Oliver Page

5 reasons to identify your core values

14 July, 2022

I recently came face-to-face with my core values during a challenging professional transition.

Soon after starting to work as a doctor, I sensed it was time to move on. This instigated a fundamental reshaping of my value system – on one hand, I valued dutiful commitment. But on the other, I wanted to live from a place of authentic inspiration, and I just couldn’t shake the fact that progressing as a clinician didn’t spark excitement.

After an agonising period of reflection, I surrendered to my inner truth and walked away. Recognising my core values gave me confidence to make the call. It was time to start following my joy.

Every decision is an expression of our personal values. But core values represent our most cherished inner truths. Like sailors at night, we can use these fixed points of truth to navigate the open ocean of life. They are signposts rather than destinations. I might value self-awareness, for instance, but self-awareness is a neverending journey.

There are many potential reasons why it might be important to excavate our core values. In this post, I unpack just five ways that being more aware of my core values has enriched my life.

What’s on this page

1. Focus

When it came to focus, I used to rely on productivity hacks: Eisenhower Matrices, Kanban boards, Pomodoro timers, and so on. These are wonderful frameworks, but they couldn’t work on my self-disconnection.

In reality, self-knowledge is the most sustainable path to productivity.

In a world with paralysing freedom of choice, we need core values to narrow our focus. Commitment isn’t prison, it’s freedom.

For instance, self-compassion is one of my core values. Each day, when planning my tasks, I ask myself: is this schedule consistent with self-compassion?

When making larger decisions, I may consult more of my core values. Do I take the job which pays better, or the one consistent with my need for creativity, empathy and connection?

Being cognizant of my core values has also allowed me to say “No” with more conviction. This enables a higher degree of focus on the people, projects, and hobbies that most align with my authentic truth.

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2. Resilience

In 2005, psychologists David Creswell and David Sherman ran a study: one group wrote short essays on their core values, while another group wrote about random topics.

Afterwards, they were put in stressful situations, like solving mathematical problems in front of unfriendly judges. Those who wrote about their core values showed significantly lower levels of cortisol. What does this suggest? That writing about your values can make you resilient to stress.

When I hold inconsistent beliefs and values, the result is anxiety. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. The word dissonance means ‘lack of harmony among musical notes’. This is a fitting description of what happens inside when I don’t know who I am – my lack of clarity is like a noisy din.

Since making my core values explicit, I’ve noticed something: I have a better sense of what I do and don’t want. My intuition is sharper and I feel somehow more cohesive as a person. Life is still confusing, but self-knowledge is my anchor amidst the turbulence.

I also used to struggle with feelings of alienation and loneliness. When I clarified my core values, I understood why – I had been pursuing acceptance from people and groups with very different values. When I realised this, I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin. More resilient. It became a joy to see (and be) the person I truly am.

3. Self-acceptance

Following the theme of acceptance, here’s a habit I’m still trying to unlearn: beating myself up about the past. Somewhere in my teen years, I began to berate myself about ‘wrong’ decisions and ‘mistaken’ paths taken.

I’ll give an example. I’m hesitant to share this because it still harbours a residue of shame. But the bigger shame would be missing an opportunity to be real and authentic with my readers.

I was very shy in my formative years, especially with girls. In my late teens, I rebelled against this patterned way of being and dove head-first into the pickup artist community. Instead of seeking relationships based on love, vulnerability and openness – which I now value – I closed off to women.

At the time, I didn’t have the self-awareness to understand why I was doing what I was doing. I felt like a complete oddball, in fact. The better I got at pickup, the deeper my shame grew.

Only recently have I begun to understand this phase of my life. I now see a boy with very real needs – a need to experience confidence, empowerment and control. My actions had little to do with the women themselves; I was seeking to meet my needs the best way I knew how at that time.

I found it helpful to reflect on how different I am today. If I could go back in time, would I take the same course of action? No, I wouldn’t. That’s called evolution. Knowing my core values has been a beautiful catalyst for reevaluating the past and fostering a deeper self-acceptance. I now appreciate that I’ve always been working with what I know, which is all I can ever do.

4. Connection

In the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, I learned that there is a lot of overlap between what we need and what we value. This is crucial to understand when building healthy human relationships.

The real test of a relationship is how both parties navigate conflict. Because I have no control over the other party, all I can do is master the art of gentle, respectful and accurate self-expression.

Bringing consciousness of my core values to the table is a great start. By explaining not only what I want, but why I want it, I enable the other party to empathise. This is also the path to create genuine emotional intimacy.

Here’s an example of the combative, closed-off communication style I resorted to in the past:

  • Me: Hey, would you mind tidying up the desk? It’s looking cluttered.
  • My partner: Yeah, sure. I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll get around to it.
  • Me: That’s vague. Please let me know when you plan to tidy so I can get on with my day.

You can see where that conversation was going… nowhere fast! Here’s how I’m more likely to communicate these days (watch out for the core values being articulated):

  • Me: Hey, would you mind tidying up the desk? It’s looking cluttered.
  • My partner: Yeah, sure. I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll get around to it.
  • Me: Thanks, but I notice you didn’t say when you’ll get around to it. The thing is, I work best when the desk is ordered and clean. I also don’t want to disrespect you by moving your stuff. Would you be able to declutter the desk in the next hour before I start work?

By focusing on my core values – focus, order, respect – I shed light on what’s going on inside me. This always requires that I show vulnerability to some degree. Me and the other party can then emerge from the exchange feeling more deeply connected.

5. Leadership

Humans are a tribal species. Whether enormous (e.g. nations) or tiny (e.g. romantic bonds), all tribes must align on certain values to stay alive. We call this process ‘culture’. Culture is a fantastic thing – it prevents humanity unravelling into anarchy.

It’s also true that humans do well in hierarchical systems. Hierarchy brings a level of cohesion not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom. We need leaders to enforce culture and rally people around a vision.

But I’m not necessarily talking about business moguls, executives and politicians. You’re a leader. I’m a leader. If you’re a parent, you’re a leader. If you notice an elderly man who needs help crossing the street, and you stop to help, you’re a leader in that moment.

Having recently gotten married, I’ve noticed a shift. It feels as though my wife and I  are co-leaders, charting a course for our lives and deciding what we want to stand for.

There are plenty of decisions to make, such as where to settle down, how to raise our kids and what our long-term vision is. Being clear on our joint core values brings these conversations to life. The alternative – remaining unconscious of our values – would leave us groping for answers in the dark.

It would be the blind leading the blind.


Living in a complex, tumultuous world, it can only help to be aware of our core values. If we don’t consciously reflect on our principles, outside forces will impose them on us and we’ll find ourselves on a path we didn’t consciously choose.

Being told what to do, and who to be, can feel like a relief. But relief doesn’t always mean growth. Without being the creator of our own lives, we risk leading inauthentic lives of quiet despair.

This is why I maintain a simple document listing my core values. Each year, I review that list. Is it still relevant? Is it still resonant? Most years bring plenty of change, and with change often comes new awareness of my deepest truth.

If you’re stuck, start with just one core value. What do you know for certain is important in life? Truth? Justice? Honesty? Love? Compassion? Spirituality? It can be anything as long as it feels true. Write a few sentences about it. Spend time making your words hum until you read them back and feel truth chills.