SHOW NOTES from Episode 12 of Wayfinding Wisdom. Click here to listen.
You’re listening to Wayfinding Wisdom – the podcast where each week we offer up 10-20 minutes of stories & strategies to help you navigate the complex waters of modern-day life with intention & confidence.
I’m Alice Chen – coach, experience designer and fellow wayfinder.
One of the things that I do in my coaching practice is run consults – I connect with people who are interested in working with a coach, and we take some time to get to know each other.
I love these calls because I get to meet all sorts of different people in different circumstances, and I get to learn about where they are at in their life.
I get to hear what they are grappling with, where they are feeling stuck, what they are aspiring to, and what’s calling them.
This feels really special to me – people who haven’t met me before are willing to open up and vulnerably share about the messiness & complexity of their human existence.
Through these calls, I’ve noticed that people often come to coaching to better understand & clarify their values.
They sense that being connected to what matters most to them is somehow important in finding their way to a meaningful life. Such intuitive wayfinding wisdom.
Last week I talked about how meaning is deeply personal and how if we want to experience our own definition of a meaningful life we need really owning discovering and discerning what feels meaningful to us…vs. look around for someone else to give that definition to us.
One place we can start that process of self-defining is by getting present to our values – to the things that matter most to us.
So in the next couple of episodes we’re going to talk about values: what they are, strategies for discerning & clarifying them, how to navigate tensions that arise, common misconceptions about values. All the things.
We’ll start today with a values 101 of sorts – what values are, where they come from, how they function and drive both our actions and our sense of meaning.
Simply put, values are the things that matter to us.
They drive our actions & decision-making.
They inform what we prioritize & how we spend our time, who we are in relationships with, what fills us up, and what frustrates us.
We don’t actually start out our lives on this planet with values. Values are socialized.
In other words, we come to have our values as a result of our experiences and through the direct and indirect interactions we have with the world around us.
We learn our values from the things we are taught, observe & see modeled around us from family, culture, school, work.
Think of a baby.
When a baby is first born, it doesn’t have much of a conception of what it cares about or values; it operates instinctually. It cries when it’s hungry and when it needs something.
Think of that same baby 5, 10, 20 years later, after it’s lived in the world & gone to school. That baby communicates & makes decisions based on a set of things it’s learned are important.
It now has a value system – an understanding of what’s important, who it needs to be, and how it needs to operate to be safe in the world.
The value system that baby has, has been passed on to it through various relationships & lineages – through the family system, through culture, through formal schooling.
This is the story of each of us; this is the story of you.
You started out your time on this planet as a bit of blank canvas as far as values are concerned.
And as the years have passed and you’ve “lived,” you’ve learned to care about certain things and not about others.
And you’ve been making decisions based on that value system for a very long time – whether you have realized it or not.
That’s the tricky thing about values. Because we are initially socialized into them, they often function as unconscious drivers of our actions.
We don’t know what they are; we just make choices and decisions based on them. They draw us towards something and cause us to resist others.
For example, we are drawn to high-status careers, because somewhere along the way we learned that “status” was important, but we don’t know that that’s what’s happening.
Or we find ourselves resisting experimentation and vulnerability but we don’t realize that that’s tied to an unconscious value we have around efficiency & expertise.
We feel frustrated because our boss is micro-managing us, but we don’t realize that that is tied to a value we have around freedom, flexibility, and creativity.
Growing up, my father really valued efficiency & accuracy. I can still hear his voice in my head whenever I’d start a project or make a mistake, “Make sure you do it right the first time.”
I remember the first time I received an email sent from his professional account.
I was in my 20s – and I glanced down at the signature line and underneath his contact information, in italics, was his mantra:
“Do it fast. Do it well. Do it right the first time.”
This was a reflection of some of his values and he passed those on down to me through our interactions over the years for sure.
And I want to say that I don’t blame him for this – at least not at this stage of my life.
He was doing what we all do – passing on his version of what he believed and had learned matters to the next generation. I don’t believe he had malicious intentions.
And also, intent is different than impact.
And the impact of his very intense focus on “Do it fast. Do it well. Do it right the first time.” is that I spent a good deal of my adolescent and young adult life focused on trying to do all the things in my life efficiently & correctly without making mistakes.
I made hundreds of thousands of choices based on these values – from who I was friends with to what classes I took in school to how I prioritized my time, to the college I chose, and everything in between.
And I judged hundreds of thousands of choices I made based on how close or far from “right, perfect & fast” they were.
In the places where I appeared to be doing something right & rapidly, I felt good. And when I veered from that path I felt guilty & ashamed.
And for quite a while, I had no idea that that’s what I was doing. I thought I was just “doing life” the way it was “supposed to be done.”
That’s how unconscious values work – they put us in a place where we just live as though this is how we have to or are supposed to…until something happens that calls our way of operating into question.
As we grow up, mature, separate out from our families of origin, and start to become our own people, we will often experience these inflection points – moments where our value system is brought to the surface and we can really “see” it.
Often these inflection points occur when we hit the edge of our known world in some way.
Within this space, there’s an invitation to inquiry & experimentation – “What are the values that I’ve built my life on to date? Are those the values I want to choose to build my life on moving forward?”
Because this is a beautiful thing about values – while we may a set of them that are initially socialized into us, we have agency to reshape, reprioritize, let go of and add to that value set across our lifetime.
I remember experiencing an inflection point in my mid-20s around my values where I’d really gotten to the edge of my known world.
I’d been operating out of this work hard, do life well, get it right the first time value set and in some ways, it had really taken me far.
I’d graduated at the top of my class in high school, gone to a great college, graduated top of my class there as well.
I’d won awards, scholarships, gotten accepted into prestigious programs. I was organized & efficient & quick. I always had a plan or two or three.
