Clarify Narratives Values Interests Dreams Strengths Impact Align: Experimentation

Rohit thought deeply about what was most important to him in life and what he wanted to offer others through his work. He learned through reflection that his top core values are compassion, safety, and family. Inspired by challenges from his own upbringing he decided to become a social worker who supports families affected by substance abuse. His job gives him access to powerful ways to live into his core values every day.

While Jessica is satisfied with her life, she didn’t think too deeply about what her top values were when picking a job. She thought about how the jobs she came across would allow her to do things she liked or at least tolerated. She became an administrative assistant because she values order, practicality, and efficiency. However, if you were to ask her if being an administrative assistant felt purposeful to her, she would definitively say no.

On This Page:

  • Intro: Explore why it’s important to be clear on what you value (and what you value most).
  • What Are Values?  People tend to lump all sorts of different ideas under the umbrella of “values.” Learn about different values concepts and a useful lens to apply in the context of purpose.
  • How Values Fit Into Purpose Aligning with our core values will have the greatest impact on cultivating a truly satisfying purpose. Understand more deeply how this works.
  • Values Exercises A collection of exercises to help you clarify and organize your values.

“You do not know what to do because you do not know who you are.” -Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

In author Stephen Cope’s book, “The Great Work of Your Life,” he extracts wisdom about purpose from the Bhagavad Gita. Cope deciphers the above quote to mean that you determine who you are by understanding what you care about. The things you care about will determine your action, which determines who you are.

Along a similar vein, Eleanor Roosevelt argues that determining our values is essential to maturing as a human being:

“To be mature you have to realize what you value most.

It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. Perhaps they have imbibed the values of their particular profession or job, of their community or their neighbors, of their parents or family.

Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”

So what do you care about most?

How do you know if what you’re pursuing is something that truly matters to you as an individual, versus being influenced purely by societal norms?

Have you sat down and dedicated your full attention to understanding specifically what matters to you in life and why?

We only have so many resources to invest throughout our lives- our time, energy, money, etc, are limited. Similarly, in a garden we have limited space, time to tend our plants, and resources for supporting their growth. For the average person there are only so many plants we have the space, time, and money to foster. Consider the values involved in your purpose crafting to be the select plants you’ve chosen to dedicate your resources towards. With limitations in mind, which ones would you want to focus on? Which of all the possible things you could care for are most important to you right now? Which ones are your core values?

Clarifying these core values illuminates meaningful pathways for us.

“In an unpredictable world, you can’t make a master plan. You can only gauge whether you’re on a meaningful path. The right next move is the one that brings you a step closer to living your core values.”–Adam Grant

This section on values will help you clarify ways of being and circumstances (which we’ll refer to as ‘virtues’ and ‘conditions’) that are most important to you in life. Plied with such information you can craft a purpose that aligns with your values.

Below you’ll learn a bit about what values are and why they’re relevant to purpose, as well as be provided with a host of exercises and resources for helping you define your current core values.

What Are Values?

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ’em all over everything you do.” – Elvis Presley

AMeaningOfLife.org has an entire section dedicated to defining and breaking down the nuances within values. You can do a more thorough dive into the concept by clicking the button below. We’ll summarize and focus on the most relevant points for the purpose section.

Defining values is a tricky business. People lump quite a lot of different things into the concept of values.

  • According to Czech researcher J. Vyskocilova, values are “fundamental attitudes guiding our mental processes and behavior” that “produce the belief that life is meaningful and serve as a measure of how meaningful one’s actions are, that is, consistent with that person’s value system” (Vyskocilova et al., 2015).
  • Values refer to abstract beliefs which serve as guidelines in peoples’ life and affect the way people and events are evaluated. Simultaneously, unlike attitudes, values transcend specific actions, and situations.” (Kesburg & Keller 2018)
  • “Values convey what is important to us in our lives. Each person holds numerous values (e.g., achievement, benevolence) with varying degrees of importance. A particular value may be very important to one person but unimportant to another. Values are a motivational construct. They represent broad goals that apply across contexts and time” (Bardi & Schwartz 2003).

