You aren’t looking for the right decisions. You are looking for decisions that are right for you.
This is why values play a central role in decision making. You want to act according to them. You hope your choices will bring better outcomes for you, for people close to you, for a larger group you belong to.
So, it’s crucial to know your values and to have useful, positive, productive values. But usually we don’t think much about them. So we are lead to wrong or suboptimal decisions.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- how values deceive you,
- how you define values,
- how to distinguish between bad and good values,
- how to choose and apply your good values.
Let’s dive in!
Values deceive you
Values develop over your entire life. The longer you live by them, the harder they are to change.
We inherit many values from our family, our mentors, our peers, our extended community. We don’t question them, especially in our younger years. They then become part of our identity.
We go through life making decisions based on them. If we are lucky, they are all good. But often it isn’t so.
Bad values are deceiving. On the surface they seem good. But in practice they lead to bad decisions.
For example, hard work has always been a value in my family. As long as you are active, working, tired, you are doing good.
Later in life I discovered that many enterpreneurs succeeded thanks to their laziness. It pushed them to find optimal strategies. It gave them more time to think and have good ideas.
The value of hard work instead pushes me to exhaustion. I’m always fighting the urge to always be producing. A better value to replace “hard work” would be “effectiveness”, in my case.
But to spot bad values and replace them with good ones, you have to:
- correctly define the term,
- know what good and bad values look like.
How do you define “value”?
Many surveys reveal that people wrongly define values. As Nir Eyal writes, they are a
hodgepodge of things with no clear definition, including:
- Character traits you can embody as an individual (like honesty, patience, and courage)
- Societal conditions people can achieve as a group (e.g. freedom of speech and equality)
- Stuff you can have (e.g. leisure, money, social standing, material possessions, basic needs, education, and family)
- Feelings you can experience (e.g. belonging, intimacy, and financial security).
Instead, he defines values as attributes of the person you want to be.
On the contrary, things that can be taken away from you (e.g. money) can’t be values.
This definition is helpful because it’s actionable. If one of your values is being creative, you know that to embody it you have to create as often as possible. (Well, creativity too can hard to define, but you get the point, right? 😊)
As you can see, it also helps to describe values through verbs. This makes it easier to identify the actions that put them into practice.
I hope this definition helps you shed some light. Now, let’s talk about how to find good values.
What’s a good value? What’s a bad value?
Defining a good value isn’t easy. Mark Manson gives a good guideline.
For him good values are:
Bad values instead are:
Too often we identify what is good with what feels good (emotion-based). This leads to empty or counterproductive values.
Scrolling Twitter in search for inspiration is an endless dopamine burst. But “being inspired” isn’t a good value.
We need instead to gather evidence that our value-led decisions and deeds have constructive consequences. “Being creative” is again a good example. When you are creative you produce (and hopefully publish!) something that can be experienced.
Between constructive and destructive values there’s a blurry line. They are distinguished by the intention behind them. As Mark says:
If you value martial arts because you enjoy hurting people, then that’s a bad value. But if you value it because you are in the military and want to learn to protect yourself and others—that’s a good value.
Finally, uncontrollable (or partially uncontrollable) values are a path to misery. But sometimes they feel controllable.
Money seems controllable. Instead, there are many external factors that can hinder you efforts to make it (or even take it away from you).
Focus only on values you can completely control. For example, the continuous improvement increasing your leverage.
How to find your values?
In the continuous effort to improve my decisions, I’ve been questioning my values. I also realized they’ll always be “under construction”.
If you’ve never done it, start with a value audit. Based on the definitions and questions above, are your values good?
You could find some suspicious ones to replace, or you can feel the need for new ones. Try the techniques from this article:
- rediscover your inner child: what did you love before society told you what you should love? Write it down and try doing it regularly.
- When do you feel the most you? What are the things that make you lose track of time? The ones you’d do all day long?
- Do something creative, follow your instinct. Notice if it makes you feel good. Understand what aspects of it make you feel good.
How to apply your values consistently?
A list of values you don’t practice daily is only a clever topic to show off in conversations. But it’s true: good values are hard to live by, day in and day out.
Here are some techniques that may help.
Put them front and center
After finding your values, write them down. Store them in your note taking app for future reference, but also print them out. Place them where you can see them every day: near your PC screen, on your bathroom mirror, on your fridge. Maybe even create a smartphone wallpaper with the entire list.
The continuous spaced repetition will engrave them in your awareness.
Take them into account when deciding
When you are reflecting on an important decision, go through your list of values. Ask yourself which choice would be the most coherent. Discard the incoherent options.
You don’t always have the luxury of a long time to reconsider your whole list. And sometimes the heath of the moment makes you act against your values.
Reviewing your actions and decisions helps you learn from experience. This way you’ll do better next time.
So, at least once a week (better once a day), take the time to write in you diary. Review your most important actions and decisions. Consider also the recurring actions, the ones that build momentum and habits. Ask yourself: did they embody your values?
Good values → Better decisions
This topic can seem too abstract, too distant from everyday decisions. But it’s not.
Values guide every decision, even if you don’t notice.
If you are not convinced yet, try for 30 days. Write down a list of good values, try to apply them and review your decisions (possibly daily).
At the end of the experiment, see whether something has improved and how you feel about the month past. I bet you’ll notice a great improvement.