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Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Living Your Values, Part 1, you learned a step-by-step process for eliciting and prioritizing your personal values. Now in Part II, we’ll explore how to live with integrity to your values, using them to make decisions and take action.
Using Your Values to Make Decisions
Once you know and understand your personal values, you can consult them whenever you need to make a key decision. Should you accept the new job you’ve been offered? Should you pursue a new relationship now? How much time should you spend with your family? These can be tough decisions without a clear right or wrong answer. You may choose to answer them differently at different points in your life.
Your values list provides a shortcut for making these decisions intelligently. When you’re confronted with such a decision, you pull out your list and check the prioritization of values. Then ask yourself, “What would a person with these values choose to do in this situation?” It’s usually the prioritization of your values that will answer the question.
For example, if you’re offered a job promotion that will shift your work weeks from 40 hours to 60 hours but double your salary, should you take it? If values like success and achievement are at the top of your list, you’ll probably say yes. If freedom and family are at the top, you’ll likely decline the promotion. By clarifying your values, you’ve already done the hard thinking required to discover what’s most important to you. So now when you’re confronted with such decisions, you’re able to reduce them to a values comparison, and the final decision falls into place. If the promotion equates to increased success but reduced peace in your mind, then you can compare those values to learn whether it’s a good idea or not. Your goal is to increase your fulfillment of your highest values without sacrificing them to lower values.
Remember that this is only one of many paradigms for making decisions. As such it has limitations, but you should find that it brings clarity to your decision-making.
Whenever your values shift, you may find it necessary to realign the various parts of your life to restore them to a state of harmony with your values. If success is your #1 personal value, then it will be important for you to experience it in abundance. Success for you may equate to a successful career, a high income, a fulfilling relationship, and a healthy body. Ask yourself what parts of your life are misaligned with your top values, and consider how to bring them into full alignment.
When you notice a misalignment between your reality and your values, you have two basic options to restore alignment.
First, you can adapt the situation to restore alignment. So if health is your top value, and you realize you’ve been keeping too much junk food in your house, you can modify your kitchen to fit your new health value, phasing out the junk and restocking with healthier choices.
Secondly, you can remove yourself from the situation and start fresh to create alignment from scratch. If you find yourself in a relationship where you definitely want to have children and your boyfriend or girlfriend definitely doesn’t want children, you can choose to break up and seek out a more compatible relationship.
So whenever you encounter a misalignment, you can either adapt the circumstances to restore alignment, or you can remove yourself from the situation and start fresh.
I don’t recommend the third alternative of living with the misalignment if you cannot adapt to it. This would mean living without integrity to your values. An example would be choosing to remain in an abusive relationship out of misplaced loyalty. Living with misalignment for too long often results in serious negative consequences.
Whenever your values change, it’s important to review the various areas of your life to make sure they’re properly aligned with the kind of person you believe you are. If you’re in a relationship, is it compatible with your values? If you work for a company, are its perceived values compatible with yours? If there’s a misalignment, then it’s time to make changes either by adapting or by getting out.
Adapting Your Values
At some point you’ll encounter a situation that forces you to reassess your values. Maybe a close friend dies, a major illness hits you, or you begin a new relationship, and consequently, you gain a new perspective on what’s truly most important to you. This is to be expected as you grow older and have new experiences.
Suddenly your values list doesn’t seem to be an accurate representation of the real you. You’ve changed too much. So it’s time to reassess your values and create a new values list, following the process in Living Your Values, Part 1.
Depending on how fast-paced your life is and how much change you experience, you may need to update your values every few months, or they may go relatively unchanged for years.
The Ultimate Alignment
The ultimate goal of living your values is to eventually bring them into alignment with universal principles. As you experience living with different sets of values, you’ll learn what’s truly important to you. Your values may shift a great deal at first as you set new goals and have new experiences, but eventually they will start to converge.
Your values are your current estimations of truth. They represent your answer to the question of how to live. Some sets of values will fail to produce the results you want. They may leave you feeling restless and unfulfilled. Other sets of values bring you closer to a feeling of congruence. When you act with integrity to values that are themselves aligned with universal principles, you get the best possible results.
This process of alignment is similar to how scientists try to discover a mathematical formula to explain natural phenomena. Isaac Newton’s famous F = ma law was an approximation of reality. But it was inaccurate at relativistic speeds, and eventually Albert Einstein provided a more accurate formula. Just as the physical universe is the proving ground for hypothetical physical laws, the universe will also give you feedback to let you know how closely your values align with reality.
The process of discovery in this case is still experiential, but it can’t be measured as scientifically as gravity. The scientific method requires that an experiment be repeatable under the same conditions, but human problems never duplicate the exact same conditions. Once you make a one-time decision in your career or your relationships, you never face that exact same decision with identical conditions again. Since we cannot apply the scientific method to such situations, the best we can do is to try to classify events according to patterns we’ve previously experienced.
What this means is that the process of values clarification is inherently messy and inexact. It’s also a uniquely individual experience. You cannot objectively prove that one set of values is any better or worse than another, but you can begin to see patterns over time, and these patterns can help point you in the direction of universal principles.
The existence of universal principles cannot be proven. However, as you live with different sets of values long enough and gain enough experience, you will start to see that there are certain values which massively outperform others in certain areas, hinting at the possibility that there may exist a true principle that works universally for everyone.
An example of a potential universal principle is that of fairness. If you align yourself with the value of fairness and live with integrity to it, you will likely find that it works extremely well. Fairness means that you treat everyone you encounter as a person of equal value to yourself – no more, no less. The principle of fairness is captured in the words, “all men are created equal,” found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Fairness is the foundational value upon which democracy is built. The founding fathers of the United States upheld this value as a “self-evident” truth, meaning that they believed fairness/equality to be a universal principle.
Imagine having to design your own system for running a company or a country, not knowing in advance what role you’d play after it was launched. It seems reasonable that you would design that system with fairness for all participants as a high priority.
When your values are misaligned with the value of fairness, you will find that your results suffer. If you are unfair in your relationships or your business dealings, others will recognize and adapt to your unfairness, making it harder for you to even achieve a reasonable outcome when you want it. They may even warn others in advance of your behavior to make it harder for you to get anything done through others. So your effectiveness grows weaker the longer the misalignment exists. But when you build a reputation for fairness in all of your dealings, you will maintain strong levels of trust with others, and that will make it far easier to elicit cooperation.
I believe the ultimate goal of living and refining your values is to identify and achieve congruence with universal principles. Then your model of reality finally matches reality itself, and in the long run your actions will consistently produce the best possible results. This isn’t just an individual journey either – it’s one that all of humanity is experiencing with each passing century. Social creations like democracy, slavery, or capital punishment can be seen as part of an ongoing process of values clarification.