Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals and values are in balance.
It’s clear that living by our values often means choosing to take on extra challenges. It means speaking our mind even when no one else in the room shares our opinion. It means accepting that we might be lonely at times, that we probably won’t be the most popular person, that we will feel misunderstood. But over time, we will find our tribe. We will see the ways in which we can positively influence other people, and eventually, realise that living by our values was worth all the effort. And it’s not just about our influence on others, living by our values makes us feel more fulfilled and satisfied, even when we’re pushing back against popular opinion.
What if we recognise that we’ve been living in opposition to our values for quite some time, but we’re unsure of how to change? Or what if we feel like we’ve drifted for so long that we can’t describe what our true values are?
It’s never too late to discover our values and start living by them. We can make this change at any time. Be patient, understand that the shift won’t happen overnight and that we’ll need reminders – and maybe even mentors – to help us along the way. With dedication and courage, we can construct an entirely new life, one designed around core values.
Discover your true values
If you have the uneasy feeling that you’re not truly living by your values, you’ll need to take some time for self-reflection and self-discovery. It may take a while to determine what your core values really are. If you’re wondering where to begin, it may be helpful to just sit down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper.
Start with the basics. Most of us can agree that we value our physical and mental health, our families and our friends. But we can go beyond that. What qualities do you strive to bring to every situation? Again, you can start with the basics. Write down a few traits that you would like to be known for. When you imagine yourself at your best? Do you exemplify integrity and honesty? How about compassion and kindness? Do you value the pursuit of knowledge and the keeping an open mind? What would you like people to say at your funeral? What can you not live without? If you had two months to live, how would you spend your time?
Of course, most of us would say that we value similar positive attributes, but it’s important to consider values that are relevant, practical and deeply personal to you. Perhaps some of the factors in this book resonate as values for a life of resilience mastery? Write down 20 or 30 values and then trim that list to five. Bestselling author Dr Brene Brown recommends selecting only two values so that they are easy to recall and live by.
Evaluate your lifestyle
Once you have a better understanding of the values around which you want to design your life, you need to honestly evaluate your current lifestyle to see how it matches up. Let’s say that you wrote down that you value your health. It’s then important to track how you spend your time each day and fact check for compromise or contradiction. Are you spending an hour or two on social media or binge-watching shows on Netflix when you could be at the gym? Do you have a tendency to oversleep and rush to work instead of maintaining a regular wake-up time and preparing a healthy breakfast? How about the habits you repeat every day? Do you often take the lift instead of the stairs? Do you opt for fast food instead of nutrient dense, home-cooked meals? Drink that extra glass of alcohol to numb the nervous system? All of these small habits can add up over time.
Your habits are a reflection of what you value and the person you are right now is a culmination of those habits. Congratulations, you’re almost at the end of what I hope is an enriching book, so the fact that you value self-development is clear. May I take this moment to acknowledge you and the choices you made that lead you here.
Let’s take a look at another example of getting values aligned. What if you wrote down that frugality and minimalism were two of your values? In this case, it would be important to look at where your money is going. Many of us open our wallets without thinking twice about it, yet what we spend our money on is a serious reflection of our values. Are you regularly spending just for the sake of convenience, when a little preparation would help you save money? Do you buy unnecessary items simply for the dopamine rush of acquiring something new? Are you keeping track of what you spend and sticking to a budget, or are you simply spending in the moment and hoping that you save some money some day? Are you taking the time to research your best options when you make a purchase, or are you buying items without considering quality and longevity? Do you spend money out of boredom instead of getting creative with free options for entertainment?
Evaluating habits can be an eye-opening exercise. Realising the many ways in which we contradict our stated values each day can be humbling. We’re often quick to judge others without acknowledging how often we make mistakes. But at the same time, we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly during this process. Follow Matthieu Ricard’s advice and aim for compassionate action, including compassion for ourselves.
Pay attention to negative feelings
When you’re trying to make some changes in your life, but you haven’t quite implemented all of your new habits yet, you might experience something known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable experience. It occurs when we recognise, on some level, that we’re being hypocritical, but we’re simultaneously trying to justify our own hypocrisy. It can be tempting to brush these feelings aside for the sake of positivity but for self-improvement, it’s crucial to pay attention.
Notice negative emotions and label them. Is it discomfort, fear, sadness or guilt? If a situation or choice feels wrong it probably is – for you.
There are times when two choices are both equally valid; one option might just be the better fit for a certain person. For example, there are plenty of women who choose to go back to work after having a child, while others choose to stay home for a longer period of time. Neither choice is morally right or wrong. As long as the child is being raised in a happy, loving way, both options are fine. But how the choice makes the mother feel is a strong indicator of values alignment.
Remember that the world needs all kinds of people. If we all thought or acted the same, it would be a very boring place indeed. If your choice is not hurting anyone, you don’t have to feel guilty about going against the mainstream.
Begin forming new habits
The most challenging – and most rewarding – part of the process is undoubtedly forming new habits. This will be difficult at first, but the effort will be worth it in the end. Whether you now know that you truly value the pursuit of knowledge, and you want to make it a habit to read one new book each month, or you’ve realised that you value mindfulness and want to incorporate meditation sessions into your routine, this can be a time of exciting, positive change.
At first, it will can be easy to stay motivated each day, but this initial enthusiasm may fade. Give yourself time to adjust. There is no rush unless you decide there is. And if the change feels awkward at first, don’t give up. It can take a couple of months or more before a new behaviour becomes automatic, depending on the behaviour, the person and the circumstances. Be confident that as you map the new habits into your daily routine, what initially takes effort will soon become effortless once it’s automatic.
It can definitely be useful to track your new habits. You can use a journal, app, whiteboard or pencil and paper to tally marks of how often you’re practicing. As the weeks go by, you’ll see where you’re measuring up and where you’re falling short. And when you see all those tally marks lining up, you’ll know that you’re on the right track. It doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.
Figuring out what you really value can take some time, and implementing the changes required to live in alignment with these values longer still. If you find that nothing seems to come to you at first or that the changes are hard to make, this does not mean that you have lost yourself, or that you have no hope of finding a set of principles that you can live by. You won’t be adrift without an anchor forever.
If you’re familiar with the idea of a mid-life (or even “quarter-life”) crisis, you’ll know how many people reach a breaking point where they can no longer remain out of alignment with their values. They endure the messy process of rediscovering themselves, and often emerge with a clearer understanding of how they really want to live. Of course, the values they choose may not be popular!
There might be a key moment when you realise that you need to change, or you might slowly nudge towards alignment. Every journey is unique so be curious, courageous and patient. Change takes time.
Enjoy the transformation
As time goes by and you change your habits, routines and behaviours to line up with your values, you will inevitably notice some major changes occurring in your life. You may find that you lose some friends, but you’ll also gain some. You may realise that your job isn’t a great fit, but you’ll probably find that an even better opportunity was right around the corner. You may look back and regret time wasted on a path that wasn’t meant for you, but you will be proud of yourself for finally forging your own unique path.
Above all, you’ll notice an increase in self-esteem and security in your own beliefs. When you practice what you preach, your confidence is unshakeable.
With the right alignment, everything you want makes its way into your experience. You are the keeper of your own gate.
Living by your values in a world that will try to discourage you from doing so takes courage. But deep down, everyone does have that courage. Don’t let yourself be dissuaded by the worries of what other people may think. It’s hard to shake that instinct, but over time, doing what makes you happy without needing validation will become your new normal. Whether you value fame, fortune, kindness or sustainability is your choice. Nelson Mandela said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
Remember, you only have one life to live. Make sure that you’re living it for you.