“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 recognize 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
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.
Values Come from Voids
One of the things that’s most powerful about our values is how they reflect what has been perceived as lacking in our lives—the seeming difficulties, challenges, obstacles, sorrows, or voids. Whatever we perceive is missing sets off a powerful hunger for precisely that thing. The perception of lack or void creates a corresponding value that drives us until we feel fulfilled.
For example, when I was a child, I felt restricted by the braces I was forced to wear. I perceived that restriction as a void—a lack of freedom. At age four, I begged my father to release me from that void. I promised to keep my hands and feet straight on my own if only I didn’t have to wear the braces.
My father agreed. I was so thrilled to have filled that void—to have replaced restriction with freedom—that I have placed a very high value on physical movement and travel ever since. As a child, I simply ran everywhere, glorying in my ability to move without braces. Throughout my boyhood and youth, I placed a very high value on physical activity and went on to excel at sports. As an adult, I value travel, and I have vowed to visit every country on earth. To this day, I love being unrestricted, either by my physical location or by any type of limiting belief. Today, the universe is my playground, the world is my home, and every city is another platform where I can share my heart and soul.
Isn’t it remarkable to think that my lifelong value on freedom came at least partly from the early childhood experience of a void—a perception of a severe lack of freedom? Thus at a very early age, I began to experience the way voids create values.
Challenging as my childhood experiences seemed to be at the time, they were the essential voids that shaped my highest values. Because I had been blocked in my learning, I valued knowledge. Because I had been unable to communicate, I valued teaching and writing. Because I had felt trapped, I valued travel. And so I discovered this key principle: perceived voids create values. What you perceive as lacking—and want more of—determines what you value. Significantly, this is a never-ending process. When one void is filled, another opens up, spurring you to new efforts—and new values. Indeed, some voids might never be filled. The artist hungry for self-expression, the mystic eager to know the secrets of the universe, the scientist ravenous for new knowledge, the person of service longing to help humanity—these people are driven by voids so great that their values become equally great. An entire lifetime might not be enough to fulfil their highest values.
Other voids can be filled more easily, so that the values they engender are left behind. A young man might feel a void of self-confidence, so that he values impressing others or proving to himself what he can do. Later in life, he feels more confident, and so his values shift to other areas—serving others, perhaps, or raising a family, or founding a new enterprise. A young woman feels a void of self-love, so she values relationships that feed her need to be admired. Later in life, she appreciates herself more fully, and so her values shift to other areas—deepening her romantic and family relationships, perhaps, or expressing herself, or exploring new ideas in science or business.
Thus, some of our values change throughout our lives. Others remain an essential part of who we are. Either way, however, your perceived voids determine your values—and your values shape your life. That is why understanding your highest values and organising your life to pursue them is the secret to living an inspired and fulfilling life.
The Power of True Values
If there is something that you believe you would love to have in your life—such as a more fulfilling career, a life partner, or greater financial freedom—I can tell you that the reason you don’t yet have it in that particular form is almost certainly that you don’t truly value it enough. There is something else you value more, and that is where your energy, time, money, and focus have gone, whether you are aware of it or not. When you truly value something, you are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to fulfil that value. You’ll notice people, places, things, ideas, or events to fulfil your value that another person will surely miss. You’ll mobilize your energy to take advantage of those opportunities. And you’ll bring all your mental, physical, and spiritual resources to bear to make sure that you fulfil what you truly seek.
Your highest values determine your attention, retention, and intention: what you notice, what you remember, and what you intend or act upon. We hear a lot these days about Attention Deficit Disorder—the difficulties some people seem to have in being attentive and focusing steadily. But all of us have some degree of Attention Deficit Disorder for the things we don’t value. For the things we do highly value, we have what I call Attention Surplus Order, which does a fabulous job of filtering your perceptions. Out of all the stimuli in your environment, the ones you notice are the ones that will help you fulfil your highest values. Your highest values will lead you to notice things that another person might miss—even if you tried to point it out!
Values Determine Your Attention
I experienced a striking example of the power of attention a few years ago when a close friend was driving us to her favorite sushi bar in Houston. We were on a block crowded with stores of all kinds, but out of that myriad of choices, my friend zeroed in on a new shoe boutique that hadn’t been there the last time she drove by. She not only picked that one tiny store out of the dozens of other boutiques on that busy block, she even noticed two or three particular pairs of especially desirable shoes in the shop window.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t for the life of me see that store, even when she tried to show me where it was. I didn’t share her high value for shoes, and so I couldn’t break through all the “noise” in the environment to see what had immediately attracted her. Her values gave her Attention Surplus Order for those shoes. My values made it virtually impossible for me to see them at all.
Values Determine Your Retention
Your highest values also affect what you remember, creating what I call “selective biased retention”. That is, you are far more likely to retain information that you believe will help you attain your highest values and to forget information that does not relate to those values. My friend, to continue with the previous example, will probably never forget the address of that shoe store. I probably wouldn’t remember it if you paid me. Her memory leads her to fulfil her higher values. My memory leads me to fulfil mine.
Values Determine Your Intention
Finally, your highest values create what I call “selective biased intention”, adding an extra power to those intentions that truly align with those most important values. If you place a high value on health, you’ll make sure you get to the gym, even if you have to give up some other pleasures to do so. If you place a higher value on “dressing for success”, you might skip the gym in order to stop by your favorite fine clothing store. If you want to know what you truly value, look at what you make time for. Your highest values lend power to those intentions, and so they are the ones you fulfil.
Think about the power we mobilize when we bring together attention, retention, and intention to fulfil our highest values! There is really no stopping us. A mother who has as her highest value her newborn child can sleep through a freight train and yet be awakened by the whimpering of her baby. A child who is immersed in a video game may not hear you ask, “How was school today?” but immediately looks up when you say, “Would you like to come with me to see that new movie you were talking about?” All of us have had the experience of forgetting the names of random guests at a party—except for that one attractive man or woman, whose every detail is vividly etched into our memories!
