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Naming your values: The compass for a rich, meaningful life


We’re on a journey, you and I.compass

We accomplished our first step during my last post when we took an unwavering look at this formula: “When _______ happens, then I’ll feel better/be happier/consider myself successful.

We realized that this isn’t the best way to live our lives, because it keeps us waiting for the next thing to happen rather than living a rich, meaningful life right now. We decided to begin our journey by answering the questions, “What am I doing? And why?”

In order to answer those questions, we need to look at our goals and values.

In our American culture, it’s easy to get caught up in goals-based living as represented by the when-then formula above. Goals are useful. They help us stay on track and move forward in a positive direction. But goals alone don’t answer the questions, “What am I doing? And why?” We must examine the relationship between our goals and our values.

Goals and Values

A goal is something we accomplish or achieve. I had a goal to save money for a road bicycle. Two weeks ago, I achieved my goal and acquired my new bicycle. (Hooray!)

A value is a principle that leads and guides us through life. Two of my values are being healthy and enjoying nature. Riding my new bicycle is one way I can manifest my values of being healthy and enjoying nature.

Goals are future-oriented and finite. We strive toward a goal, and when we accomplish it, we’re done with it. A value is something that exists indefinitely unless we change it or eliminate it. We can choose to act on a value at any time—including this very moment.

I like the idea of values being like a compass, as Russ Harris writes in ACT Made Simple:

Values are like a compass. A compass gives you direction and keeps you on track when you’re traveling. And our values do the same for the journey of life. We use them to choose the direction in which we want to move and to keep us on track as we go. So when you act on a value, it’s like heading west. No matter how far west you travel, you never get there; there’s always further to go. But goals are like the things you try to achieve on your journey: they’re like the sights you want to see or the mountains you want to climb while you keep on traveling west. (p.192)

What are my values?

Pertinent questions that may be entering your mind right now are, “What are my values? How do I define them for myself?”

One way is to ask yourself, “What do I stand for in life? What is important to me?” Allow these questions to percolate for awhile before answering them.

Another way, which I find to be a bit easier, is to mimic an old commercial and ask yourself, “What do I want on my tombstone?”

At times, my clients will tell me about the stressors in their lives—the deadlines to be met, the pressure to be perfect, or the closet that needs to be organized. With gentle humor, I sometimes ask, “Is that what you want on your tombstone? ‘Here lies Mary. Her closets were organized?’”

Let’s broaden the exercise from your tombstone. Imagine that you are able to attend your own funeral. What do you want the speakers at your funeral to say about you? Do you hear them saying, “She really wanted that raise at work, and she got it!” Or would you rather they say, “She was a hard worker and she treated others with respect. You always knew that she really cared about you.”

If imagining your funeral is uncomfortable for you, then visualize people speaking about your life at your 90th birthday party. What will they say that illustrates what you stand for in life? Will they easily be able to say why you live your life the way you do?

To help you with this process, I created a worksheet that lists many values. Follow the instructions to name and clarify your values.

Take action. No, really—I mean now!

Utilize one or all of these methods to make a list of at least 10 of your values. You may generate a list that has more than 10, which is perfectly okay. Now put a check mark by the values that are most important for you. I hope that seeing your values in writing begins to create some clarity.

We’re not done yet! Once we have identified our values, we have to ask ourselves one final question.

Am I living my values?

Now that we are aware of our values, the next step is to see how closely we’re living by our values. Remember that we want our values to guide us in the actions that we take. In part, values act like an anchor in a storm: No matter how much life tosses us around on waves of adversity, our values hold us steady, and steadiness is a key component of resilience.

To determine how closely you are living your values, apply a little bit of honest thought to the values that you listed. Using the worksheet, review your list of values. In one column, put a number between 1 and 10 that indicates how important this value is to you where 1 is not important at all and 10 is extremely important. In the second column, place a number between 1 and 10 that indicates how well you are living that value right now where 1 is not at all and 10 is living that value fully.

For example, being kind is a value that is extremely important to me, so I entered 10 in the first column. How well am I living that value daily? When I ponder this for a bit, I conclude that I am kind to people I work with and interact with in public. But, I can be more irritable with my partner than I care to be. So, I put a 6 in the second column.

Creativity is also one of my values, but it’s not extremely important to me, so I entered a 7 in the first column. After a bit of consideration, I decide that I am fairly happy with the way I incorporate creativity into my life, so I also entered a 7 in the second column.

In the first instance, I notice a fairly wide gap between how important my value of kindness is to me versus how I am integrating kindness into my actions. This is a flag for me: my value and my actions are misaligned.

However, I seem to be living my value of creativity in line with how important it is to me. No flags here; it is gratifying to note the congruence between my value and my actions.

