You’re Probably Thinking About Values All Wrong
When you replace this common definition of values with a better one, your life suddenly becomes clearer
When I recently came across the headline “The World’s Most Influential Values, In One Graphic,” I couldn’t help but click — a good data visualization is like catnip for me. The chart, compiled by global research company Valuegraphics, shows the results of 500,000 surveys, across 152 languages, about what people value. A few of the answers on the list: freedom of speech, leisure, financial security.
I was disappointed. Not because any of those things are bad, but because they aren’t actually values. For the survey, the authors defined values as “what we care about,” which is the definition that a lot of people probably have. The thing is, what we care about changes every day — every minute, even. When your kid is throwing a tantrum, you care about getting some peace and quiet. When you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with an empty fuel tank, you care about whether there’s a gas station nearby. But these things are not your values.
Why? Because values are more forward-thinking than simply reactions to the immediate moment. They are attributes of the person you want to be.
For example, kindness is one of my values. Every day, I will try to embody that attribute. And if I’m kind to people, then I know I’m living according to my value of kindness. Money, on the other hand, is not one of my values. Rather, money is a thing I value, and there are many ways to get it. One way is doing a job and getting paid for it. Another way is mugging a guy who’s wearing an expensive watch. Only one of those methods is compatible with my value of kindness.
Here’s a simple test: If someone can take it away from you, then it’s not one of your values.
Freedom of speech is certainly valuable, but under an oppressive government, it can be taken away from me. Therefore, freedom of speech is not one of my values; it’s a thing I value. Honesty, in contrast, is something I can own. I can choose to embody honesty, or I can choose to lie to people. If I’m honest, then I’m living according to my value of honesty.
Why is this distinction important? Because values are central to human flourishing. We need to understand, define, and understand our values if we want to live with personal integrity.
My wife and I believe that shared values are the foundation of a strong marriage. But if we define our values as “things we care about,” we get a noisy and long list full of disagreement. She cares about wearing matching socks; I, on the other hand, will wear two different ones just for fun. Does that make us incompatible? Of course not.
When we define values as attributes of the people we want to be, we can more clearly see our next steps, the actions we can take to move forward. My wife both “care about” my daughter — but that’s not actionable. What’s actionable is the desire to be attentive parents. Attentiveness is a value. And if we both want to be attentive parents, we can talk about what that means, and we can strive every day to live up to it. For us, it means being fully present when we’re together, without getting distracted by our phones.
There’s a difference between the things you value and your actual values. The former come and go. But your values can guide you throughout your life, no matter the situation. In the end, you have a better measuring stick: Real failure is failing to live by your values, and real success is taking action every day to embody them.