One thing I like to identify in myself and others when looking for reasons to explain behaviour is our personal core values. These may be loosely defined as the things that are most important to you in your life. Let’s look at some of the major values we might have in our lives: family, finances, health, career, relationships, travel, social life, and a host of other topics that might light you up.
What does it mean if someone is super successful at their work, if they are an amazing mother, or if they volunteer to help less fortunate people three times per week, yet they can’t establish and maintain a routine with exercise and nutrition? Does it mean they are a failure, lazy, or a bad person? Certainly not! Does it mean that health and fitness aren’t important to them and are not among their top values? Maybe it does. I know that when I tell myself I should do something, and six months later I haven’t done it, I can usually stop and analyse the situation and see that it’s actually not that important to me. It’s not aligned with one of my top values, so that’s why I didn’t change my behaviour and do it.
The key to having a life you love is to have an intimate understanding of your most important core personal values as a human being and then live a life that is aligned with those values. The reason for this is that we all find time for the things that are important to us and that align with our values.
As a time management exercise, I have often asked people to keep a record of their week and month, and outline how and where they spend their time. This exercise can be eye-opening as it often shows people spending up to 80 percent of their time doing things they don’t enjoy. How can we be happy and fulfilled living like this? People are often living the values of other people or society, and either waiting for the weekend or spending time working to make money to spend on things they do enjoy.
On a personal note, every year I have the entire 12 months planned out with holidays and family trips away. I love my work and can often become immersed in it and work long hours. The best way for me to create balance and ensure I live in line with my values of family time is to book monthly weekends away, and longer holidays 4 times each year, and also structure my work hours so they are as efficient as possible and also allow for time with family, and time to exercise for a couple of hours each day.
The steps to living a life of passion and inspiration can be identified as follows:
- Identify your highest priority values
- Set goals in line with these values
- Create a visual and written description of what this all looks like
- Take steps to bring it all to fruition
Identifying Your Values
If you are wondering how you can identify your values, I’ll share the story of how I did this for myself. My story is as follows:
It was March 2015, and I had been married to Lauren for seven years. We had one daughter and another on the way, and our lives had changed a lot since the days of no children. The pressures of our work had increased. I was looking for a solution to improve our marriage and also seeking answers to the lack of fulfilment I was feeling with my life overall.
I booked myself into a personal development seminar on the other side of the country that ran for seven days straight. There were about 50 people at the seminar. On the fourth day, we were asked to undertake a written exercise. We had a pen and paper, and at the top of the page were these instructions: “You have two years to live. Between now and that time, you are in perfect health. How will you spend your time?”
I grabbed my pen and was overcome with inspiration. As the words flowed out of me and onto the page without even having to think, I described the way I would travel the world with my wife and children, and experience all the beauty this world has to offer. I described in detail how Lauren and I would invite our mothers along, so we could spend time with them, and so they could also help us with the kids. It would be a period of quality family time. I wrote down all the countries we would visit and how we would have the greatest time doing adventurous things, and also relaxing and doing nothing at all. We would experience freedom at its finest and be grateful for every day.
Now, you have to realise that at the time, I was heavily focused on my business pursuits, which was largely what led to the distance in my marriage. I was also extremely focused on my physical training. As an example, at the seminar, I brought my own food—fish, salad, chicken, and vegetables—because I was just a few weeks out from participating in a bodybuilding competition.
The guy who was running the seminar was pretty incredible, and he was also super blunt and direct. I had just finished writing my response to what I would do with my final two years on this planet, and he walked right up to me, pulled out his red pen, read my notes, and circled three words:
He looked me in the eye and said, “These are your top values”. I said, “No they’re not. You don’t know me. My top values are business and exercise”.
He asked me whether I would go to work every day and go to the gym every day if I had just two years to live. I said no.
He said, “Well, they aren’t your top values then”.
A massive wave of emotion washed over me and in front of the whole seminar group. I burst out crying. No wonder I had felt so off-track. I was living a life that wasn’t matched up with my primary values.
The seminar facilitator didn’t batted an eyelid. He looked at me and asked, “What are you crying for?”
I said, “I’ve been such an idiot!”
He explained to me that I wasn’t an idiot, but I had been living in a way that I thought was important by doing things that may have supported my main values. For example, having a successful business could give me the money I needed to travel and look after my family, and since most of my business pursuits were in the health and fitness sector, it supported my career to be in good shape.
However, the crucial piece of the puzzle I was missing was why I was doing what I was doing and how to be able to best communicate that to the people I was doing it for. And more importantly, now that I had clarity regarding my values, I could spend my time on what directly supported these things—for example, x or y—rather than kill myself through work and exercise, in a way that was harder and weigh less effective.
Shortly after that, Lauren and I flew to Fiji to renew our wedding vows, and our marriage has been about as close to perfect as it can get since then.
Since that time, over the years, I have studied and analysed my personal values in more depth, and this is my current list:
Other Ways to Determine Your Values
Values can be an activity or a quality. For example, some people value honesty, which is a quality. Some people live to run, which is an activity. There aren’t too many rules here in terms of identifying what you most value! A value can be anything that is important to you. Choose whatever you like—they are your values!
Asking yourself the following questions can be another way of exploring the values that are most important to you:
- What do you never have to be reminded to do?
- How do you spend most of your time?
- What do you think about the most?
- Where do you spend your money?
- What clues are there concerning your values in the space where you live and work?
If you are still stuck, you can google “list of core values” and choose the ones that resonate with you.
There’re a few other variations of this exercise such as:
- You have two years to live, but you still have to go to work and you can’t go crazy maxing out credit cards–what do you do?
- Make it six months to live rather than two years. This increases the urgency.
- You’re going to die tomorrow. What will you do between now and then? Most people say they will call people and tell them they love them, and the big clue in this exercise is that you should be doing this now.
- And one of my personal favourites: You are going to die tomorrow. However, an angel comes to you and says you can have an extra 40 years to live under two conditions:
- You have to do work that you are passionate about
- It must contribute positively to society
- So, in the above, final scenario, what is it you choose to do?
And once again, you are going to experience a lot more fulfilment in your life, if you start doing that now, whether it be doing that work now or living by those values now.
Live by your own hierarchy of values and you thrive. Live by someone else’s or society’s values, and you die a little inside each day.
Most arguments start because two people are looking at the same situation through different perspectives. It’s a clash of values. One of the number one guideline for happiness and inner peace is the awareness that we cannot control what anyone else says, does or thinks, so don’t bother wasting energy on the values, choices and decisions other people make. Another very similar rule for happiness is that we can only focus on what we can control. Why get upset about the weather, or who won the election, if we can’t control it.
I am an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Practitioner, and a large part of NLP is focused on learning how to think and communicate more effectively with yourself and others. There’s a tool called the NLP Communications Model, which can be seen in the image below.
You can see here how an event occurs, and it goes through a series of filters in our reasoning process. We delete, distort and generalise information, it’s interpreted by our values, beliefs, and memories, and the programs we’ve developed from early childhood. It goes through our conscious and unconscious minds, we create an internal representation of what the situation means, which determines our mood or state, which affects our physiology and ultimately our behaviour! There are trillions of variables here, and the one thing I learned from all that is that there is no way any two people on the planet are looking at the ale situation the same way, so don’t ever waste too much energy trying to change someone else’s opinion of something.
Two Tales: Christie and Ivan
I once had a personal training client called Christie. Christie was a beautiful, fun, bubbly young lady and both of her parents were accountants. They loved her very much and through her whole life, Christie was encouraged to become an accountant and work in the family business, guaranteeing her financial security.
Christie hated accounting but loved her parents. She completed high school and achieved excellent exam results because she was a bright student. She went to university and became an accountant. Most of our personal training sessions were spent exercising, rather uncomfortably given her overweight physical condition. Christie had turned to food for comfort to fill the void in her life and mask the lack of fulfilment she felt. She deeply wanted to become an artist … and to date, something she’d yet to do. What can we learn from Christie’s plight? Do you feel that some open, honest communication with her parents would have helped? Would they have understood? Her parents felt they were doing what’s best for her and Christie kept quiet because she didn’t want to upset them. It’s hard to have those challenging conversations, however only good things come from them. At the very least Christie could have unburdened her pain, and even if nothing changed she couldn’t be worse off! Best case scenario is her parents thanking her for her candour and encouraging and supporting her in a change. (Side note: I studies accounting for 2 years, and it was 2 years too long!)
This chapter finishes with a story that comes from a book called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was written in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy. Most know Tolstoy from his classics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. However, The Death of Ivan Ilyich contains poignant moments in relation to values that we can all learn from.
In the story, Ivan Ilyich spends his life climbing the social ladder and pursuing his legal career, mainly to immerse himself in something he can control, to make up for the unhappiness he feels within his marriage. As the title suggests, he does not have long to live, and a large part of the book deals with him reflecting upon the life he has lived and identifying that it has been an artificial life rather than an authentic life.
The story reaches its peak as Ivan lies on his death bed, and whilst holding the hand of his lifelong friend and colleague, looks up at him and says, “What if my whole life has been wrong?”
Success as judged by society can often come at a great moral cost, and the book illustrates that this results in a life that is hollow and insincere, and, therefore, worse than death.
Don’t be like Ivan.
Over the last 20 years, I have been in a front-row seat to see up close a lot of wealthy, unhappy people. Nobody teaches us how to be fulfilled, and it doesn’t have to boil down to luck. We can plan and create our dream life and build perfect days. This is something we cover in this book.