This part two of a two-part series exploring the sometimes complicated relationships between career, identity, values and self-worth.

Last week, I explored why identity becomes intertwined with career and how it can influence, among other things, how we view our self-worth.

For many of us, career, identity and self-worth are closely related but we’re not really sure how.

This complicated relationship and our inability to decouple one from the other can result in unwanted internal conflict that can hijack our daily thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Those conflicts can be especially difficult when our internal compass is pointing one direction, but our identity (as defined by our career) has us going in another.

How then, can we right the ship or at least have the confidence that we’re not off course? We need something that tells us we’re pointed in the right direction, or in the wrong direction as it may be. I know, another compass metaphor. Hear me out.

The compass is a tool for navigation, but it is only as helpful as our ability to use it properly.

We must be familiar with its readings and the adjustments required to get back on track. We need the awareness to know when it might be time to check our course.

Values: The Life Hack

I believe defining our values or at least having a sense of what they are, can provide the basis for navigating life and all its challenges – from the everyday to the epic. By defining our values, we establish the few critically important things that form the foundation of who we are and what we do.

By being deliberate in contemplating, defining and living our values, we create the metaphorical compass for navigating our complex and sometimes challenging lives.

Just like the compass though, we must first learn how to use our values. Why? Because our values inform just about every decision we make. Debating a job opportunity? Evaluate it against your values. Contemplating a move? Evaluate it against your values. Caught in a tricky situation at work? Evaluate it against your values.

If we’re not aware of our values – or don’t intentionally consider them regularly – it’s a bit like setting off into the wilderness with your map and compass, but never checking to see if you’re heading in the right direction.

It may seem that I’m aiming for a higher plane, that I’ve gotten righteous or I’ve stepped away from the useful and the practical. Actually, what I’m aiming for is simplicity.

If we can strip away all the superfluous ‘stuff’…

…the noise and the distractions that tell us how we should act…

…what we should think, where to go, who to be like, what we should care about…

…the expectations of others…

…then we’re able to more clearly see what it is that matters to us and use that knowledge to inform how we choose to live.

By establishing our values, and using a values-based approach to decision making, we take (most of) the guesswork out of our demanding lives.

It’s important to note here that I’m not talking about morals. There’s a difference between morals and values. Morals imply right and wrong and are usually established by some entity outside of the individual – could be political, societal or spiritual.

Values are the personal beliefs held by an individual about what is important to them.

Values can be morally questionable, depending on your moral construct. Of course, this is my subjective opinion and I concede there are other ways to view the relationship between morals and values. But I’m the one writing so for now, I don’t care about morals, let’s set them aside.

Defining Your Values

Great. So, how does one go about establishing their values? The concept is pretty simple really.

Start by defining what’s important to you in your life.

Make a list, then rank each item – from top to bottom. Write about why each is important to you. Reflect, consider – tell someone. Try your values on and walk around in them.

Too open ended?

Try this. Imagine you are at your own funeral. The eulogy is about to be read. What do you want it to say about you? How will you and the life you lived be described? How did you spend your time? What were your achievements? What were you most proud of? What were your contributions? What were your regrets? Write your eulogy.

Now, review what you’ve written and pull out the things that stand out to you about the life you’ve described. These are the important things. These are your values.

There’s no magic number, no ideal set of values you should have – it’s what feels right. To you.

If you need a target, most agree having about 5 to 7 values is about the sweet spot.

Still not clicking?

Think of a time in your life that everything felt right – that life just couldn’t get any better. Describe this moment in detail. Capture what it was about this moment that made it so meaningful to you.

Maybe it was being outdoors, or doing something new and exciting, or experiencing a different culture or completing a task that you thought was impossible.

Pick the one thing about the moment that is most important to you – this is one of your values. Ok, almost there. Now take what you’ve captured and describe what it means to you – ask yourself, ‘why is this important to me? Why do I need this in my life?’

Finally, name it – make it something that resonates. Then repeat until you have a list of values that feels complete (this activity is adapted from an article in the Huffington Post written by Anne Loehr).

Before we go any further, a word of warning.

Establishing your values and acting by them does not necessarily mean you’ll always make the right decision every single time.

By acting on your values, you’re acting on what you’ve established as important to you. This can be flawed and has the potential to result in mistakes. However, by acting on what you value – not someone else’s interpretation of what you should value – you achieve a greater level of confidence, ownership and comfort.

You’re better able to understand why you acted as you did and consider the implications more rationally. One benefit of this is learning – by acting intentionally out of our values, we can observe whether what we value is beneficial for us and others and make changes to our values as a result.

The end product? Growth.

If you’re still unclear about your own values, check out this article by author Kevin Daum on for some examples and additional thought exercises.

Living Your Values

Defining your values is great, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t do anything with them. Like any good habit, living your values begins with a commitment. You have to decide that you’re ready.

Ready to stop living by someone else’s rules.

Ready to start being more intentional.

Ready to take your game to the next level.

Whatever your intention, you have to declare it and commit to it.

This isn’t a one and done exercise. This is every day, every decision you make. You’re running everything through the new filter you’ve created. The ‘does this fit with my values?’ filter. That’s it. Keep it simple. You don’t have to do some drawn out analysis or pro vs. con deliberation.

There is one trick though.

Take notice when your decisions or actions diverge from your values, which they will.

Be aware of when you’re making trade-offs on your values and why. Usually, you’ll be able to tell – you’ll feel off – fearful, angry, sad or some combination of all three.

When this happens, note it and move on. You won’t be served by second-guessing, feeling disappointed or shameful.

All you have to do is be aware that you broke from your values. No judgement. No guilt.

Try to understand the situation that provoked the challenge and how you’d like to respond in the future. There’s always next time. Being mindful of your values and how you’re living them will help remind you of what to do when you’re faced with another challenging situation.

This act of ‘checking in’ with yourself and taking stock of how you’re living your values, where you might be experiencing some internal conflict and examining how you’d like to respond in the future also has an added benefit.

You’re being intentional about how you want to live your life. And know what? That feels good.

There’s no other way to put it.

Instead of searching outside yourself for measures of worth – you’ve got your internal compass dialed-in – you know your values, you know when you’re living them and when you’re not and while nobody’s perfect, you’re working with the only measure of self-worth that matters – yours.