Ok, time for something a bit more practical. Comparing values to continental plates and the force of gravity in some of my previous blogs may have been verging on poetic, and hopefully set the context of how important they are, but how do you actually identify and use them?
Values are essentially things that are really important to us that we cannot physically touch. So a big house might be really important to you, but that’s not your value. Dig down a level – why is a big house important to you? Is it space to be alone? Is it space to have friends or family over? These are perhaps things that you need in your life to feel happy. They are important, but not what we are looking for right now. Dig down another level. Why are these things important? Maybe space to be alone provides peace or privacy. Perhaps space for vistors facilitates generosity, love, connections. These are your values – these are what make us tick – these insubstantial things like love, honesty, learning, security, kindness, wealth, purpose, health…
Take a pen and paper and brainstorm your own list of values. Do not think too hard about it initially, just write down what is important to you in your own life. When you run out of words, wait for it, then write the others that will pop into your head, as many as you like. When you truly run out of ideas, weed through any that turn out to be similar, picking the ones that best reflect what is important to you.
Next, we need to recognise that we all have at least two voices in our skull with us. One is full of confidence, ideas and enthusiasm, and one is full of fear and self criticism. Listen too long to the fearful self critical voice and we get nowhere, try nothing, expect nothing of ourselves, or of others, and eventually descend into a pit of self loathing and despair. I’ve tried that – it’s no fun whatsoever. Listen only the the confident ideas voice and depending on our personality we may turn into a harmless but ineffective dreamer or get reckless, arrogant, and perhaps even narcissistic.
We all need balance. We need to consider what both voices are telling us and take on board the most helpful advice from each. However, there is no denying that figuring out what that is and which voice is talking the most sense can be quite tricky much of the time. Which is where our values can help.
Some values pull us towards something positive that we want in our life, and and some values push us away from something negative that we do not want in our lives. Coming up with examples of pull and push values is difficult as the same values can pull one person and push another. For example, fitness. One person might go to the gym to get fit because they want to be able to run a marathon. Another might go to get fit because they do not want to get fat and flabby.
So, you have a jumbled list of values. Split your values into two lists, those pulling you towards something that you consider good and those pushing you away from something that you consider bad. Some will be a mix of both – just put them on the list that you feel they are the most of. If you have massive lists, rank the values in each in order of importance to you in your life right now and weed out any that actually, with hindsight, maybe aren’t that important after all. If you want, you can concentrate on the top 10 of the values that are left, or you can keep them all. They are your lists, your values.
Once we have that list of pull values, we can concentrate on becoming more aware of their tug so that we are better able to follow it in life. We can use them to sense-check what the ideas voice tells us. Is that particular idea going to take you further in the direction that your values are pulling you? If so, perhaps you should seriously consider it. Motivation is likely to be relatively easily maintained, and perhaps it will take you closer to those dreams at the end of your river. If not, perhaps you need to take on board the concerns of the critical voice.
The push values fulfill a different role, protective, pushing us away from danger. They can sometime provide useful motivation in the short term – the kick up the backside to hit that deadline because you do not want to get into trouble, or to stop smoking because you do not want lung cancer. However, I would not recommend relying on this type of motivation more than sparingly and for relatively short periods. It may get us out of danger, which is good, but other than that it is directionless and hard to sustain.
For the brave, push values can also provide a window onto our fears and insecurities. If we care to look through it and are courageous enough to face them, perhaps we can overcome those fears and get back the little bit of freedom they stole. Or maybe we’ll simply find that the fears were unfounded and we actually had that bit of freedom all along.
The process of identifying values is not a ‘done it once that’s it now’ thing. As I’ve said previously, values shift and change over the course of our lives. They can flip from push to pull, from hugely important to dropping off the bottom of the list. Where we are on our river of life shapes our values even as they tug us along it. Check in with yourself now and then, particularly if you are feeling frustrated or jaded for reasons that you cannot quite pin down.
We already hold many of the answers we need inside ourselves – we just need to learn to listen better. Build something beautiful.
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