Discovering Your Core Values to Create an Intentional Career

Welcome to the latest installment of my series on creating an intentional career! We’ve already done a lot so far. In the first week, we reviewed what it means to create an intentional career and why it might be important for you. Then, we looked at how and why you can discover the core feelings in your heart that can guide you toward your intentional career. Then, I explained how time tracking is a critical part of discovering what your intentional career might be. Most recently, we looked at how and why clearing space is important to draw more intention into your life

The next two weeks, we’re going to get down and dirty with what I think is one of the most important parts of creating an intentional career (and, frankly, an intentional life): uncovering your core values.

What are core values and why do you need them to live a more intentional life?

Core values are simple: They are the fundamental beliefs of a person. These principles dictate behavior and can help people understand the difference between right and wrong according to their own codes of conduct and belief. Core values also help you to determine if you are on the right path, making meaningful choices and decisions, and help you distinguish between one way of doing things or another.

Cool. Even by that definition, you might start to get a sense of why understanding your core values can be important to your life. They act as a compass for the way you want to live and the decisions you make going forward.

But let’s make it clear: Why are values important? To further highlight their importance, Michelle Fyfe writes this:

“Everyone has values, some people just are more aware of what their values are than others. Being aware of what your most important values are — your core values — provides a valuable guide for living a life that feels meaningful and can greatly help with decision making. Making decisions that go against one of your core values will cause a sense of “distress” or “discomfort”, or feelings of guilt or even a loss. Following one’s core values brings meaning and purpose. They uphold your sense of personal responsibility, giving you a sense of self-worth.”

And we all want that stuff, yeah?

What happens if you don’t know your values?: If we don’t have our core values set we might make decisions like this one set out in this post:

“Let’s say you get offered a job two hours away from home and you immediately take it because it will result in a salary increase. You don’t consider any other factors or implications, you just assume that a salary increase means a better life. However, three months into the job, you realize the cost of living in the new city is much higher, your commute is twice as long, and you really miss seeing your family throughout the week. Without stopping to really consider your personal core values before accepting the job offer, you unintentionally took a big step backward in terms of personal development.”

(An unintentional core value that many of us have been taught, btw, is that money is the most important factor in life.)

So you get it: Core values are important for living an intentional, thoughtful life that aligns with who you are.

Actual vs. aspirational values

Now, this is an important part of this module. We might already think we have a firm set of values in place. “I know what is important to me in life already!” somebody could say. “I value family, harmony, achievement and spirituality.”

But what if the person who says that lives far from family and spends no time with them; picks fights with or resents their peers; doesn’t achieve their personal goals; and hasn’t meditated or attended their spiritual place of worship in two years?

That person is existing in the realm of aspirational values. They know what they think is important to them, but they’re not living those values in their day-to-day. So those values are merely dreams, not reality. Their real values may reflect something else entirely.

What if they instead work all the time for bonuses; paint in their spare time; and prefer to spend most of their time alone? Then they may actually have core values of security, creativity and solitude. See the difference? Neither is wrong or better, but there is a truth to the second set of values that doesn’t exist with the first.

Author Marc Alan Schelske writes:

The vast majority of core value lists floating around out there are aspirational core values. They are values that the person or company ardently wants to be true. But they are not actually true… An aspirational core value isn’t a bad thing; it’s a great tool for casting vision. But without clarity, an aspirational value can mask the real values that are driving you or your organization. Who you really are is who you really are. Authentic core values are (unfortunately) the more powerful kind. Why? Because these are the values that really, truly motivate your current behavior. Sometimes these values lead to really wonderful, noble acts. Other times they lead to choices that we’re ashamed of. They represent what is authentically true about us; both what is great and inspiring, as well as what is shadow. This is the thing about your authentic core values: They motivate the choices you make. Both good and bad choices. These are not a set of hopeful ideals some imagined better version of your self lives by. These are the real values at the core of who you are.

Aspirational values are nice. We all want to have visions of ourselves we are aiming for. But the exercise we’re doing this week will ideally get you to your actual, core values.

The process

To move past what our aspirational values might be, we have to get creative and do some digging. And that’s what this week’s exercise is all about.

There are five activities/sections in this process. Let’s go through the first three; we’ll review the last two in next week’s post.

(Note: This process has been adapted from Discovering Your Authentic Core Values: A Step- by-step Guide by Marc Alan Schelske, which is an excellent book [with a Christian bent, just a heads up; I’m not religious or Christian but didn’t mind those parts] if you want to dive into your values more deeply after this.)

1. List 10 people you admire and then distill down in one word or phrase what it exactly is you admire about them.

What we admire in others is often something that we possess in ourselves, but haven’t yet embodied or admitted to ourselves. This can start to give us some breadcrumbs to some possible values.

My story: For example, I admire an online entrepreneur named Lacy Phillips. She lives a life of exploring spiritual and metaphysical concepts and teaching them clearly to others. For her, I might write down, “teaching” or “influencing.” I also admire an astrologer named Jessica Lanyadoo, not because she’s an astrologer (though I do love that!), but because she is very ambitious, hard-working, and, huh, look at that, also an online teacher. So for her, I might write “teaches clearly” or “ambition.” My last example is… hmm. Another online teacher and writer named Ramit Sethi who teaches about finances. For him, I could write down “communicates clearly,” because that’s what I love about his courses. Already I’m learning a lot here, right? People who teach difficult concepts clearly, online, and are ambitious and hardworking and entrepreneurial. I’m starting to dig into my possible values!

