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How To Discover Your Core Values

How To Discover Your Core Values

August 05, 20239 min read

It was tough love.

Not surprising, though, considering its source.

Mike Rowe became modern-day famous when his show, "Dirty Jobs," became a surprise hit for The Discovery Channel in 2003.

The show featured men and women across the country who work "dirty" jobs — in sewers and coal mines, on crab boats and oil derricks, among others.

Since the show's success, Rowe has launched several inspired projects to help more people find meaning. In addition, his refreshing perspective — a mix of candor, compassion, and intellectual chops — has turned him into a modern-day public philosopher.

In a recent column, Rowe shared an exchange he had with a fan that beautifully exposes, and corrects, a common misunderstanding when it comes to creating a happy, regret-free life:


Hey Mike!

I've spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself, and I still can't figure out what to do. I have always been a hands-on kind of guy and a go-getter. I could never be an office worker. I need change, excitement, and adventure, but where the pay is steady. I like trying everything, but I get bored quickly. I want a career that will always keep me happy but can allow me to have a family and get some time to travel. If anyone knows jobs, it's you, so I was wondering your thoughts on this. Thank you! – Parker

Mike Rowe:

Hi Parker,

Stop looking for the "right" career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what's available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late—volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later and be no worse off today. But don't waste another year looking for a career that doesn't exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value and behaving in a way that's consistent with those beliefs. – Mike

Tough love.

In my opinion, however, it was spot on.

Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value and behaving in a way that's consistent with those beliefs.


Whether you are in the market for a new job or not, consider: How closely do your behaviors – the way you work, the way you treat others, the way you spend your free time – align with your beliefs, with what you truly value?

Values: Your Only Real Safety Net

In his mid-20s, Pat O'Donnell left a comfortable engineering job in San Francisco to move to Yosemite National Park to spend more time rock climbing.

His family thought he was crazy.

Pat, a trained engineer, flipped burgers and pumped gas to pay bills and stay close to the mountains he loved.

When I met him more than thirty years later, O'Donnell was still living in his beloved mountains but had come a long way professionally.

Since his days in Yosemite, he had, among other things, run an environmental non-profit, built the Kirkwood ski area in California and the Keystone Resort in Colorado, and served as the CEO of Patagonia, the global outdoor sportswear and equipment company.

When I met him, he was in the middle of a  0-year run as CEO of the Aspen Skiing Company.

His family's concerns over his professional well-being had long been put at ease.

I ended up in his office because I had read about his incredible life story and wanted to know how he did it. As I told him via email, "You've lived a life that I aspire to emulate; I'd love to learn more about how you came to make the decisions you did."

When I asked him how he weighed the risks and rewards of the many big life choices he had made, particularly early in his professional life, he laughed:

"I was terrified!"

Then, more seriously, he continued: "But I acted anyway. Each choice I made was consistent with my values and my vision at the time. That's what I'd always come back to. Your values are your only real safety net."

Your values are your only real safety net in a world of uncertainty and opportunity.

Like Rowe, Pat believed in "tough love."

Much to my disappointment, he was not going to give me a simple answer; he was not going to tell me exactly what I had to do to recreate his career success.

Instead, I would have to decide, for myself, the path forward. I would have to feel the same fear that Pat felt and choose (or not) to move forward despite it.

Most importantly, I was going to have to be thoughtful. 

I was going to have to answer a seemingly simple question that, until this moment, I had never given any thought to: what do I value?

To this day, I have never received a better piece of disappointing news.

What Is A Value?

It's one of those sneaky-hard questions: what is a value?

Psychologist Milton Rokeach, one of the pioneers of values research, defines value as the standards that not only guide the behavior of the individuals who hold them but serve as their basis for judging the behavior of others.

While Rokeach is correct, I prefer the definition I first heard from Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix: A "value" is what you value.

What about a "core" value?

Core values are the small (4-6) subset of values that you personally prioritize. While all values are good, these are "first among equals."

