I suffer from the awful affliction of ‘Paralysis of Analysis’. I seemingly cannot make even the most straight forward of decisions without doing PhD level research and reading hours of reviews and opinions which reliably give totally different accounts of the thing I want a definitive answer about.
To illustrate this point I recently spent nearly 2 months trying to decide which new fountain pen I was going to get. Now this wasn’t a Montblanc pen for £700, my budget was less than 20 quid, yet still I put in the same diligence one does when considering their first home.
But did it pay off? No. The pen came and I didn’t like it, so I still use my old one.
Now this was just a cheap fountain pen. Imagine what I am like with BIG decisions. A bloody nightmare is what I am like.
I am frequently crippled with indecision which often leads me to finally make a decision based on what is easiest for me, what is less risk, what is most comfortable. I know that in the past this has stopped me being the best me.
So I needed a framework that would both help me make decisions, and to make the right decisions that would help me grow.
This is where Core Values came in. But what are they?
Core values are the beliefs, principles, or attributes that we hold dear, something that guides the way we live; literally what we value in life.
These values are always with us, whether we realise it or not, and will generally steer us in a particular direction. If we are unconscious of the personal values most important to us then we can easily be misdirected away from our path.
This, I believe, is what creates a sense of dissatisfaction; a feeling of not being true to ourselves. So, by actively examining what values are most important to us we can better understand how they can guide our decisions and life choices, as well as realising when we are off course.
Now your own personal core values may be something that you feel typifies the person you are, but it can also be an attribute that you would like to foster in yourself. For example, maybe self-determination is an aspect of yourself that you exhibit already and is a vital part of who you are and how you live your life. Pop it on your core values list. But maybe in self-determined efforts you realise that you are not particularly compassionate to others that struggle to uphold the same determination you have, and that your single minded drive leaves you considering others less than you’d like. Compassion can go on the list too. One is a value that already exists, the other is one you’d like to cultivate.
So what values should you add? Only you can answer this question. A quick Google search for core value lists will bring up a mountain of ideas. I’d suggest starting with the brilliant post by Taylor Pearson.
Go through the list and pick out any ones that really vibe with you. This is your short list. From this list choose between 3-7 values that resonate the most with you and how you’d like to live.
My Core Values – An example
The following are the list of core values that, after much deliberation, were most important to how I live or were qualities I wanted more of in myself.
Self-reliance – To create an independent mindset. If there is something I don’t know or can’t do I will look to learn about it, if only to give me more understanding of what I don’t know. Now this doesn’t mean I am going to learn to overhaul my car, but I need to at least know how to change a tyre, refill fluids, etc. Self-reliance, for me, is about building confidence, skill acquisition, and continued learning.
Courage – This is not about denying fear, it’s about accepting it. Fear serves a very good and important purpose. It’s a signal that something important is impending. Physiologically, fear gets us in the ready state to cope with the impending ‘thing’. Heart rate increases, respiration becomes more rapid, adrenaline is released, focus becomes more pronounced. We are primed to tackle the unknown. Where fear becomes a problem is when we let it consume us. Courage is greeting fear like a travelling companion and then moving forward.
Reciprocity – I freely give before I take. To offer greater value than I consume. Reciprocity is often thought of as giving in the knowledge that you will get back what you give. I like to flip this around slightly and think about giving back on what I have already received in life. This is not through some sense of obligation, but merely a natural cycle, like breathing in and out. By offering greater value than we consume we raise everyone up. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Adaptability – The ability to change in a positive way to any situation is one of humanities greatest super powers. By fostering adaptability we create a self which is never caught out; every crisis becomes an opportunity. Every little piece of shit that life throws at us becomes the fertiliser for growth. I think this value goes well with both self-reliance and the following.
Tenacity – Relentless forward progress. The willingness to keep getting up after each and every time you get knocked down. It’s not the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the fight in the dog. I want to be that person that makes the competition groan because I will not stay down. Take Rocky, he loses in the first movie but it’s his sheer tenacity that makes him the hero we all love.
Compassion – People wind me up. They push my buttons. They leave me shaking my head in utter disbelief. They are, every one of them, also fighting battles that I have no knowledge about. If I had the exact DNA as them, the same upbringing, the same life chances, I would be exactly the same as them; I couldn’t be anything other than the same. And let’s not even delve too deeply into the effect that I have on other people. Damn it, I find myself unbearable at times. And so this behoves me to try and up my levels of compassion that I have for both my fellow humans, as annoying as they are, and indeed for myself. Compassion gets me to put myself in the other’s shoes before I act reactively towards them. It generally makes me a nicer person, I hope. Now, when people annoyingly tell me I am ‘too nice’, I am able to stop myself from punching them in the face.
Humour – This, to me, is the comedy equivalent to adaptability. Where adaptability seeks to discover the opportunity in a crisis, humour seeks to find the light in the darkness. Humour has served me well many times in my life, helping me to find laughter in what was a less than funny situation. By laughing at myself I have been able to turn a skin crawling, gut churning social faux pas into a side splittingly hilarious anecdote. By turning humour upon my own deeds my hope is that it keeps me authentic and real. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Now, these are my core values. They may not resonate at all with you, and that is fine. You do you. If it feels right then go with it.
The observant amongst you will have noticed that the first letter of each of my values spells out the word SCRATCH. This is a quirky coincidence, but having a mnemonic like this is great for remembering your values until you know them by heart.
This is because just writing them down means nothing. All that is, is a wish list. For our core values to become really useful we need to try and live them. By putting our core values to work, by living in accordance with them, we become better. And this is a long tradition shared by countless cultures and belief systems. These are often referred to as ‘virtues’. If values are the aspirations, then virtues are values in practice.
We have the cardinal virtues of Christianity, the four Brahmavihara virtues of Buddhism, the four virtues of Stoicism, the seven heavenly virtues, the chivalric virtues, the eight virtues of the Bushido code, and the thirteen virtues of Benjamin Franklin to name but a few. People have been using core values as a guiding light for millennia.
We’ve all met people who claim to follow some kind of religious values but seem to live a life at odds to those values. Or the company that has a web page devoted to espousing key core values only to do the opposite.
So how do we make them more than lip service? By constant review of them and by actually using them to help make informed decisions.
I write mine down in my Bullet Journal and review them weekly, and often more frequently. This keeps them fresh in my mind and allows me to change them if they no longer feel relevant.
When I am posed with a decision to make I ask myself “Does this bring me up to ‘SCRATCH’?”. For example, if I am considering skipping a workout because I can’t be bothered I think;
‘Will this decision make me more tenacious?’ Probably not.
‘Is it the courageous act to do?’ No. ‘
‘Will working out make me more adaptable?’ Yep.
‘How funny will it be to take a photo of my sorry-arsed face, dripping with sweat and looking pathetic, after the session?’ Very.
I can also use the core values to review myself and my actions. Was I compassionate with those around me? Did my actions get me closer to self-reliance? Did I give up too quickly or push on?
My core values keep me accountable to all that I hold dear about my character. They guide me in my decision making and actions. And the more I use them the easier it seemingly becomes to adhere to these values.
So why not set aside half an hour an take a look at your own guiding, moral lighthouse?