Have you ever taken the time to discern what your real values are? Or sat down and determined if your values are setting you up for happiness and fulfillment, or for pain and suffering?
And why do values even matter? Especially when all around us we see people and organizations espousing high-sounding values and then, ostensibly in the name of those same values, behaving abominably.
Many of us talk a good game about our values. But consciously living by and holding ourselves accountable to our values, rather than just professing them - that's a whole different thing. It takes heap of commitment and courage to actually practice our values.
Simply put, if it's easy to list our values, they're probably not our real values.
If I had been asked what my values where a few years back I could have rattled off a nice list of good sounding ones: financial security, responsibility, honesty, generosity, community, work-ethic blah blah. But if I looked at my actual behavior there would have been quite the gap between what I professed vs. what my behavior revealed. At my best my behavior pointed towards values of kindness, consideration, and integrity, among others. At my worst: arrogance, intolerance, the need to believe I was right, power, rigidity.
Like an iceberg, it is our behaviors that lie above the water line, visible to ourselves and to others.
Our true values lie below the water line – typically hidden both to others and, more critically, to ourselves.
Whether we are conscious of them or not, values drive our behavior.
And getting clear on our values is not the simple exercise you may think. It takes some serious deep diving into the cold, uncomfortable, and murky waters of looking at what our behaviors, prejudices and judgments, thoughts and feelings, fears and dreams really reveal about our values – rather than what we profess them to be. And then doing the hard work of re-prioritizing them (if that is needed). And the even harder work of actually putting them into practice.
Why even bother to do this hard work?
Because it makes for much greater resilience, confidence, happiness and fulfillment. Even more, values are a protective factor when it comes to a concept known as "social contagion." Social contagion is the phenomenon by which behaviours become normalized and adopted. For example, as Susan David illustrates, take this scenario: You’re on an airplane, cramped and tired, eager to reach your destination. The flight crew is passing by with the snack cart. You’re not feeling particularly hungry—perhaps you availed yourself of an overpriced sandwich back in the terminal—but you notice that the gentleman sitting beside you is treating himself to a bag of M&M’s. You’ve never met this person before and exchanged only a cursory nod as you took your seats. Still, research shows that you are now 30 percent more likely to spring for some candy of your own.
This is social contagion. Where the choices of someone you don’t even know have may have sway over your own decisions. Large scale epidemiological studies show that if someone in your social network puts on weight or gets divorced, your likelihood of doing the same increases substantially. This is the case even if you don’t know the person. They might be the friend of a friend of a friend, but their actions have far-reaching ripple effects.
However, the research also shows that not everyone is equally susceptible to social contagions. People with a clear sense of their values have proven to be more resilient to the pressures of their community. Susan David gives another example. Women in professions with a high degree of gender bias are more likely than their male colleagues to quit when faced with setbacks. Without even realizing it, they can internalize the messages snaking through their work environment, the ones telling them that they don’t belong. But when these women are asked to perform a simple exercise in which they clarify why they are in their career—why it is of value to them—they become insulated from the toxic social contagion. They are more likely to hang in there when the going gets tough.
This is why it’s so important to know our values. They are more than nice-to-haves that make life more pleasant. Our values help to inoculate us against making decisions that are not our own.
Coming back to Brené Brown. One of the very first things we did as part of the Living Brave was to identify our values. She used the image of a lantern to describe what values do for us.
Values are what we take into the arena with us, she said. Values light our way.
The exercise was to discern our two core values. Yes, just two (I will come back to that). Her test was “without these I am not me”. Values, in her terms are "the organizing principles of our lives." Her suggestion was to think back to a time when we were most alive, most daring greatly in our lives, being our most authentic selves. And then think about what values we were living into at that time.
I did the exercise and felt good about the clarity I got to. My top two were vision and belief in self.
