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Discover What Values Matter Most to You

By Karma Kitaj, PhD

Last month I talked about finding purpose in work by combining “savoring” and “saving. Now we’re going to drill down on that premise by making it more personal to your situation. If you’re reading this column, then you have some curiosity about what it would be like for you to work with a sense of purpose.

This question is one that many of you might be asking yourselves as you contemplate changing jobs or careers, whether you have been laid off or are one of the survivors of workplace layoffs. You’re likely to consider the purpose question if you’ve been too long restrained by rules and values that you do not share. Or if you’ve been bored or frazzled or felt that you worked only to support yourself and your family.

Would you prefer to get up in the morning and feel energized to go to work? Do you want to work at something that makes you feel in “flow,” that sense that time passes effortlessly? Do you want to feel that you are contributing something positive to your fellow employees, your clients, your field, or even to the wider community? Are you thinking about what legacy you want to leave as a worker?

Perhaps you realize that your workplace contributed to the global financial crisis in some way. Or that it was wasteful of energy, of the earth’s resources? Or that it has been oblivious to how it increases the imbalance of poverty in the world? If any of these questions niggles at you, you are ready to discover how to work with a sense of purpose. But, that goal requires some self-discernment.

In this article, I’m going to focus on how knowing your values contributes to your finding your purpose. First, you need to honestly assess your values and needs. For an extensive inventory, you can get Executive coach Cheryl Weir’s questionnaires free at this link, For a more abbreviated assessment that includes a piece on values, you may go to my website at, where you can download a free questionnaire called “Discover Your Goals.” Many others exist online.

What do you want to discover from this process? You want to get clarity about what is most important to you. For the moment, disregard practical considerations such as: what job could I get where I could express my values? Will I earn enough money if I switched to this new career? Or how can I retrain to do a different kind of work? For now, you want to focus on who you are, your deep self, your authentic self. When shoulds and practicalities are set aside, who are you?

Your values are the bedrock that inform your sense of comfort in every area of your life. If you work with people who are competitive, who always want to be noticed for what they do, who don’t give others credit for their part in a project and your value is more for teamwork and sharing, then you will always be unhappy. If your workplace environment reeks of disrespect toward others, from condoning ethnic jokes to discriminating against whom they promote, and your values are strongly egalitarian, you’re going to be disgruntled.

If financial uncertainty has put you in an employment crisis, now is the time to consider carefully what you value most, what you do not want to do without in the next work phase of your life. It might entail finding a new employer, working to change the values implicit in your present employment, or starting your own business where you can attempt to express your values daily.

Here are a few of the values you might discover about yourself once you’ve completed one of the assessments referred to above. Although you might not have done so before, now that you know which values matter for you, you are in a better position to seek out or create a workplace that honors these values. You might have a strong need for:

  • Helping others
  • Freedom to experiment
  • Inclusiveness
  • Fairness
  • Camaraderie with workmates

As you work on knowing yourself better, you’ll be able to flag the situations that conform to your values and those that don’t. Your values inform everything you do, but they are often implicit, hidden, automatic, so that they might not easily come to your mind. The more you can bring them out of the realm of the unconscious and make them front and center, you’ll be able to judge to what extent a new job or career or workplace will give you fulfillment, energy, and enthusiasm.

Even though most of our values were developed early on in life and come from what we absorbed from family, we are capable of changing our values. Sometimes, those values are imbedded in childhood experiences that no longer are valid today. Especially if you’ve encountered a crisis, such as an unexpected layoff, you might be tempted to backslide into your old value of wanting security at any cost. Or, you might recognize that other values are beckoning you. Crisis provides opportunity – you’ve heard that said. It provides opportunity if you allow yourself to be open to change. What values beckon to you as you imagine yourself in your next work situation? Perhaps security and making money were crucial during the years you were bringing up children and putting them through college, but if that need has passed, maybe you’re more inclined to value freedom, flexibility, challenge, or learning now.

Finally, here are some questions that the University of Minnesota Career Center publishes that will help to focus your attention on what your values are regarding work. It is helpful to keep a journal through this self-discernment process and record the responses to these questions.

1.  Would you work if you didn't have to? Why? Why not?
2.  In what kinds of work situations would you work harder than you ordinarily do?
3.  Are there situations where you would work for less than normal pay? What would be the compensating rewards?
4.  If you could use your work to indulge in your favorite form of play, what would you be doing?
5.  What activities do you pursue when you have completely free time with no obligations?
6.  If you were free to schedule your working time any way you like within a 7 day week, what would your calendar look like?
7.  People who work with me think that I am..............
8.  What conflicts or discrepancies do you see between your values and your work?