I was focused on the future – what would my career look like? How would I make money? Be a responsible contributing member of society?
But it had also taken to a place where I was risk-averse, fear-driven, joy-deficient, and running on fumes. I was so worried about making a “wrong decision” and failing that I did my best to remain in my comfort zone as much as possible.
There were classes I wanted to take in college that I didn’t because I wasn’t sure I could get an A in the course. There were jobs I was interested in that I wasn’t certain I had the skills upfront for, so I didn’t apply to them. There were entire fields of study I was interested in but couldn’t exactly see how I’d make a living at, so I didn’t even explore them.
My unconscious, socialized value set was driving me to stay in my sandbox and prioritizing working hard and getting it right above everything.
And then I burned out. I remember waking up in my mid 20’s miserable, numb, depressed, body hurting and thinking to myself, “If this is going to be the next 60 years of my life, I’d rather not continue.”
And this was the start of my inquiry into my socialized values – what was driving me to operate and feel this way? I began to consider what I’d learned, picked up, or been explicitly taught was important by my family, my teachers, society.
It was also the start of my journey towards a life lived based on a more conscious and chosen set of values. I began to ask myself – these things that I’ve been taught and learned are important, how important are they to me? What do I want to keep, reshape, reprioritize, add or let go of?
In my own experience and in my work supporting others to navigate inflection points similar to the one I just described, I see that sometimes we come to realize through inquiry and exploration that the things we’ve been socialized to care about are the things we really DO care about.
Sometimes we find that this is not the case. Most often, I witness people discover elements of their unconscious & socialized value system that they want to consciously keep, elements that they want to shift or let go of.
That’s certainly been the case in my own journey.
Through inquiry, I’ve come to discover that the ideas of doing it “right” and doing it “fast” that were so important to my dad don’t resonate with me. They carry the pressure to be perfect, to optimize, to prioritize efficiency & outcomes above all else, to avoid failure at all cost.
When I operate with the value of getting it right and doing it fast at the forefront of my mind, I feel anxious, I dream smaller, & I act less courageously. I play it safe. I try to plan and control things that are actually outside of my control. I try to take the most direct linear path to outcomes regardless of whether this is the path that makes the most sense for the context.
And this very much operates in opposition to some things that I’ve come to realize I REALLY value – things like creativity, adventure, & experimentation, learning through experience, exploring, playing. Things that require me to step out, take risks, be vulnerable, try things on without certainty of outcomes and walk paths that aren’t always linear or efficient.
So over the years, I’ve practiced letting the values of “getting it right” and “doing it fast” de-center themselves in my decision-making and watched as they’ve faded into the background of my life.
I won’t lie and say that I never try to do things perfectly or rapidly, but I certainly operate from this place much less frequently. I’m very attuned to what it “feels like” in my body, heart, and mind when I’m rushing and trying to “get it right,” and so I will often interrupt myself before I get too far down that path and make a different choice.
What were once very unconscious drivers of my thinking & actions have now become much more conscious.
While getting it right and doing it fast don’t resonate for me, I’ve discovered that “doing it well” does. Doing it well, I associate with excellence, completion, a job well done, beauty, skillfulness, intentionality, quality, precision, artistry and I am all about that.
Craftsmanship is something that I value deeply in all its forms – a well-crafted sentence, a beautifully designed space, a delicious & beautifully presented meal, an insight shared at just the right time, an experience that attends to all the details. I value craftsmanship, as my father did…not from a place of unconsciousness, but from a place of conscious choice. In choosing to value this, I see how much agency I have to honor & express this thing that matters deeply to me in my own life.
And I honor this value in lots of big and small ways.
A “big” example – I will spend more money on a product or service that is truly excellent (even if I have to wait or save for it) rather than purchase one that’s mediocre.
A “small” example – I’ll take the time to make food that is delicious & nutritious and to arrange it on the plate in front of me so that I capture its visual appeal.
I notice that the more inquiry I do into what my socialized values are, the more I come to understand
- Who I’ve been in the world & where I’ve come from:
- What matters more & less to me in the world
And the more agency I have to:
- Actively choose into the person I aspire to be
- Align my decisions & relationships so they honor, reflect, & express what matters most to me
And the more compassionate & empathetic I can be to myself & others as I/we navigate the space between who we’ve been socialized to be and who we really are in the world
And all of this together, helps me feel more centered & empowered, and like I’m living a meaningful life regardless of the season I’m in or the weather patterns I’m experiencing.
Whenever you feel tension between what you’ve been taught to care about (i.e. what you think you “should” or “have to” care about) and what you sense in the depths of your being actually matters to you, there’s a chance that you are experiencing tension between your socialized values and your aspirational values.
And I invite you to turn towards and look into these places
What is the tension you feel showing you about what matters more or less to you in your life?
Having a look at what you’ve been taught to care about and what you actually do care about or what you want to care about helps you discern why you may be experiencing tension around certain personal and professional choices & relationships and what you might need to shift or center in order experience more meaning & fulfillment.
In my experience & observation, some of the most joyful and thriving people out there are often those who have figured out what they truly care more or less about and who radically committed to and engaged in the ongoing practice of honoring & expressing that through their decisions….regardless of the circumstances they find themselves.
You have the power to do this too.
I’d love to hear what you’re discovering about your own values so please do share. You can do that on my Instagram feed @wayfindingwisdom.
I’ll also post the reflection questions from today’s episode there as well so check them out.
And if you enjoyed today’s podcast and want to have it delivered to you every Wednesday morning, head on over to my website at www.wayfindingwisdom.com to sign up.
As I’ve mentioned, today’s episode is part of a larger series on meaning & values, so tune in again next week to continue the conversation as we talk about…
As always, I’m grateful for you and your presence in the world.
Until next time, be well, be brave, be you.