It’s hard to decide what to do with your life. It’s even harder when you don’t know what you want, or who you are.

Here’s something you can do to figure out a bit more about yourself. I did this years ago for myself in grad school, and it’s been useful to my students and people I coach.

We all have many things we find important in our lives, but rather than try to find them all, we’ll focus on three, which we’ll call our Three Core Values. Three is arbitrary — there could be eight or eleven — but if you find the big three, the values at the top of all your values, you’ll be surprised at how much ground is covered.

Now, what is a core value? Really, it’s an orientation, or an outlook, or something consistent within you. It is both a personality trait and a reason for your personality.

Once a student argued that one of her core values was her friend, Amber. The student didn’t get that another person can’t be a value. True friendship can be a value. Companionship can be a value. Values are intangible. Regardless, my student was adamant: Amber is a core value. I don’t think the two are friends anymore. Amber wasn’t a value, but perhaps always having to be right is.

It usualy helps if I explain a bit about my three cores, which are:

A sense of moving forwards
Freedom. Basically, I hate being told what to do. I don’t like telling other people what to do, unless I’m expressly in charge, like when I’m producing records or directing plays. I hate keeping schedules, I hate waiting. I dislike religion, dogmatic thinking. I don’t like people serving me (for some reason that feels like slavery to me). I don’t like people taking a guess at what food I might want at a restaurant. I almost always prefer to figure out things on my own. I hate zoos, aquariums, but I like pets. We have to parakeets we keep in the biggest cage I could find. I’d love to let them fly around the house but I draw the freedom line at bird shit everywhere.

I get pretty worked up discussing Freedom. This is a clue as to how you find your own values. What gets you worked up?

Integrity was much harder to find. I knew that honor, honesty, some concept like that was important to me, but I couldn’t quite find the word. Honesty was close, but it didn’t convey… for me honesty was more of a verbal expression, whereas integrity was more of a behavioral expression, if that makes any sense. You need to find the words that express it best for you. But Amber still ain’t a value.

So, if there are a few different ways or shades of describing the value, pick the one that rings truest for you.

A Sense of Moving Forward… This one was elusive to the point I had to make up my own word/phrase to describe it.

I love learning. I read self-improvement books all the time. I dislike doing things again and again that lead nowhere. I don’t enjoy conversations that are pointless.

But what is all that? Is the value education? Learning? Autodidacticism? Not wasting time?

What best describes it is a Sense of Moving Forward. That phrase also feels like the top of a hierarchy to me. Autodidacticism is under learning is under education, but a sense of moving forward floats above all of them.

Getting to the top of the hierarchy is important. You might have music and acting as two values, but clearly encompassing both of them is performing. And then you might have performing and being acclaimed as two values, and above that might be “center of attention” or some such.

Don’t think of values pejoratively: values are essentially valueless. I know people who value always being right, being safe, being obstinate, annoying everyone else, avoiding confrontation. The values aren’t good or bad. How you behave because of those values is, of course, another story.

Finding your core values

For some people this is easy, for others difficult. It can be easy to find one or two and hard to find the third. It seems to be easier to do as you get older, which makes sense. I was in my forties when I did this work.

This is pondering type work. Some hints and things to look at:

When you’re happiest, or when you feel like you’re at your best, chances are you’re living within your core values, or at least one of them.
When you are angry at yourself for your behavior — when you’ve done something for which you’re truly regretful, chances are you’ve violated one of your cores. You’ve betrayed yourself.
Look at people you admire, and how they behave. It is likely they’re expressing a core value that you have. If you figure out what it is about them, you’ll get a glimpse of you.
Likewise the opposite is true: People you despise are probably breaking values you have.
What do you avoid doing? As an example, it’s really hard for me to bill clients, and it’s because I don’t want my integrity challenged: “Is this really worth that? Are you ripping me off?” As a side note, I’ve never been accused of that sort of thing. I never think to rip people off, and I can’t understand people who do. How do they feel good about themselves??? Clearly there are different values at play.
What’s your price? What would you do for a million dollars? Avoid your family for a year? Rob someone? Murder? And what wouldn’t you do, no matter how much money is involved?
Your relationship with money and material good might hold some clues as to your values.
When do you lie, and why? When don’t you lie, and why?
When you discover a value it kind of hits you with a loud click — it’s usually very obvious. Sometimes, you might feel really uncomfortable with what you find. Often, you’ve got to thrash things around a bit, bounce ideas off people that know you. It can be really helpful to do this sort of work in a small group. Your values might be the same or similar to someone else’s. Working with other people is almost always good for stretching your thinking out.

The Math of You

Once you have your three core values, you can combine them to make equations that point to additional values.

As an example, I like teaching: Sense of Moving Forward + Freedom = teaching.

To me, parenting is: Sense of Moving Forward + Integrity = parenting.

Freedom / Integrity = Responsibility

Freedom multiplied by a Sense of Moving Forward equals Art. Integrity subtracted from art is equal to shitty pop music.

Procrastination is Freedom and Fear becoming all powerful over Integrity and a Sense of Moving Forward. Love minus Freedom is a relationship I can’t stay in, yet for me Monogamy is Love times Integrity and that fits me well, and I’ve no trouble trading off some Freedom for it.

There are a lot of ways to do the math.

What to do once you know

First of all, things about you will start to make more sense. You’ll understand why you’d never want to do certain jobs, why there are some situations you’d prefer to avoid, and why some people light you up. A lot of day-to-day decisions and discomforts will be apparent, and you can take steps towards re-shaping the immediate world in which you exist.

You’ll make better choices about who you want around you. Shared values are important, but non-conflicting values are more so. If Adventure is a value for you, and your significant other values Security, there will be conflict.

You’ll know more about the things you like to do, that fit with you, and you can get some control on future activities and plans. Or not. I recently got back from a “vacation” at a resort in Mexico. Vacations are really hard for me, doubly so at a resort, where it is difficult for me to find Sense of Moving Forward, and while there is a lot to do, much of it I don’t enjoy, so there’s no Freedom for me. Freedom, for me, isn’t a choice of things I don’t want in the first place. My favorite vacation was directing a play in a small town in the Midwest: the experience basically hit all my values. In future, I want less resorts and more living, working and exploring a new city, something that feeds my core three.

I’ll ponder more about using the knowledge of your three core values to further your life in a follow-up to this. For now, give it a try, see what you get, and see if it doesn’t give you a bit more control on things.