These definitions pin values as beliefs, attitudes, or motivational constructs, none of which seem to be quite the right fit. The essence of these definitions is that values contribute to our sense of meaning. The more aligned your actions are with what you deeply value, the more meaningful your life will feel and promote confidence (Cohen & Sherman 2014)(Emmons 2003)(Schwartz & Sortheix 2018)(Sheldon 2002)(Ryan & Deci 2001).

Since personal meaning is an essential ingredient in the purpose puzzle, it stands to follow that clarifying our values is vital to the process of cultivating purpose. Research even indicates that knowing and ranking values actively contributes to clarifying purpose (Bronk et al., 2019).

The operating definition used on A Meaning of Life.org is the following:

Values = Fundamental principles that guide our endeavors and behavior.

When it comes to purpose, we want to determine our core values- the main principles that influence our choices and behaviors (at least at this point in our lives), and that we are then interested in directing towards the world outside of us. The following mega-list can offer you a bounty of examples of values. Click to expand.

In the context of purpose cultivation, we’re going to focus on a class of values that A Meaning of Life.org refers to as “conditions,” or desired circumstances we want to have or experience in our lives that enrich our own lives or the lives of the collective.

Conditions are things like:

  • Family
  • Community
  • Financial Stability
  • Justice
  • Health
  • Love (experiencing being loved or “having” love)
  • Inspiration (feeling inspired)

Conditions are distinct from another concept that gets a lot of attention in the realm of values: virtues. Virtues are things we want to embody in our lives that describe our behavior or character traits.

Virtues are things like:

  • Being generous (Generosity)
  • Being diligent (Diligence)
  • Being curious (Curiosity)
  • Being ambitious (Ambition)
  • Being optimistic (Optimism)
  • Being sincere (Sincerity)

While value terms within these categories can occasionally overlap, it’s important to distinguish between virtues and conditions because they apply to purpose in slightly different ways.

Virtues are how we behave along the journey while conditions define what we hope to offer the world. Both are worth knowing! However, for the sake of this section, conditions are more relevant and will be the focus. Virtues are mostly relevant to purpose in terms of how they apply to our strengths, or because of the important conditions they point towards. Go to Strengths to learn more about virtues.

You can peruse the following mega-lists of virtues and conditions to familiarize yourself with the concepts. Click to expand each image and browse them.

Tara is a photographer. Many would describe her as creative and insightful. Her hope is that her portraits of empowered youth acts as inspiration for others to act on their own agency.

Marvin works in food security. Being generous and considerate of others is second nature to him. In his work, he aims to foster equity in terms of access to food resources.

Finnian has always been ambitious. He worked diligently to become a leader in his organization so he could help others cultivate leadership skills and experience their own financial prosperity.

It may surprise you to learn that virtues are less relevant to defining a purpose than conditions are. Why? Because virtues characterize your behavior, rather than something outside of you that you are hoping to foster for others. A virtue can define how you act on your way to fulfilling or cultivating a purpose, but ultimately a purpose involves fostering something outside of you (a condition) for others to benefit from.

  • We might be able to apply our virtues to any purpose.
  • Conditions define precisely what we want to offer the world.

To understand why these distinctions are relevant, we need to remember the scientifically-supported definition of purpose:

Purpose: A life aim that is personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and self-transcendent

  • “Personally meaningful” means purpose revolves around the values in life that are specifically important to us as an individual.
  • “Goal-oriented” means that while purpose itself is not a goal, it is comprised of many goal-like endeavors. Ultimately, purpose is a journey without a finish line. Along the way there are concrete objectives we accomplish in service to our missions. For something to qualify as goal-oriented, it must define specific roles, actions, or plans.
  • “Self-transcendent” means consequential for the world beyond the self.

Therefore virtue-based commitments like the following (assuming they are personally meaningful) do not qualify as life purposes because they lack goal-orientation or self-transcendence:

  • “To be kind to others” (not goal-oriented)
  • “To be endlessly curious” (not self-transcendent or goal-oriented)
  • “To practice diligence in everything I do” (not self-transcendent or goal-oriented)
  • “To be understanding of those with different views than mine” (not goal-oriented)

On the other hand, while the following condition-based statements still lack goal-orientation, they are self-transcendent and personally meaningful (and don’t need to mention of virtue at all):

  • “To help others feel more secure in themselves
  • “To help kids feel inspired
  • “To protect nature
  • “To ensure disenfranchised groups’ freedom

We can add goal-orientation to these in order for them to meet the criteria of purpose.

