Five Strategy Questions to Ask Today

Core SkillsIndividualUncategorized

How To Discover Your Personal Core Values (And Why You Must!)

By December 20, 2017 2 Comments

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 success of the show, Rowe has launched a number of inspired projects to help more people find meaningful. In addition, his refreshing perspective — a mix of candor, compassion and serious 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 in my life, but where the pay is steady…I like trying pretty much everything, but get bored very easily. I want a career that will always keep me happy, but can allow me to have a family and get some time to travel. I figure if anyone knows jobs it’s you so I was wondering your thoughts on this…Thank you!  – Parker

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 than you are 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 so that he could 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 that 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 a environmental non-profit, built both 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 10-year run as CEO of the Aspen Skiing Company.

Needless to say, 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 I 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 that you did.”

When I asked him how he weighed the risks, and reward, 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.”

In a world full of both uncertainty and opportunity, your values are your only real safety net.

Like Rowe, Pat believed in “tough love.”

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

Instead, I was going to have to decide, for myself, the path forward. I was going to have to feel the same fear that he felt, and decide (or not) to move forward despite of it.

Most important, I was going to have to be thoughtful. I was going to have to answer a seemingly simple question that, until this moment, had never given any thought to: what are my values?

If you want to create a life of enduring happiness, the first step is to clarify what you 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 simple idea I first heard from Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix: A “value” is what you value.

A value is what you value.

What about a “core” value?

A “core” value is one of a small (4-6) subset of values that you prioritize above all others. While all values are good, these are “first among equals.”

The process of discovering your personal core values can be hard, 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.

To identify 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. The fact is, you’ve got to choose.

It is only through the process of prioritization that real 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.”

When it comes to values there is no “right” or “wrong,” there’s just “true.” – Krista Tippet

It’s as if our personal core values are a recipe, a special mix of behaviors and actions that best reflect that value, based upon our experience.

I can say I love “chocolate chip cookies” (and who doesn’t, right?) but what I really mean is 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 hard, it’s not impossible. And, if we want to make great life choices, to create a the “real” safety net that Pat described, the effort is well worth it.

Discovering Your Personal Core Values: Five Steps

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.

In order to accurately identify our core values, we must first wade back through our experience and use our life history as data from which to extract this essential information.

Here’s the approach to personal core values “discovery” that I have found most effective…

Step 1: “Data” Collection

Your life is a record of your values. Looking back, what are the key moments, decisions, highlights (and low) that have defined your life, to-date?

Whether you realize it or not, your values are the guide our decisions and influence our choices, both big and small. By asking a few specific questions about your life, we can identify the values that form the basis for who, and how, you are.

Here are a few of my favorite “values discovery” questions:

  • What have been the “peak” experiences of your life?
    e.g. the “best day of my life;” “it doesn’t get any better;” “I was born for this” moments
  • Of what are you most proud?
    e.g. personal growth; professional achievement; relationships; etc
  • What makes you angry?
    The big things or just little annoyances…
  • Who are your role models?
    “Role models”: Individuals, living or dead, who have achieved something in their life that you hope to achieve in yours
  • What companies do you most admire?
    What organizations do work that you respect? in a way that you admire? or make products that you value?
  • What are your obsessions?
    What do you love? What do you always do? What can’t you live without?
  • What is your favorite quote?
    Something famous or not. A saying that you love (and likely repeat, often).

Step 2: Identify The Values “Implicit” In The Data

The second step in this process is to uncover the values implicit in your answers to the questions above.

For each of your answers, ask yourself “why?”

Why did you enjoy that moment? Why did that behavior make you angry? Why do you love that quote?

The answers to these questions: values.

When we are happy, or joyful — that which we value is being valued in that moment. When we are angry or upset, its an indicator that something we value is being compromised, or not honored, in that situation.

To make the identification process easier, Professors R. Kelly Crace of William & Mary, and Duane Brown, of the University of North Carolina, led a multi-year research study that enabled them to distill the 200+ different values-related words into a list of fourteen, “Life Values” — the most common human values that guide behavior.

They are:

  • Achievement: It is important to work hard, challenge myself and be the best.
  • Belonging: It is important to be accepted by others and to feel included.
  • Concern for the Environment: It is important to protect and preserve the environment.
  • Concern for Others: The well-being of others, and helping others, is important.
  • Creativity: It is important to have new ideas, create new things or be creatively expressive.
  • Financial Prosperity: It is important to be financially successful.
  • Health and Activity: It is important to be healthy and physically active.
  • Humility: It is important to be humble and modest about my accomplishments.
  • Independence: It is important to have a sense of autonomy with my decisions and actions.
  • Interdependence: It is important to meet the expectations of my family, social group, team or organization.
  • Precision: It is important to use logic and data to understand and solve problems.
  • Privacy: It is important to have time alone.
  • Responsibility: It is important to be dependable, trustworthy and maximize potential.
  • Spirituality: It is important to have spiritual beliefs and act accordingly.

Using this list as a guide, identify the value(s) best reflected by your answer to each of the reflection questions in Step 1.

