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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

About the value of understanding your values (and what happens if you don't)

“You’re doing WHAT?”

This used to be the typical response to our announcement that we decided to move to France for a couple of years. And when we announced that we were going to transition into self-employment during a pandemic and global economic crisis.

To others, my life (and my decisions) seemed unsettled or slightly crazy at times. To be fair, even I often wondered what was wrong with me, why I wasn’t able to settle into a lifelong routine and steadiness.

That is, until I began to understand my own values a couple of years ago. That day, I realised that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, but everything right.

Values are our fundamental beliefs and attitudes, which we develop as we grow up or intentionally decide to internalise later in life. They guide our thoughts and behaviours. As such, they form a fundamental component of our self (download a free ebook on how to cultivate self-knowledge here).

Some researchers propose that we choose our values consciously. Based on our values, we decide what’s good or bad, what’s right or wrong and what is important or can be neglected. Our values are the reason WHY we do what we do.

That means they guide our perceptions - what we pay attention to in the first place. They guide whether we like and further engage with what we perceive or not; and, they guide how we do that. Like a super-efficient decision-making weapon. Our values are our navigation system and with that hold a lot of transformative power.

Values are not endpoints like goals - they are our direction.

Examples of values are compassion, adventure, hope, honesty, connectedness, growth, stability, spirituality, wealth – the list is endless. You might think that those are all your values, but there will be some that are more important to you than others; some, that you are naturally more drawn to than to others.

While some people will share some values, we all have a different values profile. We prioritise them differently and we might interpret them differently. For example, honesty to one person may mean telling the truth in general, whereas for someone else it may also mean to be open about everything and not omitting information (i.e. telling ‘white lies’).

It’s important to understand that, as with strengths, there is nothing inherently good or bad about the values we have – this depends on how you apply your values. However, some values can be of higher regard than others in certain societies or communities. For example, collectivism is highly valued in Asian cultures; and compassion might have a more positive connotation than success, which may be perceived as ‘selfish’.

Similar to strengths, values are not as stable as for example our personality. This means that they may naturally change over time, especially when life circumstances change or we enter into a new phase in life (e.g. when we have kids).

Do you know what your top 5 values are?

If you are like me until a couple of years ago, you might feel a little lost, even confused at times. You might wonder what’s wrong with you or feel like something is missing in life, without knowing what you want or what goals to aim for in the first place.

However, when you do understand your values, not only will everything you’ve been choosing and pursuing so far begin to make more sense to you, but making changes in your life will become a lot easier, more positive and successful as well.

Ayn Rand articulated this much more eloquently when she said, “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values”.

When people ask me now “You’re doing WHAT?”, I can explain to them (from the top of my lungs, with a straight back and a big smile on my face) that I love the adventure that comes with embracing change and the unknown. That I seek the thrill of opportunities that make me grow and let me define my own path. And that nothing makes me feel more alive than exploring different parts of this beautiful planet we live on and connecting to the humanity we share across cultures despite having grown up in different parts of the world.

Because some of my top values are self-leadership, vitality, personal growth, connectedness, positivity and adventuring. But, understanding my values doesn’t just help me make sense of my own life (and communicate this to others). Having this clarity about what matters most to me enables me to proactively seek out opportunities to live by my values.

When I first started looking into my life values, I found it quite hard to understand which values were truly ‘mine’. There were three reasons leading to constant confusion:

  1. The first one was that a lot of it comes down to having a broad vocabulary and finding the right nuance among the words. This was certainly not one of my strengths.

  2. I also constantly confused myself, because so many different values resonated with me and I was unable to identify just a few core ones.

  3. Thirdly, remember how I emphasised earlier that no values are inherently good or bad? Well, I wish that was clear to me earlier, as understanding this helped me be more bold in labelling my core values. For example, I felt bad that compassion wasn’t one of my core values. That doesn’t mean that I am not a compassionate person, it simply means that compassion doesn’t play a huge directing role in the way that I make life decision.

So, what are your top values?

If you cannot immediately yell an answer from the top of your lungs (with a straight back and a big smile on your face), here’s what you can do to identify your values:

  • Reflect on the most important things in your life. What have they been so far? It’s important to dig deep here. For example, you may say family, but what is it about ‘family’ that has been so important to you all this time? Unconditional love and support? Compassion? Connectedness? Soul-mateship? Friendship? Get really clear on the values that have stood out for you thus far.

  • Think about any significant decisions you made in the past: Why did you decide the way you did? What values were underlying your decision?

  • What dreams, hopes and goals do you have in your life? What values do you associate with them?

Maike x


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