I had my first graduate school interview this past week. One of the elements of the interview was a written response to the question, "What experiences in your life have shaped your idea of purpose and meaning?" I've been amazed to see how this question of purpose has followed me for the past four years. While some people view college as a time to party and have fun, my experience has been very different: instead, college has challenged me to solidify my purpose for living on this earth. I have learned that the values we hold shape each and every decision we make.
As simple and aphoristic as that sounds, another realization I’ve had is that my set of values aren’t always harmonious—this is why I can’t just leave my life purpose on autopilot and assume everything will go okay. Many people get to middle or late stages of life and realize they are unsatisfied by the way they’ve spent their time. There is a stage in human development, according to the theorist Erik Erikson, where a person looks back on their life and feel either satisfied (Ego Integrity) or disappointed (Despair) with their decisions. The best way to prepare for this is to establish a hierarchy of values early in life.
Why do we choose to work? The obvious answer is because we have to: bills need to be paid and life isn’t free. But beyond that basic need, many of us also value the feeling of productivity working gives us, as well as the meaningful things we can produce by working. We choose specific jobs because they meet a value we have: some people choose a job because it is close to their home, allowing more time with their family. Others choose a job based on the salary, because they value the experiences and material goods that additional income can buy. Many people choose jobs because their family will approve of the field, or because the job itself is their “calling.” Values shape how we choose to make that money we need to live.
The problem is, most people only think of their values in terms of the work; they forget that values still apply with their time outside of working. American culture places a high priority on production and financial stability (if you're the scholarly type, this essay by Max Weber from 1930 provides a fascinating perspective on the American work ethic and capitalism). This makes it hard to balance other values, like rest and introspection, with the competing pressures to work hard and be busy. We may believe there is more to life than working hard, but our actions and lifestyles rarely reflect that.
As I have tried to live a more value-oriented life, I have been surprised by how often my behavior was incongruous with my beliefs. For example, I highly value mindfulness, but often find myself distracted by things like social media and current news. I also find myself perpetually wanting more time in prayer, but rarely acting upon that desire; my desire to know God's will wasn't been reflected in the way I spent my time. Although knowing my own values hasn't made me perfectly consistent, it has at least made me more aware of where I am being inconsistent.
So, what are your values? Do you know what matters most to you? There are a lot of good values in the world, but we are all limited and can't always meet all of them. If you are willing, I have an activity for you that just might increase your self-awareness and help you determine which values you want to live by.
There is an incredibly helpful print out here that has a list of common values, as well as three categories to sort them into (not important to me, important to me, very important to me). If you print the cards out and cut them along the lines, you'll have an amazing resource for yourself and others to make your values even more tangible. Even if you can't print them out, you can pull up a Word Doc and make an electronic list. I recommend having no more than 5 values in your Most Important category, and no more than 10 in the Important category.
I would love to know what your top 5 values are, so if you read this and decide to take some time with it, please message me or comment on this article and we can talk more!