A few examples to illustrate:

  • What Makes You Angry? “When people text and drive”
    • What value is reflected in that answer (in other words, what value is not being valued)?
      • Responsibility
      • Concern for Others
  • What is your favorite quote? “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
    • What values are reflected in that answer:
      • Concern for Others
      • Belonging
      • Responsibility
  • Of what are you most proud? “Paying off my student loans”
    • What value(s) is reflected:
      • Financial Prosperity
      • Responsibility
      • Achievement

Done well, this exercise should start to reveal a pattern of values; certain words that keep showing up as intrinsic to the story, emotion or experience that you recall via the data collection process.

By the end of this exercise you will likely have a list of 7-10 most common values.

To note, if you find that a different values-related word, not on the list of 14, is more appropriate, use that instead. These are your values, after all!

Step 3: Identify and Prioritize Your “Core” Values

In Step 2 you created a list of 7-10 common values guiding your decision-making and emotions.

In this next step, Step 3, we will narrow this list down to a “Top 5.”

For many, this is the hardest part of the process, but also the most important: The fact is, if you value everything, you value nothing.

If you value everything, you value nothing.

The upside is that this rigorous selection process is worth it. It is through the prioritization process that real decision-making clarity emerges.

For example, I once worked with a talented executive, Jim, struggling to decide on whether to accept a prestigious promotion.

The opportunity represented both tremendous professional achievement as well as big financial boost.

Through the values discovery process (described above), the following core values emerged as most important:

  • Interdependence
  • Achievement
  • Financial Prosperity
  • Responsibility
  • Concern for the Environment

To his boss, the decision to accept the promotion was a “no-brainer.” But, to Jim, it wasn’t.

The problem was that the new job was in a new city, and he would have been required to relocate his family, including two teenage daughters. They didn’t want to go.

Looking at his list of core values, we quickly identified the values conflict. While the new job would be consistent with his values of Achievement and Financial Prosperity, it would conflict with the value of Interdependence — the desire to meet the needs and expectations of family.

Understanding this, the decision became clear. While Achievement and Financial Prosperity were critically important to him, they were not more important than Interdependence. He passed on the promotion and kept his daughters in their schools.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. The opportunity allowed him to see that his current job didn’t align well enough with his values for Achievement and Financial Prosperity, and prompted him to seek, and take, a more compelling opportunity with a local firm.

For Jim, it was a win-win.

There is no “perfect” when it comes to decision-making. Every choice has trade-offs. The secret to peace-of-mind: being aware of the trade-offs and making your choices intentionally.

A prioritized list of core values makes that process possible.

Step 4: Translate Your Values Into Guiding Principles

With values, a single word is not enough.

The next step in this process is to translate each of your core values as a set of behaviors, expectations and/or actions that best reflect what this value means to you.

In this step, we take each “core” values and ask:

  • “What does this value mean, to me?”
  • “What is that I do because I hold this value?”
  • “What is that I expect of others?”

For each of your core values, I recommend 1-3 guiding principles that bring it to life.

Good rule of thumb: Write the guiding principle in a way that would make it easy for you to explain the value to son or daughter.

Here are some examples for each of the fourteen common values. Note: I’ve also included a “definition” (in bold, beneath the term) of each value, as well.


  • I never settle
  • I learn from my mistakes
  • I play to win


  • I exercise for 20 minutes or more, 3 times per week
  • I eat healthy
  • I get 7 or more hours of sleep each night


  • I say “no” when I have to
  • I share what I am thinking
  • I do what’s right, even when it’s hard


  • I believe in a higher power
  • I pray and/or meditate daily
  • I act in alignment with my spiritual beliefs


  • I keep my commitments
  • I live within my means
  • I don’t make excuses


  • I use data to make decisions
  • I am detail-oriented
  • I don’t let emotion influence my decisions


  • I seek to maximize financial Return On Investment whenever possible
  • When making decisions, I prioritize the financial impact
  • I talk about money with my family and friends


  • I care what others think
  • I want to be accepted by others
  • I go with the flow


  • I give others the benefit of the doubt
  • I listen more than I speak
  • I give generously to charitable causes


  • I don’t toot my own horn
  • I am quick to admit mistakes
  • I don’t take myself too seriously


  • I seek out problems to solve
  • I challenge the status quo
  • I embrace change


  • I need quiet time to think
  • I am comfortable being alone
  • I need time by myself to recharge


  • I don’t waste resources
  • I appreciate the beauty of nature
  • I consider the environmental impact of my decisions


  • I treat others with respect
  • I am candid and direct with my feedback
  • I listen more than I speak

This is not an exhaustive list. As before, it’s critical that you craft guiding principles that resonate with you.

We all have our own beautiful dysfunction. I like to view my guiding principles as my opportunity to describe and immortalize it.

Even more important, these principles make it easier for others to understand what you value and act accordingly.

Why We Respect The NAVY Seals

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 lucky because I get 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, everyday; to sacrifice their personal well-being to live in alignment with their core values as described by the beautiful and inspiring SEAL Creed.

That said, like other heros 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 to which they aspire, and they work every day 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.

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

More posts by Ben Sands

Join the discussion 2 Comments