What we value most shapes how we process information, what we remember, and how we act, so that our minds, emotions, and intentions all work together to fulfil those most meaningful values.
This is why your true highest values are infinitely more powerful than any social idealisms and why it is so important not to allow social idealisms to cloud the clarity of your most inspiring values. When you are guided by social idealisms, you might try to do what you “should” or “ought to”—but if your attempts at maintaining attention, retention, and intention are not aligned with your highest values, you are likely to make only a half-hearted effort and you often will not remain focused. By contrast, when you seek to fulfil your highest values, you focus instantly on whatever helps you reach your goal and you mobilize every bit of your mind, body, and spirit to help you get there.
By becoming aware of your highest values, you mobilize your deepest power. It’s an unbeatable combination.
SIGNS OF LIVING BY SOMEONE ELSE’S VALUES
- You hear yourself using imperative language.
– I should be doing this.
– I ought to be doing that.
– I am supposed to be doing this.
– I need to do that.
– I must do this.
- You experience the ABCDs of negativity.
A = Anger and Aggression; B = Blame and Betrayal
C = Criticism and Challenge; D = Despair and Depression
Identifying your values
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Now that you understand the importance of values, it’s time to identify your own values—a process that could well be one of the most important actions you ever take. Identifying your highest values is your first step on the road to self-knowledge, self-love, and fulfillment of your life’s purpose; setting goals and intentions according to these highest values comes second. Unless your goals and intentions align with your highest values, they have little probability of being realized. You simply won’t mobilize the full power of physical, mental, and spiritual resources to bring those goals about.
Knowing your highest values is not only the key to self-knowledge and self-love; it is the means by which you can accomplish any goal you set—as long as it is a true expression of your highest values.
Passion Versus Highest Values
Because the way we talk about our lives has such tremendous impact on how we think and how we live, I’d like to take a moment to clarify a few terms. Ever since the 1985 publication of A Passion for Excellence by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, the term “passion” has become increasingly popular. People often say, “I’ve got to find my passion” or “I’m looking for work or a relationship that I can be passionate about.” As a result, many have come to believe that the secret to an inspired life is passion.
“Passion,” however, is not a synonym for our highest values. “Passion” literally means “suffering.” It refers not to our most inspired or higher natures, but to our animal selves, the ungoverned, out-of-control emotions that often drive us toward immediate gratification, addiction, and other states that are by definition not aligned with our highest values. Passion often drives us to seek a kind of perpetual bliss that is unobtainable even as we strive to avoid unhappiness, challenges, discomfort, or suffering, which are ultimately unavoidable. So if you choose to live by your passion, you are not living according to your highest values. You are simply following the impulses and instincts of your animal nature, manifesting lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, and addiction—“passions” that can become significant obstacles to leading a fulfilled and inspired life. Indeed, when people live according to their lower values—when they follow other people’s values or subordinate themselves to social idealisms—they often seek immediate gratification, passion, or some other type of addictive pleasure. Instead of starting on the long, rewarding journey of inner fulfillment of their highest values, they seek instant gains and outer pleasures.
Follow Your Mission
Rather than being driven by passion, truly fulfilled human beings will follow their mission, inspired by their highest values and most integrated being. Just as your values are completely individual and unique to you, so is your mission the expression of your own unique contribution to the world. Discovering this mission—the contribution that only you can make—is the key to a life that can be meaningful beyond your wildest dreams.
How do you know whether you are living according to your true highest values? Just look at your life. That old saying “Actions speak louder than words” is especially true when it comes to values: our lives are constantly demonstrating what matters to us most.
For example, if you say you value health and wellbeing but haven’t managed to give up smoking, then there is almost certainly something you value more than health. Perhaps you value the relaxation that smoking brings, and you haven’t yet found anything that relaxes you as much. The relaxation may mean so much to you that you can’t bring yourself to give up smoking, even though you know it is bad for you. Or perhaps there are unconscious motives involved—perhaps your father smoked, and smoking makes you feel closer to him; or maybe your smoking was an early attempt to defy your mother and you still value the sense of independence and autonomy that you associate with this once forbidden activity.
Or, if you say you value financial independence but find yourself spending rather than saving and investing, then you almost certainly value something more than financial independence. Perhaps you like the idea of saving money but value the pleasure you get from indulging in a movie, a new possession, or a much needed vacation. Or again, you might have unconscious motives: you might associate saving with feeling restricted and tied down, while you associate spending with feeling powerful and fancy-free.
As I say to my clients, your life never lies. What you value most is what your life will reveal.
Unfortunately, most of us spend far too much time not consciously honoring our own highest values. Instead, we subordinate ourselves to other people’s values—or at least, we try. Perhaps we attempt to buy into the values of the family we grew up in, the community we were raised in, or the religious institution we have always belonged to. Often, we try to have it both ways. In private, we hold fast to our true highest values. In public, though, we try our best to act as though we accept the values of those whom we view as authority figures. We make sure our parents understand that we have absorbed their values of choosing security above all else, even if privately we long for a more creative or adventurous life. We make sure that the people who go to our mosque, church or temple understand that we follow all the rules of our religion, even if privately we harbor doubts or disagreements. We may not even expect to bring our outer and inner selves into alignment, but this attempted outer facade and inner repression takes its toll.
Anytime you expect yourself to live outside your own highest values, you will probably perceive your life as frustrating or even daunting as true meaning and fulfillment seem to elude you.
So let’s identify your true highest values! Use the six-step values determination process provided in the next section and take the first step towards fulfilling your destiny.
A version of this was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.