Defining your core values gives you a sense of purpose. When you do not know what you believe, everything is an argument – everything is debatable. But when you internalize the values for which you stand, decisions are obvious. In a previous post, I discuss four benefits of defining your core values. In this post, I'll discuss the process by which I identified my top 5 core values.

Before we begin, it is important to understand that this is NOT a goal setting exercise. Goals are specific actions, like "becoming debt-free within 2 years" or "writing one blog post per week for a month." We are looking to identify values – ideas that have great worth to you which serve to give structure to your life.

1. Find Solitude

The importance of solitude cannot be overstated. You may not have a Fortress of Solitude like Superman, but find a quiet place to sit and ponder. I prefer a comfortable chair in my home office. Sitting beneath the shade of tree or walking on a nature trail or just around your neighborhood are other great options. Do whatever works for you – the goal is to create an environment where you can think without distraction.

2. Equip Yourself

You'll need a method to record your values as they come to you. I prefer a pen and paper – there is something about the tactile sensation. You may prefer a computer or tablet. The choice is yours but I wouldn't recommend using a digital device because it's easy to get distracted from the task at hand.

3. Ask the Hard Question

What is truly important to me?

It's a simple question with profound answers. Once you are relaxed, simply reflect on this question. Think about those moments in you life when you felt completely whole and fulfilled. Think about the times when you've been happiest. Pay particular attention to those memories that cause you to smile unconsciously – what made that time some special?

If nothing comes to mind at first, don't worry. Keep pondering the question, repeat it deliberately to yourself and allow the memories to come.

4. Data Dump

Write down whatever comes to mind – don't censor yourself. Be completely honest during this process. No one else is going to see this, so don’t just list the values that you think "should" be on your list. If it comes to you, write it down.

This is a total brain dump. don't worry about prioritizing or editing, we’ll do that later. Right now, the goal is to just record whatever comes to you.

5. Eliminate

If you have more than five values written, it's time to eliminate some. Think hard about what you truly value in life. If some of the values you listed are just two words describing the same idea, then combine them. Put a star by the values about which you are most sure. For the remaining values, take the ones that you feel are important, but aren’t sure if they’re top 5 material, and put them in pairs. Think about two of those values side by side, and ask yourself which of the two is more important, then eliminate the other. Keep pitting the survivors against each other until you’re down to 5.

6. Prioritize

Once you whittle your list to five core values, prioritize them in order from most important to least important. Ideally, your core values compliment each other, but there might be times when two or more conflict. When that happens, which value will trump the other? Defining this in advance gives you great clarity on how to proceed when life presents the choice.

Closing Thoughts

If you've read this far, you know and understand the importance of discovering, defining, and internalizing your core values. I used the above six steps to help me discover and document mine. I hope you will be able to do the same. If you're having a hard time starting, here's a list of values (by no means exhaustive) you might consider:

  • Adventure
  • Balance
  • Beauty
  • Confidence
  • Control
  • Creativity
  • Discipline
  • Discovery
  • Education
  • Faith
  • Family
  • Financial Security
  • Friends
  • Freedom
  • Fulfillment
  • Forgiveness
  • Fun
  • God
  • Growth
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Hope
  • Honesty
  • Humor
  • Independence
  • Integrity
  • Kindness
  • Knowledge
  • Marriage
  • Peace of mind
  • Power
  • Progress
  • Reason
  • Security
  • Self-reliance
  • Service
  • Spirituality
  • Strength
  • Success
  • Truth
  • Wisdom

My 5 core values are contained within the list. What are yours?