With hindsight it's embarrassingly obvious how those two values could lead me astray. There were certainly true, in that they felt true to who I was/was striving to be and to the moments and events in my life when I had felt most alive, most myself, most in my integrity and passion. They were not the complete picture, however. I hadn't dived deeper, to see what, if anything, might be underneath them. And frankly, it was both too easy and too feel-good, self-congratulatory. My understanding was at the intellectual level. I hadn't challenged myself or worked with a partner to think through what behaviors those values were driving and where those values may set me up for falls, heartbreak and disappointment, rather than resilience, grounded confidence and success.
The next step came from an unlikely source: Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. His basic argument goes as follows:
Since reading this some months back I haven’t been able to get Manson’s approach out of my head. Reading the “Living into our values” chapter of Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead, had me flipping back to Mark Manson, trying to see how I could tie Manson’s approach with Brown’s.
I’ve landed on not following Brown’s approach to focus one which values “resonate deeply” with me. Rather I’m marrying her suggestion to identify what fills me with a feeling of purpose with Manson’s question of “what am I prepared to struggle for”. What “resonates deeply” with me can feel like an exercise in self-congratulation. “What am I prepared to struggle for” requires some good hard self-awareness.
Manson and Brown do agree on the need for prioritization. Whenever we are presented with a list of values, most of us will want to pick 10 to 15 of them. But that’s not helpful. Brown’s research has shown that those who are most willing to wrestle with vulnerability and practice courage tether their behavior to one or two values, not ten. Channeling Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame): “If you have more than three priorities, you have no priorities”. When we identify a whole lot of values as important to us, we’re not getting real or honest with ourselves – we’re choosing easy, comfortable and a list of feel good words over integrity, courage and self-awareness. When we limit ourselves to two, we start to get really clear on what is truly driving us - and what we want to drive us. And we usually find that is those two where all the other values that we wanted to pick truly get tested.
In this week’s resilience toolkit there is an exercise to get clarity on your values. If you’ve read this far, why don’t you take it? The exercise forces some hard, and illuminating choices.
I’m clear on one of my two values: compassion.
Compassion sets me up with the kind of problems that make my life harder in many respects (darn it, I can’t just judge, blame and shame people; I can’t hold onto grudges or resentments) but better in all the ways that are meaningful and matter to me. It tempers my reactivity and defensiveness. It leads me towards connection, belonging, community, resilience, confidence, hope, perseverance, and joy. It’s also where a whole lot of other values get tested, like integrity, honesty, and knowledge. In particular it shines the light on where those other values of mine can be used as weapons to defend myself or hurt others.
As for my second, it’s taking a lot more wrangling.
Vision still keeps yelling for my attention. But I am not quite certain about it. It still feels too easy of a value to have - at least for me. And as I look back, I can see where it set me up with “bad problems” as well as “better problems”. I'm not ready to chuck it out yet though. I'm letting myself mull on it, trusting that if I just sit with this, and let myself be curious, rather than looking for an easy answer so I can just call this exercise done, my truth will emerge.
Joy is also calling to me. I know the struggle involved in joy. There is nothing passive or easy about joy. It’s a whole set of values, practices, and attitudes that challenge me on multiple levels, as so beautifully and joyfully elucidated by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy. And each of those values and practices set me up for “good problems”. But precisely because joy is such a complicated value for me I’m having hard time feeling it’s the best choice. I am also of the view that joy is the result of the intentional practice of other values, rather than a value in and of itself. Intentionally seeking or cultivating joy usually results in its opposite. So, joy doesn’t seem to fit either.
And so I'm still doing the work on identifying my second core value. And that's OK with me. I would rather be patient, and spend the time with this, than rush to an answer.
How about you? What are your two core values? What kinds of problems do they create for you? And are those problems "good" ones, or "bad" ones?
Part 2 will be on "operationalizing" our values. Our values are just feel-good sentiments unless and until we move beyond professing them to actually practicing them. That takes courage. And thought. So more to come.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.