2. Brainstorm 20 emotional decisions you have made over the course of your life and one word that communicates why you made that choice.

Schelske, in his book, explains this concept beautifully with an example of his own. He writes: “For example, one of my life events was choosing to adopt my son. I journaled on why this was important to me and surfaced a number of ideas. I’m adopted myself and wanted to pass on the belonging that was given to me. I know how adoption transformed my life, and am aware that I have the power to effect that kind of change for someone else. I wrote that I wanted to create belonging and new chances for someone. So, my key words for this experience were “belonging,” and “2nd chances.”

Need some help understanding what emotional decisions are? Schelske explains: “Your authentic core values are embedded in the important choices and turning points in your life. In a journal, start brainstorming a list of the major decisions that you’ve made. Start today, and work backwards as far as you can remember. Include things like: Big decisions you made. Traumatic experiences and how you responded. Critical points of transition in major relationships and why you think things went that way.”

Twenty might seem like a lot, but I guarantee you can come up with these 20, unless you are 10 years old, in which case, why are you reading this? Go have a popsicle. Things that can help you reflect in these cases: Any time you moved. Any time you switched jobs or careers. Any schools you went to or educational choices you made. Any serious relationships that started or ended. Any book, movie, trip or other creative element that inspired you to do something different after experiencing it.

My story: Two big life events/emotional decisions for me were nearly 20 years apart. When I was 22 I decided to move to Italy for a year without knowing anybody there. When I was 39 I left my corporate job to start my own coaching and writing business. I could literally spend hours talking about each of these choices, but to me, they reflected similar themes: Exploration. Freedom. Curiosity. Learning. Independence. Unconventional. Beauty in surroundings (well, for Italy at least). Vibrancy. And so on.

3. Ask 3-5 people you are close to who understand and value you 1) what they think motivates you most strongly and 2) what blind spots you may have that hold you back in your career.

Phew! This one can be a lot. But it’s also going to be the most illuminating part of this exercise. Other people see us SO much more clearly than we see ourselves. This part is the key to moving from aspirational to actual values. We’ll learn what other people see us as motivated by; and when we learn our stumbling blocks, according to them, we can also see what the value or positive reframe of that block may be. (I’ll explain more in the My Story section.)

Here is a script you can use in an email if you like:

“Hi _______! I am taking an online blog series all about intentional living, and in this week’s module, we are exploring our true values. The author has tasked us with an exercise of reaching out to those closest to us to ask them two things: What do you think are three things that motivate me in life? What are three blind spots I may have or areas I struggle with that may hold me back? The author has said this will provide valuable information into discovering my core values because others can see us so much more clearly than we might be able to see ourselves. I know this may be a tough ask, but I trust you to give me compassionate insights that will help me complete this course! I need these insights within the next week if you are able; thank you so much.”

If you can’t think of three to five people who can do this sensitively and with insight for you, just aim for one or two. And if you feel wildly uncomfortable doing this at all (I understand, this requires a great amount of vulnerability), that’s OK, too. The other parts of this week’s module will still get you great insights. However: if you merely feel discomfort, but think if you girded your loins you really could do this, I encourage you to go for it. Growth is born in discomfort!

Note: Some of the people you ask to do this may simply not respond. It is a tough ask and it may make them feel uncomfortable; simply understand and accept that. Also, for those who do respond, do not get defensive about their feedback; just thank them, try to sit with it for a while and see what comes up for you.

My story: As I was writing and developing this post, I asked my boyfriend and sister to give me this feedback. My boyfriend said what motivates me: money, success/ learning and understanding/helping others. He said where I struggle is that I’m way too critical of myself. My sister said what she sees motivating me are self-improvement/ success/self-knowledge. What my blind spot is in her view is I’m always trying to offer advice and fix stuff when sometimes she just wants me to listen.

This is where the last part of this exercise comes in. My blind spots are, according to others, self-critical and a fixer vibe. But there is value gold in these blind spots. For every blind spot or struggle area somebody tells you, I want you to reframe it and fill out the valuable aspect of that struggle. For me, having an inner critic, while not ideal, can be quite motivating to get things done and get them done well. My tendency to want to fix is an ability to see solutions that others don’t see yet and to want to help improve people’s lives and situations.

Next week, once you have all of the above insights and information, we’ll work on the next two exercises: developing and refining five core values. Stay tuned!

Catherine Andrews is an author, teacher, coach and expert in intentional living who works with clients to mindfully and authentically design a life that reflects all of their potential, dreams, desires and capabilities. She is the author and host of The Sunday Soother, a newsletterpodcast and community dedicated to authentic living and compassionate personal growth. She lives in Washington, D.C., and holds a bachelor’s in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University. Before becoming a teacher and coach, she spent nearly 20 years in communications and journalism, and she still believes the stories we tell about ourselves and others are our greatest assets. You can find her on Instagram here.

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