It’s really hard to value what’s valuable. We judge nearly everything around us by the values we have, and those values are often not ones that we decided on consciously.
The Cambridge dictionary describes 'values' as: the principles that help you decide what is right and wrong, and how to act in various situations.
That definition isn't far from what can cause war. Seems pretty important to get right.
On the more positive side; in his book 'Game Changers', Dave Asprey looked at things over 450 very high achievers have in common. The first principle that they all seem to apply is: Being aware and honest about what is important to them.
Our happiness is based on our values
If we take Dave Mustaine, the creator of 'Megadeth' as the example Mark Manson gives in ‘Subtle art of not giving a fuck’, it becomes clear that happiness we experience from something like 'success' is a completely relative experience: having sold millions of records, he can still feel like a failure. For many of us, it'd be an accomplishment we can only dream of.
We judge any situation with one of our underlying values subconsciously (this is our ‘conditioning’). And any given value that we compare a situation with in turn dictates how we feel about a situation. This experience further develops our values, and we get a cycle. Now, maybe take a second to reflect and look at a value you used in a recent situation you feel strongly about. What were your values there? And maybe more importantly, how did they get there? Do you actually agree with them?
This might be obvious for those that have reflected deeply on what constitutes happiness and fulfillment throughout life, but overall it's really hard to consistently apply this knowledge. A specific focus on what values are and what role they play in our daily lives is very easily overlooked.
My rocky road of values
By listing the values we use to judge everything around us as we go through life, and by taking the time to decide how we think about these values, we can start consciously improving the values we have by aligning them to where we actually are in life. Like most things that improve our lives, this is not a ‘one off’ trick. It requires constant dedication to reflect, and even discuss them with those that we deem capable and trustworthy enough to help us decide the things we choose to value in life.
My own path wasn't straightforward. There has been a large portion of my (still short) life where I went day to day thinking that making a lot of money and ‘being free from limitation’ was my ultimate goal. Being the best at what I do, and beating others by combining skills that many weren’t capable of combining.
I was wrong, and the moment I started realizing it, I became happier and more successful on my own terms. Freedom 'from something' is not real freedom. Yay!
The mistake I made was that I built values, like many people do, through comparing myself to others that I thought were better than me, without realising who they actually were. I distilled an idea out of people (which isn’t even that respectful to others, actually) and looked up to it. I thought they had lives that were without my problems, were more privileged, smarter, cooler, you name it. I then projected my future idea of who I wanted to be based on the values I built through these comparisons. This just originated from my own self doubt.
I did eventually get close to the lifestyle I wanted. Or at least, I got to the point where I covered my bases and was able to ‘not care about money’ at a young age, because it came in faster than I was able to spend it. However, I wasn’t actually happy for a relevant period of that time. My ego grew, and it wasn’t legitimate. Slowly but surely, I ended up not having as many stable values anymore as I actually ‘fulfilled’ the ones I had, so I ended up more ‘valueless’. This was pretty worthless. After some extra screwups, and big learnings with support from amazing people, it became clear that values make up personal fulfillment and should be chosen with your experience and current life environment in mind.
I didn’t realise that the values I had were based on my own discontent with the world. Many values I had were shaped by resistance. A resistance to where I came from.
Where I came from, in turn, developed my initial values: to not be like many of the people I saw while growing up. Part of these values were good: I subconsciously surrounded myself with people that I looked up to. But at times, those people weren’t good for me either, as many values they had didn’t overlap with my personal needs and values. For example, on health or friendship. Because I valued ‘moving up’ so much, I sacrificed many other values I had. When this happens these 'leftover' values wither slowly, and you can feel this in your overall satisfaction in life. It chips away at things you care about, and can cost you relationships, freedom and even health.
Now, I have a better idea of where values should be. You have to start somewhere, and the rest requires constant attention and reflection. Then, it's your responsibility to care and cultivate them as you live on.
So then, what are good values? Based on some interesting reads, that I hope to add more to in the future, there are some basics we can uncover. Good values should be, it seems:
- Timeless: you never reach them. They constantly challenge you and allow you to try and apply them in your life. You can also fail and retry endlessly, getting better at manifesting them;
- Internally enforced: They come from they way you handle yourself. They are a responsibility you set for yourself and work to maintain throughout your life;
- Constructive and generative: they rub off on the world around you, and aren’t there only to support you. They should evolve and stimulate a certain ‘harmony’ or ‘homeostasis’ with the world;
- Fluid: values are powerful because they are ‘metaphysical’ and can evolve freely in this realm. They are constructed from extremely complex convictions and emotions. We should try to integrate and cultivate this mental complexity by challenging our values, and open them up to challenges by others and reality.
Some examples of values I think are reasonable:
- Pursue what is wholesome and not simply pleasurable;
- Be honest - try to say what you really mean;
- Work hard - don’t be lazy;
- Try to understand people before you judge (and after you judge) - in context, every reaction is understandable (maybe not ethical);
- Look at failure as a process and part of a responsibility to improve - don't allow yourself to mentally make yourself the failure, and don't become your own tyrant;
Values of secondary order
Everyone has aspects - like career or fitness - in their life that they find more important than others. These things that are individually meaningful and therefore lend themselves for further refinement of values I’d call ‘values of second order’.
Examples of aspects that are worth listing and developing your values in:
- Personal goals (always let them revolve around your personal and chosen values) - think ‘learn throughout life’, ‘be fit’, ‘be emotionally balanced’, ‘do not take yourself seriously’, ‘eat healthy’;
- Community (outer layer of people you know and have a relatively superficial but valuable relationship with. More transactional) - think ‘share knowledge’, ‘stimulate others’, ‘show emotional support’, ‘give straight feedback’;
- Friends (the ~5 to 10 people you see often and are very open with) - ‘share experiences’, ‘take risks’, ‘love clearly’, ‘support each other’;
- Best friends and partners (perhaps the ~2 people you feel completely and weirdly comfortable with) - ‘support unconditionally’, ‘be brutally honest’, ‘give radically’, ‘do crazy new things’, ‘total commitment’, ‘be there unconditionally’;
- Finance (how you want money to work to support your other values: money is a means, not an end) - ‘spend minimally’, ‘earn consistently’, ‘live freely’, ‘grow organically’;
- Appearance (how you appear to others) - ‘be confident’, ‘look for getting out of your comfort zone’, ‘try new things’, ‘laugh about yourself’;
- Exploration (new experiences that might or might not enrich your life in unforeseen ways: think travelling, trying yoga) - ‘burn bridges’, ‘embrace letting go’;
Of course, this is by no means meant to be a permanent and consistent system. I just find that I have values in these aspects and very few of them overlap in all aspects. Some might be conflicting: in ‘Exploration’ you might find ‘burn bridges’ important, but not in finance or friendship.
I might find new topics, there definitely are and the ones above aren't perfect. But these seem a good start. Values are to be developed!
Developing values you can explain and argument for with your current way of living, friends, job and lifestyle in mind will help you to make decisions that allow compounding results throughout your whole life. If you work on a specific value and the manifestation of it your whole life, the result is amazing. Our potential is in the fact that we can commit years to one value like ‘be fit’ and end up learning multiple martial arts, anatomy and gymnastics.
This becomes transferable and tacit knowledge that we can share with people around us that have similar values, and even our next generations.
The dance with our own values gives our life meaning, constant challenge and reward, and a lot to share with the world. They make us more complex and complete as human beings and allow us to grow towards true mastery.