  • “To help others feel more secure in themselves through writing stories about self-empowerment”
  • “To help kids feel inspired by creating art that challenges common expectations of what is possible”
  • “To protect nature by researching how to reduce climate impacts”
  • “To ensure disenfranchised groups’ freedom by offering free education programs”

And we can add virtue to these purpose statements to enhance them and offer more detail, but it isn’t required for them to be purposes:

  • “With creativity and compassion I help others feel more secure in themselves through writing stories about self-empowerment”
  • “With thoughtfulness and vulnerability I help kids feel inspired by creating art that challenges common expectations of what is possible”
  • “With determination and patience I protect nature by researching how to reduce climate impacts”
  • “With passion and humility I work to ensure disenfranchised groups’ freedom by offering free education programs”

*Note: Some values can be either a virtue or a condition. If it is an experience that is outside of you and your control, it qualifies as a condition. For example, while ‘being kind’ is not a purpose, ‘creating programs for strangers to help each other so people can experience kindness’ is. In the second example, kindness is a condition and not a virtue.

How Values Fit Into Purpose

Clarifying core values is at the heart of determining potential pathways. Imagine someone has deduced that three of their core values are inclusion, connection, and play. There are a wide range of possible ways to live into these values depending on who they are as an individual: What are they interested in? What are they good at? What type of impact do they want to make? The following image illustrates three possibilities.

These folks have many other interests, strengths, dreams, etc., that could combine with these or others of their core values to facilitate purposeful endeavors for them to engage with. The fact that they (and you!) have so many options is a wonderful possibility to grapple with! And, they will likely find the most satisfaction from endeavors that honor their dearest values before any of the other factors (since meaning contributes so significantly to life satisfaction).

Starting with core values lays the foundation for crafting the most satisfying purpose endeavors by beginning with what gives us the deepest sense of meaning in our lives.

Remember the following diagram from the Parts of Purpose page?

When putting together the pieces of purpose, values fall into the personally meaningful category, also known as the why. Values define the primary “why” behind our engagement in the impactful endeavors we’ve committed to.

Let’s look at a couple more examples of real people and deconstruct how values shows up in their purposeful work:

Tycho Brahe

Tycho was a 16th century astronomer who dedicated his life to understanding the universe and how celestial bodies behaved. Though some of his theories were discredited, he was the most accurate astronomer of his time and his observations contributed enormously to the scientific revolution.

A Possible Purpose Statement for Tycho:

To advance humanity’s understanding of and ability to understand the way celestial bodies behave and ultimately contribute to humanity’s command of truth through accurately measuring celestial events.

Potential Core Values:

Knowledge, truth, discovery, creativity, contribution, awe

Sothearath Sok

Sothearath is an agricultural graduate in Cambodia training local farmers how to use vermicompost to fertilize their fields. She teaches them how to upcycle their organic waste. She strives to support both the environment and the communities by helping farmers increase their productivity.

A Possible Purpose Statement for Sothearath:

To increase local farmers’ productivity while benefiting the environment through spreading knowledge of worm compost processes.

Potential Core Values:

Community, prosperity, health, awe, connection, support, sustainability

Important things to remember about values:

  • Values change over time. What drives you most now is likely different from what moved you when you were 11, and different again from what will move you one or two decades from now. Significant life events like critical health issues, the birth of a child, or loss of a loved one can alter our values or redirect how we apply them.
  • Values can be context specific. What’s most important to you in the realm of your primary relationship may be different from what you value most at work. Think of intimacy being a primary drive with your partner versus independence driving a huge swath of your satisfaction at your job. Sure, these values can be core values regardless of context, and their weight and hierarchy can shift contingent on context.
  • There isn’t a set number of core values. You don’t have to winnow what’s important to you down to exactly 3.25 core values! And, it will be more useful for purpose crafting for you to prioritize a handful, rather than a dozen.

