How to Understand Your Values


No matter how fast you travel, you’ll never reach your destination if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Throughout my roughly four decades on this planet, I’ve learned that the best way to live a meaningful life is to align your short-term actions with your long-term values; that is, to make your future self proud of your present self. Otherwise, you’ll careen from one pleasurable experience to another, which might feel nice in the moment, but it will leave a void because ephemeral pleasure often gets in the way of lasting joy.

Thus, it’s important to know your values—they illuminate the direction in which you must travel to experience a fulfilling life.

There are at least two reasons people don’t understand their values: First, we don’t stop to question what they are, and so our values are shaped by pop culture, the media, and the influence of others. Second, we don’t understand that some values are more important than others.

If you’re reading this, you’re already making progress against that first hurdle: you’re questioning your values. Bravo! As you’re pondering, though, it’s equally important to understand that not all values are created equal; some are, in fact, not values at all, which means they get in the way of what’s truly important. That’s why I separate my values into four distinct categories.

Note: at the bottom of this essay, you’ll find The Minimalists’ free, printable Values Worksheet that will help you categorize your values.

Foundational Values

Every home must be built on a sturdy foundation. You can own a beautiful house, but it will sink into the ground if its foundation isn’t solid. The same is true with your values. While most people have different values overall, we tend to share similar Foundational Values:

  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Creativity
  • Growth
  • Contribution

These are the unshakeable principles by which I live my life. So whenever I’m feeling unfulfilled, I check to see whether I’m neglecting any of them. You may have other values as part of your foundation, but these five are nearly universal. To better understand our foundations, Ryan & I wrote our first book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, about these five shared values.

Structural Values

Once a foundation is established, a framework is erected. While every house has a framework, each home is different: some are made with steel and bolts; some are built with wood or brick; others are formed with concrete or cement. The same is true with your values. Your Structural Values make you who you are—they are your personal values. Here’s a list of mine with a personal definition for each:

  • Autonomy: freedom from external control.
  • Certainty: having one’s basic needs met.
  • Character: living congruently with one’s values.
  • Communication: clear exchange and expression of information.
  • Confidence: steadfast action in the face of challenges.
  • Compassion: logical understanding of others’ struggles.
  • Curiosity: desire to question anything.
  • Focus: sustained concentration on creative tasks.
  • Freedom: discipline coupled with the ability to walk away from anything.
  • Free speech: ability to say what needs to be said.
  • Grace: unearned love.
  • Gratitude: appreciation and kindness; celebration of circumstances, good or bad.
  • Humility: clarity of self.
  • Humor: ability to laugh and to make people laugh.
  • Insight: the product of information, knowledge, and wisdom.
  • Integrity: wholeness; when one’s values are congruent with their actions.
  • Intimacy: shared close connections with others.
  • Leadership: ability to inspire others and move them in the same direction.
  • Listening: hear what others say to understand their point of view.
  • Mobility: unfettered by geography.
  • Morality: consistently doing what’s right.
  • Quality: better but fewer; the result of intention.
  • Resources: skills, time, energy, attention, and money last.
  • Respect: admiration for abilities, qualities, and achievements.
  • Responsibility: willingness to make things better.
  • Restraint: ability to avoid impulse.
  • Self-care: maintenance of personal well-being.
  • Sexuality: sharing intimate experiences with a trusted partner.
  • Significance: earning positive attention.
  • Solitude: time alone, not interacting with others.
  • Stillness: freedom from external influence.
  • Trust: ability to rely on others.
  • Truth: real-world facts and personal realities.
  • Variety: embraced uncertainty; diversity of experience.
  • Vision: ability to make decisions today that will serve the greater good tomorrow.
  • Vulnerability: courage to act irrespective of outcome.
  • Wisdom: learned experience that allows us to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Your structure is very important, second only to your foundation. As you gain experience, your Structural Values may change slightly over time, but much like your home, the structure tends to remain the same once it’s built. Unless, of course, you embark on a serious remodeling project, which is always a possibility. When I left the corporate world at age 30, I took a wrecking ball to my old values and constructed a new life based on my new Structural Values.

Surface Values

After your foundation is set and your frame is in place, your home is beautified by its exterior. While this facade is not as critical as the structure itself, what’s on the surface makes your house interesting and unique and enjoyable. The same is true with your Surface Values.

These minor values play an important role in adding variety and diversity to your life. But just because they are “minor,” that doesn’t mean they don’t have a major impact on your overall life satisfaction; they are “minor” only relative to the more important values listed above, but they are a crucial component of a well-rounded life. Here are a few of mine at the moment:

  • Aesthetics
  • Art
  • Basketball
  • Cleanliness
  • Coffee
  • Comfort
  • Discomfort
  • Entertainment
  • Environment
  • Guitar
  • Investments
  • Meditation
  • Music
  • Podcasting
  • Planning
  • Property
  • Reading
  • Style
  • Teaching
  • Technology
  • Thinking
  • Twitter
  • Tools
  • Writing

As your interests change, your Surface Values may shift dramatically from month to month, year to year, decade to decade. Just as you might keep your house feeling fresh by repainting or incorporating new plants, you can keep your life feeling fresh by making sure your minor values match your current interests and desires. If one stops adding value, it’s no longer of value, so let it go with abandon. You can always pick it up again in the future if you change your mind.

Imaginary Values

Say you’ve built a magnificent home on a solid foundation with a sturdy structure and even a beautiful facade. That’s the equivalent of living a meaningful life. Unfortunately, that’s not what usually happens. If we spend any time at all contemplating our values, we usually obsess over our Imaginary Values, which aren’t even part of our value hierarchy. Imaginary Values are merely obstacles that get in our way. They are like a fence around the home we’ve constructed; we can’t get in unless we eliminate the barrier. Here are a few of the Imaginary Values that sometimes prevent me from feeling fulfilled:

  • Busyness
  • Complaining
  • Consumerism
  • Craving
  • Dogma
  • Ego
  • Email
  • Expectations
  • Impulse
  • Insecurity
  • Isolation
  • Jealousy
  • Luxury
  • Negativity
  • Obligation
  • Overcommitting
  • Overreacting
  • Procrastination
  • Productivity
  • Public opinion
  • Rumination
  • Self-doubt
  • Social media
  • Scarcity
  • Skepticism
  • Television
  • Vanity

I’m sure there are others obstacles in my life. As a matter of fact, I guarantee there will be others because once we’re content, we’re good at distracting ourselves with shiny new objects and offerings. We build well-decorated prison cells adorned with epherma and then complain about our self-imposed incarceration.

But we must break through our obstacles to live a meaningful life. It was Ryan Holiday who showed us that the obstacle is the way, and if I were to append his message, I’d say this: the only way to live a meaningful life is to get our Imaginary Values out of the way and then prioritize our higher-order values accordingly.

How to Use These Values

Everyone is different. My Structural Values might qualify as your Surface Values, or even your Imaginary Values—and vice versa. And that’s okay—ideal even. Our differences make life interesting. Imagine how boring things would be if everyone was exactly like me, or exactly like you.

To help you identify your own values, The Minimalists and our friends from SPYR created this printable values worksheet:

Once you’ve completed this worksheet, review it with someone you trust. And if that person is willing, review their worksheet with them. You’ll soon discover that once you understand your values—and the values of those closest to you—you’ll understand how to interact with them more effectively, which will improve the relationship and help you both grow in exciting, unexpected ways.

At the beginning of each year, my wife and I review our values together, which not only helps me better communicate with her—it also helps me understand how I can be the best version of myself.





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