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Not Picky

How to Pick Your Values for Better Decision Making

Have you ever had to make a crucial decision that seemed almost insurmountable? Chances are you weren’t fully aware of your core values at that time. Have you tried picking them deliberately? Here’s how to choose the right ones.

Pick your values: Side of a boat on the sea
Photo: unsplash.com / redcharlie (@redcharlie)

Having a set of values in your life that you can follow, especially in difficult situations, will make your decisions consistent and in alignment with your personality. You probably know many people who seem to act somewhat randomly instead of according to their principles. Such behavior can quickly alienate others and usually leads to discontent with your own life choices.

I recently compiled a list of core values for you to choose from. But doing so isn’t always easy. Narrowing this list down to only a handful of values sounds easier than it is. Almost all of them will probably appeal to you at first.

To make this process easier, here’s some advice you can follow to select values that can actually serve as your life’s trusty canon.

Pick fewer

It’s tempting to compile a list of 15-20 core values. There’s so much we strive for, so much we’d like to change, so much that seems right.

However, when making decisions, you won’t have the time or patience to sift through so many values, prioritize them, and bring them in line. The longer the list is, the more contradictions you have to entangle.

Go for five. A list of five is something all of us can keep in mind easily. Chances are these five values won’t be so contrary to each other that they inhibit your decision making. They’ll act as your handy compass in life whenever you need them.

Narrow it down

Go through the list once and note all the values that sound appealing to you. That might be 50, 40, or 30. Don’t worry about length at this point.

Now, iterate through your shortlist repeatedly, each time removing one or more values that pale in comparison to the others. This will get harder with each repetition.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to less than 12, you might need to apply other strategies.

Look for means, not ends

You might be someone who values wealth, success, reputation, status, and achievement above everything else. Should these be your five values then?

In my opinion, some common core values represent goals rather than virtues. Wealth, success, and status are among them. They’re not really values, even though you might value them. They represent what you might want to achieve, but they won’t help you get there.

Try to pick values that help you achieve these goals rather than choosing the goals itself as your guideline. Ask yourself what you need to be like so your dreams will become reality if you only stick to your values.

Be aware of subtle differences

Some core values might sound similar, but they mean different things. “Knowledge,” for example, mainly refers to the accumulation of everything you can know. While “wisdom” includes knowledge but adds the ability to apply the knowledge to real-world situations and differentiate between good and bad knowledge.

Another example is the difference between “achievement” and “success.” Achievements are objective goals that have been accomplished. They don’t need to be big; they don’t need to be worth anything to anyone; they’re just something that is objectively measurable, like eating an entire chocolate cake yourself. However, “success” is something very subjective. It often is not measurable, and the definition of success sometimes differs significantly depending on whom you ask. But at least for you, it needs to have significance. Every success will entail achievement, but not every achievement is a success.

Keep that in mind, when you choose your values. The good news is: Knowing the difference between similar terms will help you weed out more values. Just make sure to pick the one that fits best.

Allow for variety

If you’re very focused on your career right now, it might be tempting to choose only values directly related to that. If you’re quarantined right now, you might favor values like freedom, health, community, and optimism.

Instead, try to get more variety into your list of core values. Avoid synonyms and pick the one closest to what you have in mind. Pick values that enable you to achieve various goals, not only one.

Be who you like to be

Why would you even want to choose your values? Aren’t they already inside of you? Doesn’t the way you act reflect your values best?

Over time, human beings seem to lose track of who they originally wanted to be. Life gets the better of us, and without even realizing it, our values shift in an unhealthy direction. How we act is not an expression of who we are anymore; it’s just a representation of our derailed self.

That’s why it’s important to deliberately choose your values and not only pick those you’ve already been following. Try to select at least one or two values that you currently lack or could get better at. Virtues that are or always have been essential to you but got lost in the unsteady sea of everyday life.

Your list of values should partly reflect who you are and partly who you want to be. Only then will they help you to grow in a desirable direction.