Girl trapped inside the cage

“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

What is the most important step you can take to achieve the inspired and fulfilling life you’ve dreamed of? You might think the answer was something like, “Start saving money,” “Get a better job,” or “Land that big promotion.” Or maybe your response would be more like, “Find my life partner,” “Have a baby,” or “Improve my marriage.” Any of those actions might help you create a more well-rounded life—perhaps even a more meaningful one. But none of them alone will be the key to fulfilling your destiny—none of them alone may even come close.

Why? Because until you understand specifically what you truly value most, what truly inspires you, who you truly are, and what your true purpose is, a completely inspired, fulfilling life will elude you. You’re likely to attempt to live the life that someone else wants you to live, trying to follow someone else’s values or priorities—those of a parent, teacher, boss, or spouse. That is a recipe for frustration: the job that never quite satisfies you, the relationship that has somehow gone stale, and the vague sense that you’re living a quiet life of desperation.

Values determine quality of life

Determining your highest values is the key to living your inspired destiny. You’ll be able to build a career where every day can feel like a vacation—because you love the work you do. You’ll be able to find the life partner that you seek, or transform your current relationship into the intimate, nourishing partnership that you would love. You’ll be able to activate your own unique genius, grow your financial freedom, expand your influence, and unleash your vitality. Ultimately, you will be able to achieve your immortal vision, fulfilling your purpose for being here on earth.

True values are not social idealisms

When I ask you to think about what your values are, what words come to mind? If you’re like most people, you might find yourself listing abstract qualities: honesty, integrity, trust. Or perhaps you would refer to a set of religious beliefs, a patriotic ideal, or a code of morality.

These are probably not really your own personal values. Rather, they are what I call social idealisms: socially acceptable ways of thinking and behaving. Social idealisms sound nice. But they don’t necessarily reflect the true driving force that shapes your perceptions, decisions, actions, and feelings. You might genuinely believe that you are inspired by these ideals. But they are more likely to reflect your ideas of how you should, ought to, or have to behave—not what you truly value most.

You can recognise social idealisms because they are usually presented as general statements and abstract categories:

People should be honest.

Treat others the way you want them to treat you.

A good person goes to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

An “evolved” person is always generous or altruistic.

True values are unique

Portrait of a face with a thumb impression on the head
Your personal values are as unique as your fingerprints

True values, by contrast, are as specific to you as your fingerprint, your retinal pattern, and your voiceprint. Perhaps what you truly value most is spending time with your family, listening to beautiful music, and the chance to play basketball several times a week. Or perhaps you value stylish clothes, nursing injured animals back to health, or expanding your enterprise’s global reach. Your highest values may change throughout your life—most people’s do—but they are still the very essence of you: what you’re drawn to, what you inevitably seek out, what you live for. They are a kind of internal compass, pointing you toward the activities, people, and places that most fulfil you and away from the situations and people that are likely to feel unfulfilling. If you think of which activities and relationships truly nourish your innermost being, those are your highest values.

Just as no one else can choose your fingerprints or alter the pattern of your retina, no outside authority—no parent, teacher, political leader, or religious figure—can define your values. Only you can look into your own mind, heart, and soul and discover what is truly most important to you. Of course, you may find some similarities between your values and those of others. For example, both you and another person may love learning. But one of you may love to learn facts and figures, while the other revels in mastering profound philosophic concepts. Or perhaps one of you delights in mastering the ins and outs of investments in the stock market, while the other loves to invent complex financial instruments. In the domain of home and family, perhaps two parents equally value nurturing their children. But one expresses that nurturing through providing challenges and discipline, while another expresses that nurturing through long conversations about feelings and offering comfort in times of difficulty.

As you can see, even when two sets of values seem to be similar, one person’s values will never be quite like anybody else’s. Your unique purpose is to understand and fulfil your highest values. It is both a spiritual quest and the key to a fulfilling life.

This is why I suggest that you focus on your own personal journey of self-discovery and not allow social idealisms or possibly stagnant traditions or conventions to cloud the clarity of what really matters to you.

How to distinguish your true values

How do you know when you are expressing your true highest values and when you are reflecting social idealisms? I’ll offer some powerful exercises later in this article that will reveal your true highest values. Meanwhile, here’s an important clue: anytime you find yourself saying, “I should...,” “I need to...,” or “I really must...,” you can be pretty certain that you are talking about social idealisms or the values of some external authority instead of expressing your own true highest values. On the other hand, when you hear yourself saying, “I desire to...,” “I choose to...,” or “I love to...,” then you know that you are talking about a goal that is truly valuable to you. Those are the goals you will inevitably achieve because they align with your highest values. But when you take on goals that are not aligned with your highest values, then you will, in all probability, struggle.

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A version of this was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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