How To Find Your Values



“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” — Henry David Thoreau

It’s hard to live your values if you don’t know what they are.

This post will help you find your values.

My dictionary defines a value as “something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.”

That sounds about right.

Finding your values and clarifying them is one of the first steps towards true self-awareness.

Do You Know Your Top 5 Core Values?

You would think you know yourself after all these years, but a lot of things get in the way.  For example, maybe you never took the time to write down your top five values.

Or maybe, you got caught up in what you think your values “should” be or what other people decided you should value.

Either way, now is a great time to figure out your values.

if you know your values, then you know what you want, you know who you are, you know where you stand.    You know your values when you have a list of five values you can rattle off.

List of Values

To find your values, start with a list.   This is one of my favorite lists of values from one of my training sessions, but I haven’t finished comparing.  It’s good enough for now:

Economic Security
Family Happiness
Inner Harmony
Personal Development


If that list doesn’t work for you, there’s plenty of lists on the Web.  Some are overwhelming and some have lists of values that are too fine-grained.

The key is to have a list of big values that really shape your life decisions as well as your day to day.  Think macro vs. micro.

Find Your Top Values

To find your top values, you can chunk down the list.  Make multiple passes:

  1. Find your top 10.
  2. Find your top 5.
  3. Find your top 3.
  4. Find your top value.

Remember that it’s not about finding what you value.

Chances are, you value a lot of the items on the list.

It’s about find what you value most.

You need to know your top most values so when you have to prioritize or make trade-offs, you have some gauges.

A simple way to think of it is that value are your gauges in life.  For example, my top five gauges are: Adventure, Family Happiness, Health, Integrity, Personal Development.  I think.  It’s tough since freedom is important to me too, as is loyalty.  So is helpfulness.  I like to help.  Some values I can’t trade-off.

Luckily, I don’t need to, except in certain scenarios and decisions.  (Scenario-based values is something I also need to explore.)

Be Willing to Be Surprised

I was surprised the first time I explored my values.  I didn’t realize how important adventure is to me.  It was like my life flashed before my eyes:

“Go west young man,” “lead an epic adventure,” “it’s a SWAT mission,” cross-country road-trips, my Jeep, my motorcycle, a dream to go to Australia … etc.

I remember that when I first joined Microsoft, the very first though in my mind was, “Go West young man.”  If for no other reason, it would be an adventure.

I realized that since I’ve been at Microsoft, I bake adventure into my daily life.  When I lead a project, I try to build the dream team to go on an epic adventure to take on some big problem.  I would inspire the team by talking in terms of SWAT missions and taking on big challenges.

A lot of my metaphors are about adventure.

That’s the beauty of knowing your values.  You can work more of your values into your day to day, even if it’s as simple as using more metaphors.  You can live you values in lots of ways, large and small.

Test Your Values

Just having your list of values from the top of your mind, might not be enough.  To get more clarity, you can test your values:

  • Is it truly YOUR value?  (i.e. is it internally motivated or is it external … a “should”)
  • Is it a means or an end?  If one value is simply to accomplish another, then look to the value you want to accomplish.  If you want economic security because you think it leads to freedom, then freedom is the one you value most.  This is important because there’s multiple ways to accomplish a goal and flexibility is key.  Know what you want, but be flexible in your approach.
  • Do your actions show your values?  Actions speak louder than words.
  • When were you happiest or most excited?  What was your proudest moment?  These highlights are a potential showcase of your values.
  • What do you regret the most?  Again, this is a way to figure out what’s most important to you.

It’s an Ongoing Exercise

Finding and living your values is an ongoing exercise.  Life-changing events can shift our values. (think Scrooge.)  Finding ways to live your values can help you find fulfillment as well as improve your energy and ignite your passions.

Feel free to ask questions, share your thoughts and share your values below.

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  1. As someone who was pretty confused early in life, I definitely understand the important of this. Interjected values from society and parents are common and the more your actual underlying value differ from those you are taught, the more difficult life becomes because of this gap between your life and “your truth” as expressed in values and the rules you use.

    After searching using tools such as this post, I find now that my values differ a great deal from other people in some areas, but I’m happier because I’m living them out instead of trying to change them to match what’s acceptable and understood as normal by the majority of USA society.

    Understanding my values is an ongoing effort that I reevaluate from time to time as my life and needs change.


  2. My little exercise tells me not to my mix my personal and professional values together. Here’s my top 5 professional and personal values.

    Professional Values

    Personal Values
    Family Happiness

    For the sake of argument, if I consider this statement purely from the philosophical angle, “Is it a means or an end?  If one value is simply to accomplish another, then look to the value you want to accomplish.  ….” – everything you do is ultimately for happiness (or some form of it). So my question is, how far do you go down the chain?

    • In order for you to find your passion in life and to be happy in your career your personal values and your professional values should be the same. Why do you have them listed separately?

  3. I will do the exercise but I wanted to share with you what popped into my head as I read this post.

    When I am doing a boring, repetitive task that I value it must be done, I make up adventures in my head – stories. When you were talking about making your projects and presentations into adventures, I just thought about all those stories that made the task bearable and completable for me – like weeding and cutting all the apples for juice and applesauce.

    Creative Fantasized Adventure Guide at your service!
    nice memory – thank you

  4. I agree with your definition of values – these are the ideas which are very special to me. There have been so many things important to me, but never had a chance to find my top values. As the first step I have identified these as the top 5. But will have to re-visit these soon to find the top value.

    Family Happiness
    Economic Security

    Thank you JD for leading me to this.

  5. Hi J.D.

    Great post on Value, I am a big believer on value. Live is all about giving value, adding value and receiving value.
    You bring the interesting value to any topic which is ‘testing’I have never heard of ‘tesing your value.’Very wise.
    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  6. I think it’s important to establish your values. If you have a clear idea about what you value, you’ll feel less like you just happen to be floating by and more like your decisions are based on some sort of core principle/s.

    I’ve had a look at the list above J.D., and if I had to pick my 5 top values from that list I’d go with:




    Family Happiness



    Personal Dev.




  7. Thanks for the post. It’s got me thinking…uh-oh.

    While I have a general understanding of what are my values, I’m going to take some time to do this exercise and really consider them; write them down and see what’s missing. Thanks for getting my ball rolling on this.

  8. Ahhh — another list of goodies that must be eliminated in order to get to THE ONE TRUE VALUE.

    I guess I have a problem with that. I’ve never been able to find the one word that encompasses all that I hold valuable.

    My family comes first, but that doesn’t mean that I value them higher than truth and honesty, or adventure and discovery, or creativity, love, eternal security, growing into my potential, making a difference, being grateful, teachable. Etc. I value my paints and drawing pencils! My memories tucked into journals.

    Hmmm… maybe it’s a matter of what I believe (one set of values) and how I approach life within that set of values. A set of DO priorities. A set of HAVE valuables. Are these all different?

    Don’t mind me. I don’t do well on scales of 1 to 10 either.

    But you have given me more to think about. Thanks.


  9. @ Rob

    That’s a good way to think of it … it is an ongoing effort.

    It’s interesting how many conflicts that people run into, aren’t conflicts with the person, they’re conflicts in values and sometimes conflicts in styles. When you have this lens, it helps you find a way to bridge.

    @ Praveen

    Because your values aren’t static, I think go go far enough until you have a set of values that “feel” right and are good enough for now. You can then use your tickler list to help you find your way whenever you need to make trade-offs (less time at work, more time at home, more free time, more advancement, more safety, … etc.)

    I like that you created two sets. You can then cross-check for conflicts or where you can bring your personal values to the job … or look for jobs that help you reenforce your values (either change the job or find a job that fits).

    @ Patricia

    That’s a great example of finding a way to live your values no matter what the job. I bet Adventures in Apple Sauce would be a wild movie.

    @ Askshay

    Good job Akshay and I like the fact you took the time to do the exercise.

    On Friday Reflections, it’s good to check how well you’re living your values at work. If you don’t end the week with the energy you want, then find more ways to bring your values to the table.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I think testing our values is a way to bridge the gap from where we want to be and where we are. I contiuously reduce the gap and I think it’s all the imperfect action that helps me do so.

    @ Louisa

    Good way to put it … core principles. when you know what they are, it’s easier to prioritize. When you’ don’t, it’s easy to get in a loop of chasing the wrong things.

    Whittling down is tough. It’s like trying to pick your favorite meal among a bunch of favorite meals. They all look good and sometimes it’s the scenario that matters more and other times, you just have to pick one. Sometimes, we’re lucky and get to have it all. Other times, we have to wait until our next opportunity to enjoy more of what we didn’t get enough of, this time around.

    @ Laurie

    Here’s the ultimate test – what will you do differently once you have clarity on your values?

    It’s a spectrum of possibilities. If you find out there’s some important values that you’re just not getting enough of, you can start small. It doesn’t have to be extreme. The beauty is, you can almost always find a way to bake in into what you already do. The benefit is, you feel good and you improve your energy (you always have more energy when you do what you value.)

    @ Barb

    I think the key is your HAVE values.

    There’s multiple ways to get there (DO), and it sounds like you have guiding principles that serve you well.

    I think most values come down to feelings. You want to feel good. Feeling good might mean feeling free or feeling confident or feeling safe.

  10. JD,
    this one is too fundamental. I was looking for it for so long…
    Thank you.
    Since I exhausted already all my stumbles on your domain I am moving to tweeter. You have been tweeted! (Consider adding tweet badge … )

  11. @ Alik

    Thank you! I think values is the heart of a firm foundation. I know it’s sounds business’ish, but if you know your mission (who are you), and you know your (vision), where you want to go, and you know your values (guiding principles), you’ve got a rock solid base. The rest is details.

  12. The value of values 😛 is always one of those things that get overlooked. When you have clear values, decision making all of a sudden becomes much easier. Employees understand how to behave, what the company stands for which leads to better productivity all around.
    As an entrepreneur I learned the hard way. Great article!


  13. @ Kevin

    Thank you. Values are key to many things. I used to underestimate the value of values, but I’ve come to learn that they are a powerful tool for self-awareness. The more you know about your own values and the more you live by them, the more you can live your life on your terms.

  14. Thanks JD,

    Very helpful,

    I reckon my top 5 values are:

    Authentic spirituality
    real relationships
    Family as a priority
    personal growth/development

    Also You should definately come to the land Down under. (Australia)
    You’d love it!
    Plenty of advanture to be had here!



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