How to find your core values

Your core values drive almost all of your behaviour.  So what are they?  If you can’t answer, you’re not alone.  This exercise will help you discover your own core values, and what they mean to you.

Your values are single words or short statements that have emotional power for you.  Words such as success, happiness, family, love, power, and serenity are values.  The key to determining whether or not they are your values is in whether they are just ‘words’, or if they have some emotional meaning, or ‘kick’ for you.

Once you have a list of your core values, it’s important to rank them, as your values form a hierarchy, and it’s generally only the top 3-5 that drive you.  The rest are important and often are related to the core values, but your core 3-5 values truly define you.

In order to determine your core values, you first need a list of values that are important to you, and then you need to prioritize them.  This exercise will help you do this.  You’ll need some paper, a pad of post-it notes, a blank wall or a clear table, and approximately 60 minutes.

Most exercises that help you sort your values actually fall short because they require you to think about which is more important than another.  Values are emotional, not intellectual, and so, by ranking your values in such a way, you generally create a list of the values you think you should have, not the values you actually live by.  Chrysalis’ processes get your head out of the way and uses your heart and your gut to identify your emotional hierarchy of values – your real values.  We’ve had many people who do career counseling marvel at the power and effectiveness of this exercise in comparison to the versions they had previously used.

Step 1

Identify 5 people (living or dead, real or fictional) who you admire/respect.  For each one of them, identify the characteristics or actions that foster your admiration and respect.  Then list the values that you feel they are living. Remember that values are single words (love, respect, power, etc.) or sometimes a couple of words that have a lot of emotional impact for you.

Write each value on a separate post-it note (ie: if you have 20 discrete values, you will have 20 post-its, each with one value on it; if you had 7 values, you will have 7 post-its, etc.).  Put the put the post-it notes up on a blank wall in a random order (You can use a clear table, or the floor instead of a wall as well).

What you need to realize is that the reason that you admire or respect these people with these values is because these values are important to you as well. If there are additional values you feel are important, you can add them to the ones you’re working with – give each one a separate post-it note.

Step 2

Now it’s time to sort them.  Remember, values are emotional, not intellectual, so what you think your values should be isn’t relevant.  It’s what feels right that’s important.  In making the decisions below, go with your first gut instinct, not with what you think should be the ‘right’ choice.  Make each decision very quickly.  Don’t stop to think and anal-yze what you’re doing.  Doing so means losing touch with what really motivates you.

Take two post-it notes at random (each with one value on them).  Get a sense of the feeling of each value – what each means to you.  Ask yourself which one has more power or energy for you, and go with what feels more powerful, or whichever one pulls you more.  Put these two in a separate part of the wall/table/floor in a vertical line.  Place the more powerful value above the weaker one.  For these two values, the top one will be your number one value, and the bottom one will be your number two value.

Then pick another value/post-it, selected at random, and compare it to your bottom (#2) value, and ask yourself the same question – which one has more power/energy for you?  Whichever one has less power is now placed at the bottom of these three post-it notes.  If the old number 2 value is more powerful than the new value, then the new value goes below number 2 and becomes your number 3 value.

If, however, the new value is more powerful than the number 2 value, the old number 2 value is moved down to the number 3 spot.  You then have an additional step to take.  Ask yourself, if you were to take the feeling of your number one value, and the feeling of your new value, which has more power for you?  Whichever one has more power gets put at the top.  If your number one value is more powerful, then the new value (the third post-it you got) would be your new number 2 value.  If the new post-it value turns out to be stronger, then it becomes your new number one value.  The old number one value is now your number 2 value, and the old number 2 value is now your number 3 value.

So you now have 3 values listed in a vertical line, with the most important at the top, your number 2 value in the middle, and the least important at the bottom.

Now take another value at random from the other post-its.  Compare this fourth value with your lowest-ranked value (number 3).  If this new value is weaker than the lowest, put it below all three, and it becomes number four.  If it’s stronger than the lowest value, then you move it above that one, and compare it with the number two value.  If it’s weaker than your number two, then this new value becomes your new number three value.  If it’s stronger than your number two value, then you now move it up and compare it with your number one value.  If it’s weaker than your number one value, then this new value is your new number two value.  If it’s stronger, this new value now becomes your number one value.

Now you have four values in a vertical line, with your most important value at the top, your number two value below that, followed by your number three value, and your number four value at the bottom.

Continue this process with each of the post-it notes one at a time, until you have them all in one vertical line, with your most powerful value at the top and your weakest value at the bottom.  Each time, compare only two values at a time, and always go with the feeling of what’s strongest, not with what you think should be stronger.

At the end, you will have all the values in order in a vertical line, with your most important value at the top and your least important value at the bottom.

Step 3

Pull out the top 3-5 values (whichever number feels right for you).  These are your core values.

To better understand them, remove all the post-it notes.  Now place each of the post-its with your core values on a separate area of the table/wall/floor (keep lots of space around each).  Now, look at each of the other values you listed, one at a time, and put each one by the core value that best relates to it.  If one or two don’t fit anywhere, then that’s fine.

What you’re doing is clustering all the values you listed around your core values to better define them.  You’ll wind up with 3-5 clusters of post-it notes around each of your core values.

Once you have these, I suggest journal around each of these clusters to better understand what they mean and why they are important to you.  If journaling doesn’t work for you, discuss your results with a friend who knows you well.  As you reflect, I suspect you will find that understanding these values will help you understand your behaviour in different situations.  They may also help you understand how to better manage challenges you will be facing in the future.

About the Author Ravi Tangri

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