The process of discovering your core values can be challenging for two reasons:

First, there are over 200 words that represent values (e.g., trust, integrity, honesty, peace, joy, patience, privacy, health, etc.), and, for better or worse, there are no "bad" words.

Identifying the small subset of "core" values most important to you is like picking a needle from a haystack. That said, the difficulty of the task only magnifies its importance. 

For better or worse, you've got to choose. 

It is only through the process of prioritization that true decision-making clarity emerges.

Second, regardless of the word, the translation of any particular value is unique to the individual or organization that holds it.

Netflix, for example, has ten different company core values — Judgment, Communication, Curiosity, Innovation, Courage, Passion, Selflessness, Inclusion, Integrity, and Impact — and describes each, in detail, as a collection of specific behaviors.

For example, here's what Integrity means to them:

  • You are known for candor, authenticity, transparency, and being non-political

  • You only say things about fellow employees that you say to their face

  • You admit mistakes freely and openly

  • You treat people with respect independent of their status or disagreement with you

Is that how you would define "integrity"? Maybe not. And that's OK.

As author Krista Tippet once shared on her podcast, "On Being,": when it comes to values, there is no "right" or "wrong." There's just "true."

It's as if our core values are a recipe, a unique mix of behaviors and actions that best reflect that value based on our experience.

I can say, "I love chocolate chip cookies" (and who doesn't, right?), but I really mean I like a warm, gooey, fresh-baked chocolate chipper from Panera or Mrs. Fields. 

If you give me a cold Chips Ahoy, I'll probably pass.

The implication is that, when defining your core values, individual words (integrity, trust, honesty) are important but not sufficient.

While this process is challenging, it's not impossible. And, if we want to make good life choices to create a "real" safety net that Pat described, the effort is well worth it.

Discovering Your Personal Core Values

In his book "Good To Great," author Jim Collins writes that company core values "require no external justification; they have intrinsic value and importance to those inside the organization."

In other words, values are personal.

Values require no justification because they are formed through experience.

The good news is that they manifest in our behavior – what we do and what we don't do.

To accurately identify our fundamental core values, we must evaluate our behavior and ask: What do my actions tell me about what I value?

To make this as easy as possible, we (Sands Leadership) have created a simple assessment to help you identify the values that appear most in your life today. 

It also allows you to identify any gaps between what you 'say' you value and how you behave.

Click here to take the Sands Values Assessment (Free)!


My older brother has been a Navy SEAL for the past 20+ years.

As the brother of a SEAL, I'm a lucky guy. I'm fortunate to witness first-hand the world's love and respect for what the SEALs do to serve and protect it.

One might argue that this love and respect is the byproduct of the now well-known stories of dead pirates, daring rescues, and terrorists running scared.

That's part of it, certainly.

But, underlying it all is an implicit respect for the courage it takes to live the life they do every day, to sacrifice their well-being to live in alignment with their core values as described by the beautiful and inspiring SEAL Creed.

That said, like other heroes in the world, Navy SEALs are still human beings.

They face the same limitations, weaknesses, and challenges that you face. Like you, they struggle with fear, insecurity, and self-doubt.

What makes them different, however, is that they know the standard they aspire to, and they work daily to uphold that standard. They have made these extraordinary and beautiful beliefs habit.

They do it because they have to; people would die if they operated any other way.

The cost of non-compliance is not nearly as high for you.

If you want to be respected like a Navy SEAL, if you want to be respected by a Navy SEAL, use this process to discover your values, decide how you are going to behave accordingly, and then hold yourself accountable.

That's what the SEALs do. That's what guys like Mike Rowe and Pat O'Donnell do.

And that's what you can do, too.

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Ben Sands is an executive coach and founder of Sands Leadership.

Ben Sands is the perfect mix of coach and consultant and he has been coaching me to higher levels of clarity and meaning for almost 10 years! In leadership and life, we all have a lot of big decisions to make and Ben has taught me is how to make those big decisions confidently, and in a values-aligned way. His coaching is an investment that has paid off exponentially.

Alex Budak

Professional Faculty,

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business & Author,

Becoming A Changemaker