To Figure Out Your Path, Start With A Single Value

February 21, 2021

I’m a diehard Marvel fan.

Recently, I was re-watching the film Avengers: Endgame. In one scene Thor meets his mother, Frigga, who gives him a much-needed pep talk:

“Everyone fails at being who they’re supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

I guess sometimes you hear powerful words in the unlikeliest places. But you know what? This really hit home for me.

One reason I decided to hang up my stethoscope was this: conflict.

There was a clash between who I truly was, and who I was supposed to be. When the two drifted far enough apart, I no longer saw a way to bridge the gap. Painful though it was, I was forced to take action.

Without realising it, this was also me acting on one of my core values: authenticity.

When you’re not enjoying a particular line of work, it’s not uncommon for there to be a fundamental mismatch in values somewhere. This is often subconscious.

Let’s say deep down, you treasure the values of freedom and creativity. For you, they represent immutable facets of a life well-lived.

The extent to which you can live by these values in your current job will fall on a spectrum. If your scope for freedom at work is a 4/10, and creativity is a 3/10, I’m betting you won’t feel particularly satisfied or engaged.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When everything you do matches everything you value, life starts to feel more like a stimulating game than an uphill battle.

Ask the average person what their core values are, however, and they’re likely to make something up on the spot. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to shape a compelling life for themselves.

In the book The Power of Full Engagement, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz make an important distinction. They propose that ‘full engagement’ with life depends on our drawing on 4 intertwined dimensions of energy:

  • Physical (the quantity of our energy)
  • Emotional (the quality of our energy)
  • Mental (the focus of our energy)
  • Spiritual (the force of our energy)

It’s the latter type which I’m talking about here.

When we define our core values, we can keep ourselves accountable to them. From the top down, we start feeling aligned. We start to apply the other 3 forms of energy to meaningful goals, and we start ignoring the paths that don’t make sense for us.

The Power of Writing

Once a year, I review my current list of core values to ensure they’re still deeply meaningful to me.

For example, one of my current non-negotiables is creativity.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal on why I strive for creative expression in everything I do professionally:

“Creativity is my lens. When I focus it internally, I come to know myself. When I focus it externally, I come to understand the world around me.

I will always make it a priority to seek creative outlets through which I can express my thoughts and feelings.

In doing so, I become a more connected person. I feel energy flowing through me. The act of creating takes focus, discipline and dedication. It makes me feel harmonised and in tune with something deeper and more intangible.”

The benefits of writing even a few short sentences on your core values like this can be surprising.

In 2005, psychologists David Creswell and David Sherman ran an interesting study.

One group wrote short essays on their primary core value, and the other wrote essays on random topics. Afterwards, they were put in purposefully stressful situations, like solving mathematical problems in front of unfriendly judges.

The group who wrote about their values showed significantly lower levels of the main stress hormone, cortisol, in their blood.

Such ‘values affirmation’ exercises have been repeatedly linked to improved health and resilience to stress.

This makes sense.

We’re living in a stupidly complicated world. Which means that if you don’t consciously reflect on your values, outside forces (your employer, your parents, your politicians) will impose them on you. You’ll find yourself on a path you didn’t truly choose.

For some people, that might work. With more choices than ever, some people just want to be told what to do, how to act and who they should be.

But if you’re reading this article, I’m guessing that isn’t you…

It’s Your Turn

Maybe the time has come to simplify your life.

Perhaps it’s time for you to actively select a handful of principles you’re going to live by, a series of guidelines to keep you on a path towards more enjoyment, purpose and meaning than you thought possible.

I invite you to start slow with just one value.

Write a single paragraph on what that value means to you, but spend quality time on it. Work on it until the sentences hum for you.

This last point is vital. It must be meaningful for you.

No Google or dictionary definitions are allowed. This is about shaping your own definitions, ones that light you up. Use your own words!

When you’re finished, you’ll have the first part of a personal manifesto and the beginnings of a compelling vision. You can read your paragraph daily to stay aligned and connected to that vision.

This is how you stop being who you’re supposed to be, and start being who you actually are (thanks, Marvel).

Give it a go and see where the exercise takes you. Only then will the various paths in front of you start making more sense.

Thanks for reading,

Oli