So, you have a bit of work to do! Use the worksheet or whatever method is effective for you to name your values and determine how well you are living each one. Then, share in the comments below what you are learning so far as we take this important step down our path to living a richer, more meaningful life. I’ll start us off by sharing what I’ve learned.


Coming up next on Bounce: What do I do if my values and actions are misaligned? What gets in the way of fully living my values?



  1. Bobbi says:

    When I used the worksheet, I put a check mark beside 34 values. It was hard whittling it down to 10! One of the things I noticed is that many of my values are around community, unity, harmony, etc. I know that I’m very tribe-oriented, so this wasn’t surprising to me. Rather, it helped to confirm once again how much these values are a part of me.

    Once I decided on my top ten, I could see that I’m doing pretty well living six of my values, but with four of them, the Importance/Living It? difference was either -3 or -4. Those values were Kindness, Compassion (which I changed slightly to Self-Compassion), Contentment, and Health.

    So, I’m making a public commitment to be more aware of these values and consciously try to allow them to guide my actions. Keep me to it!

    Your turn! What was your experience like in naming your values?
    Bobbi recently posted…Naming your values: The compass for a rich, meaningful lifeMy Profile

  2. I was JUST speaking about values on an interview today. So so important and I am glad that you wrote about it. So important for individuals to know and then align themselves.

    Mine are: Passion ~ Integrity ~ Authenticity ~ Spirituality ~ Creativity ~ Responsibility
    Lori Lynn Smith recently posted…Survival FoodsMy Profile

  3. This is an amazing post and I have printed out the list and started working on it. Thanks Bobbi for these blogs.

  4. Hanne says:

    Thanks for this post – I’m just about the print the scheme. No watter what the “result” will be, this journey will be awesome and inspirational.

    /a fan from Denmark :)
    Hanne recently posted…First Michelin experience at Onyx RestaurantMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Hanne, welcome to Bounce and I’m interested to hear what your experience is like with the worksheet and/or just cogitating on values.

  5. Luz says:

    Thank you SO much for sharing the worksheet and your personal experience. Currently I feel that my life has no purspose or meaning. While reading your blog I realized that this feeling is just because I’m DOING so much random stuff that I haven’t consciously connected it with my values. I’ll start working right away!

  6. Amit Amin says:

    What do you do if you’re like me, and have no value?

    It’s easy for me to go through this kind of exercise – I’ve already done it a few times in the past. But I’ve found a massive misalignment. To me, this suggested one of two things:

    1) I need to set some goals to live closer to my values.
    2) I need to change my values.

    I tried the first, and rather quickly lost motivation. So then I worked on #2 – I simplified from my long list to a single value. To help narrow the list, I asked myself why each value was important to me. The value with the most ‘importance’ won.

    With things clarified, I made quick progress. Soon, I think I’ll be ready to add back in a second value. I think values based living is too difficult to try to make the change all at once.

    But I completely agree with what you said – living by my values (even just one!), more than any other goal, lets me feel proud of myself.

    • Bobbi says:

      Amit, thanks so much for sharing your process. I think it makes a lot of sense and is a good model for other people to follow. I’m wondering if suggesting that we pick out the top 10 might be too much at first. I hope folks follow your lead!

  7. This is an excellent exercise, Bobbi!

    What I realized immediately was that if I had been asked to do this exercise ten years ago, my ‘top 10’ values would have been quite different.

    Ten years ago I was a single woman with no children and my values were focused around challenge, achievement and determination.

    Five years ago with very young kiddos, my values were family oriented, with stability and commitment ranking very high.

    Now, at 40 with children that are a little more independent, I find thankfulness (or gratitude), finding balance and making a difference much more meaningful goals.

    Now, how well am I living my values? I think I’m doing ok, but I do find it can get a bit slippery staying aligned. So thank you for this gentle reminder to keep orienting ourselves with our ‘value compass’. :)
    Kimberley Grabas recently posted…11 Author Website Must Have ElementsMy Profile

  8. Tony Khuon says:

    The disconnect between what we say are our values and how we behave in reality leads to a lot of unhappiness.

    Plenty of people would say “Family-orientation” is a high priority value to them, but then spend little quality time with their family.

    I’ll be curious to see what you have to say on that misalignment in a future installment.
    Tony Khuon recently posted…10 Agile Rules for Living on a Budget (Without Eating Ramen Every Night)My Profile

  9. […] Naming your values: The compass for a rich, meaningful life […]

  10. Kay says:

    I put very high level of importance on the value ‘inner harmony’ but recognize that is sometimes unrealistic expectation with normal ups and down in life. Want to be more aware the spiral not the stick model for life gives more room for growth. I can see now and accept that inner harmony more attainable by being more flexible in my beliefs.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Kay,

      Yes, I think we can achieve inner harmony even when we are experiencing difficult emotions. It sounds kind of contradictory, but it seems that when we accept our experience fully, we we achieve harmony within.

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.