you truly enjoy.
Step 1: Clear your mind of assumptions.
A beginner approaches a new subject with an open mind that sees many different possibilities. Adopt a beginner’s mindset and forget everything you think you know. Keep an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when study- ing the subject of yourself. As you start this process, try to forget all the assumptions you have about success and what makes a good life. Be honest with yourself about what really matters to you, not to your friends, your family, or your coworkers. A beginner’s mindset will help you see connections and opportunities you never would have otherwise. I do this exercise once per year, and each time I force myself to begin anew and don’t look at my previous year’s core values until after I’ve completed my new list.
Step 2: Do a ten-twenty-thirty brainstorm.
This step is three in one—you brainstorm for ten, then twenty, and finally thirty minutes to generate and refine your core values. Use a notebook, a sheet of paper, or a digital document (I prefer a spreadsheet!) to record your brainstorming.
For the first ten minutes, write down everything that comes to mind when you think about your core values. Ev-er-y-thiiing. Look over your life audit and think about your background. What brings you joy? When do you feel in a flow state? What matters to you most in the world? Everything that matters to you. Write it down. There is no right or wrong in the ten- minute brainstorm. These values can be in the form of whatever comes to mind: words, phrases, pictures, scenarios, you name it! Don’t limit yourself. Be free!
For the next twenty minutes, add values to your ten-minute brainstorm list by referring to a preexisting list of core values. A quick Google search will yield many lists of core values, with words like adventure, creativity, leadership, freedom, love, optimism, and so on. Choose one with at least 100 entries. Yes, I know reading through a list of core values sounds tedious. But you cannot skip this! By mindfully searching such a list, you will discover values you really care about that didn’t pop into your head earlier. Every time I do this, I find new words that resonate with me, and it helps me see how my values evolve year over year. Once completed, you will have pages (or a spreadsheet!) full of values-based words and ideas. Now you’re ready for . . .
The final thirty-minute step. The goal here is to look at your words and phrases and start identifying patterns or groups. As you notice two words or phrases that describe the same value to you, create your first group. Review all the words you’ve recorded and don’t stop until each one is categorized. For example, if you wrote down family, friends, solid coworkers, church-goers, and happy relationships, you might group those together because they all relate to community. By placing similar ideas together, you get to the real core of what matters to you.
Step 3: Give your values inspiring names.
Consider your groups of values. For each group, what one word or phrase encapsulates the whole? Or what one person or character defines this value for you? Give each group of aligned values a name that inspires you. For instance, if you wrote down good health, overall wellness, physical fitness, mental challenges, and working out, then you might call that group“health and wellness” and that would be fine. But how much more inspiring would that value be if you called it “feeling like
a million bucks” or “badassery”? Don’t overlook the power of language here. Core values resonate and operate at a higher level when they are defined in a meaningful way.
You can absolutely keep it simple. But sometimes a little creativity keeps the inspiration flame flickering. One year, one of my core values was “Braveheart” and I kept a picture of Mel Gibson’s painted face next to my list. You better believe whenever my freedom came into question, I was not going to back down.
When you’re done with this step, you will have narrowed your brainstormed list of core values down to a manageable number. The majority of my clients end up with somewhere between seven and ten values. Don’t stress about having a pretty, round number. Eight well-thought-out core values beat ten half-assed values any day of the week.
Step 4: Nap it out.
Yep. Perhaps my favorite step. Take a nap (or a longer snooze) and see how you feel afterward. Science shows that while we’re sleeping, our brains integrate information and store it for long- term use. In college, I used this to my advantage. Even if I had stayed up until three a.m. studying for an eight a.m. test, I would sleep for a few hours, because I knew that my brain needed time to digest the information I had stuffed inside it. Nine times out of ten, my recall the next day (a.k.a. the same day) was significantly better because of it.
If the values you chose are truly yours, you should have a pretty good reaction to them upon waking. Thinking about them should be satisfying or even make you smile. If they don’t inspire you and you can’t see yourself making decisions around them, then perhaps those values aren’t really that important. If this is the case, go back to step 1.
Step 5: Ruthlessly order and test, test, test.
Once you’ve brain-dumped, grouped, named, and napped out your values, it’s time to test them. Your core values will guide your decisions going forward. You can test each of them by ask- ing yourself serious questions about whether or not you would abide by that value when making a choice.
One of my core values is freedom. I love my physical and locational freedom. I love that no one tells me when and where I have to be each day. I love that if I feel inspired to work at my office one day, I can go there, but if I feel like the vibe is going to be better at a coffee shop, I don’t have to run that by anyone. I adore my freedom. Sounds pretty convincing, I know, but to test the value out, I had to think really deeply about whether it was important enough to inform my decisions.
For instance, if Google (which, btw, I worship) called me tomorrow, said they wanted to buy my company for twice its worth (humina, humina, humina), employ me at a comfortable salary (yay, stability!), let me live in San Francisco (dream city), and give me great, intelligent coworkers (bank), but I had to be at the office in the same seat at nine every morning and I couldn’t leave that place until six that night, would I turn that opportunity down? For me, the answer is a resounding hells yes! I wouldn’t even consider that role, because I know how important my freedom is to me. By doing this exercise, I have circumvented the days, weeks, or even months of agonizing about this decision when Google finally does call. I will know (almost without thinking!) that this job is not for me. That’s how solid your core values can be. So test them out to make sure that each one of them is strong enough to withstand even the most enticing opportunities that aren’t right for you.
Also, importantly, you’ll want to test these values against each other and put them in order. Ask yourself if freedom or integrity is more important to you. This will be tough because they’re both important. But force yourself to arrange your val- ues in order, so that you have a waterfall of values that you can test your decisions against in the future. When you’re done with your core values, you will have a record of everything that’s important to you, prioritized, and written in language that deeply resonates with you. All that’s left to do is pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Oh, and one more thing . . . turning these core values into commitments.