Values Exercises

Ready to dive in and map out your core values? Excellent. There are oodles of exercises available for you to tease this crucial information out. As you get into them, remember the following:

Values change over time and can be influenced by our circumstances and context. Therefore it’s useful to revisit them regularly. For now, rather than anticipating you can plot out the central drives to your life overall and set them in stone, consider this era of your life– and do it in pencil.

Get access to ALL the values exercises in The Purpose Workbook

The Purpose Workbook has 8 beautifully designed resources dedicated to values. Print out the Purpose Workbook to use as you read along.

If you only do three exercises, do these three:

This exercise provides you with a masterlist of values and exercises for defining and narrowing down your top 5.

Exploring where a value came from and why it’s important to us can tell us if it is authentically our own or something we inherited from someone else. Inherited values may still be values, however it’s useful to know which ones are which so we can consciously determine what is important to us. Print multiples of this exercise to carry multiple values through it.

A values declaration gives you the opportunity to commit to and define what a value means to you and how you plan to honor it. From there, your clarified values will help you make decisions with greater ease, as you’ve defined the criteria for what matters to you! Use this worksheet to come up with your declaration.

Other values-related exercises:

Eulogy Exercise

Writing your own eulogy can help bring to light the most important things in your life. How do you want to be remembered?

To do this exercise:

  • Access it through the Purpose Workbook
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Write a one or two page eulogy for yourself after what you consider to be a long, well-lived life. Reflect on the themes that came up as important to speak to.

Reverse Engineering

We can reverse engineer our values by looking at what bothers or upsets us.

To do this exercise:

  • Access it through the Purpose Workbook- there are oodles of questions to prompt and guide you.
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Contemplate what bothers and upsets you in life. Consider what the opposite of those things are and what they indicate you value.

Money and Time Audits

How we spend our time and money can tell us a great deal about what we value. How we spend these things indicates what we are currently prioritizing and can tell us if you are in alignment with what we say is important to us or not.

To do this exercise:

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Track how you spend your time for a few days and see how you spent your money over the last three months. What does what you discovered say about what’s important to you?

Assessing Values

Beyond the “Why x5” structure of the Values Excavation exercise, this exercise offers specific reflection prompts to help you better understand where your values came from, if they’re authentic to you, and whether or not you’re aligned with them.

To do this exercise:

  • There is a version of this in the Purpose Workbook with specific questions to prompt and guide you.
  • Use the summary below to make up your own version

Here’s the gist of the exercise: 

Contemplate from where and who you learned your values. Write about the ways you are and are not living out your values. Consider how you feel about values you’ve inherited as opposed to developed on your own. Think of what could change to help you be in better alignment.

Additionally, you can do some Values Assessments

And, keep in mind that assessments over normalize and can push us towards more conventional lives. Beware of assessments that tell you what you should or shouldn’t do in life. However, when we stay curious and open, assessments can give us a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Here are a several curated from the web:

1. Core Values Index

The Core Values Index offers a view of the importance we place on values in four different dimensions: Love, power, knowledge, and wisdom.

2. Personal Values Assessment (PVA) – Barrett Values Centre

The Barrett Values Centre Personal Values assessment asks us to think about the values and behaviors that most reflect who we are. This assessment sorts our values into three tiers: self interest, transformation, and common good.

3. Values Profile – Psychology Today

The Values Profile on Psychology Today offers insight into our values with questions about our lives and how we might feel or act in various scenarios. The results weigh the importance we place on values across six groups: realistic, political, traditional, theoretical, social, and aesthetic.

4. Personal Values | Test

The Personal Values quiz is short and sweet, offering a list of different values and asks us to pick those that resonate with us. Then, it asks us to rank the importance of each value, relative to the other on our list.

5. VIA Character Strengths Survey

The VIA survey focuses on 24 character strengths and generates an individual profile for you that highlights your unique combination of the traits. While it primarily approaches from the angle of virtues, you can extrapolate core values from the types of character strengths that are most dominant in your profile. They organize the 24 traits into six values categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

And, if you haven’t already, check out the AMeaningOfLife Assessment Center, the most comprehensive, integrated, scientific assessment of well-being and flourishing ANYWHERE on the web. Many of the factors assessed would commonly be conceptualized as values and virtues.

Clarify Narratives Values Interests Dreams Strengths Impact Align: Experimentation

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources