“Great people have great values.” – Jeffrey Gitomer

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” – Ayn Rand

When I was in grade school, I remember my teacher asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never knew what to say, and I’m still not sure. I wish I would have answered like John Lennon, who said ‘happy.’ His teachers told him he didn’t understand the assignment, and he told them they didn’t understand life.

It’s common to spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to do, and not enough time thinking about who we want to be. Rich, successful, famous, parent, coach, CEO, student; those are all things that we do, not things that we are.

What we are, is defined by our values – our principles, or judgments of what is important in life. Although unique to every person, it is by acting in agreement with our values that we can all find happiness. Ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato knew it. Modern day psychologists like Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman have confirmed it.

So what are your values? What kind of person do you want to be?

Who We Are Is Constantly Changing

Dramatic turnarounds make great stories. There’s the high school dropout who founds a multinational company, the addict who overcomes their dependencies and goes on to inspire others, or the significantly overweight person who finds new life after a dramatic physical transformation. In a way, these stories inspire us because we like to see a little bit of ourselves in those people. We think that we too can improve. We think that too can become better.

And we can. We just have to be willing to grow. “Growth demands a temporary surrender of security,” explains John. C Maxwell. “It may mean giving up familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in, and relationships that have lost their meaning.”

Who we are at this moment is just a starting point. Many of us simply adopt the values of our family, faith, or the community in which we were raised. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but considering that all three of those are largely a matter of chance, we shouldn’t feel obligated to let them define who we are.

We can choose who we become.

What Are Your Values?

Defining the type of person who you want to be is an important step to becoming more like that person. The following exercise is designed to help you explore what that may look like.

The most important thing to remember while completing the steps below is to stay true to yourself. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not, or follow somebody else’s values, because it’s not going to work. Be honest with where you are right now and the things that matter the most to you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your values will always be evolving. You don’t need to try to create the “perfect” list, because it doesn’t exist. Just get started. Write something down, and remember that you can always go back and change it later. Over time, my own list has morphed from four words to several paragraphs, including a daily free-flow brainstorm on how to live those values moment to moment.

So grab something to write with, and something to write on, and let’s have some fun!

Part 1: Brainstorm

Think about the following questions or suggestions, and write down whatever comes to mind. Don’t judge what you’re writing at this point, just get it all on paper. It also doesn’t have to be in complete sentences, only a word (or two) is enough.

  • Think about the people who you look up to, and who inspire you. What are they like? What words would you use to describe them?
  • What are the words that come to mind when you picture your ideal self?
  • When were you the happiest? Proudest? Most fulfilled and satisfied? How were you acting and what were you feeling at the time?
  • Check out this list of values and copy the words that resonate the most with you.

Part 2: Find Common Themes

Once you’ve got a good list of words, look for common themes. What are the things that stand out? If you’re feeling up to it, order them according to most important.

Don’t overthink it, just go with what feels right.

Part 3: Continue to Grow Your List

Over the next few weeks, pay attention to words or phrases that speak to you throughout your day, and add them to your list. I’ve gotten them off the walls at gyms (vibrant), from books (enough), from mentors (diligent, patient, persistent, playful), from movies (humorous), etc.

For those curious, my current values, along with what they mean to me, are:

Being – Appreciating the fact that I’m alive and aware. Living in the present moment.
Love – Giving lots of it! To myself, to my family, to my community, to my world.
Happiness – Practicing it. Helping others practice it.
Health – Keeping my physical body in peak condition, contributing in a positive way to the health of our planet.
Growth – Continuing to challenge myself, learn, and grow.
Adventure – Seeing as much of the world as I can while I can.
Impact – Leaving the world better than I found it, however I’m able to do that best. Lead others to become the best possible versions of themselves.

Live Your Values

It’s not enough just to have great values – we have to live them. After thinking about the ideas that we want to live our lives by, each moment becomes an opportunity to put those ideas into practice. It’s not going to happen all at once. It may not even happen bit by bit. But if you constantly work at it, you can become the type of person that you want to be.

Are you going to act like the person who you want to be all of the time? No. Are you even going to act like them most of the time? Probably not, at least not in the beginning. There are no perfect human beings, and you aren’t going to be the first. As the Reverend Michael Beckwith says, “Even enlightened beings burn their bagels once in a while.”

The good news is that once you decide what you value most, aligning your actions with those values actually takes less effort. As Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney describes, “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

Several years after starting this process, I’ve started noticing that my actions are aligning more frequently with the person I want to become. I’ve still got a long way to go (just ask Kristen :), but I’ve definitely seen improvements.

I know that life can get pretty hectic, and it can be easy to forget about values in the heat of the moment, so one of the things I like to do is to put them front and center in my mind at the start of every day. Towards the end of my morning journal practice, I spend several minutes writing words that will help me to align my actions with my values. Lately, I’ve been writing them like Da Vinci (backward, with my left hand), just for fun:

Values and virtues written Davinci style

It looks like that day’s list was: loving, creative, disciplined, present, alert, alive, mindful, aware, calm, centered, productive, focused, organized, energetic, enthusiastic, inspired, radiant, enlightened, divine, human, humble, strong, light, fast, swift, loose, relaxed, flexible, adaptable, unstuck, nondual, grateful, blessed, positive, optimistic, vulnerable, supportive, curious, capable, genuine, generous, diligent, patient, persistent, playful, happy, healthy, wealthy, wise.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi