I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, our values serve as our best compass.
My dad wore his values like a badge of honor. Raised as the son of US diplomats stationed throughout Latin America and North Africa in the 1940s and ‘50s, he especially cherished the value of adventure. When I was a kid, he would often say, “just call me Bwana” – a nod to Bob Hope’s 1963 farce film by the same title – then lead our family off on some daredevil backcountry excursion across the wild deserts of the American West. His impish grin would make us kids roll our eyes, but in the end, we always loved exploring the wondrous natural playgrounds he showed us, particularly the deserts of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.
Fast forward twenty-five years. February 2003 found my siblings and me embarking on an off-road expedition from Mesquite, Nevada to the Grand Canyon’s north rim, with Dad leading the way. Just like the old days. A couple of hours into our journey, a freak desert storm dumped about six inches of snow on us as we followed Lime Kiln Canyon into the rugged hills east of Mesquite. The dirt road we were climbing soon became treacherously slick, so we stopped to take stock of the situation. The sun was fast heading to the horizon, and snow was still falling hard.
The great Bwana consulted The Map, presumably to chart a detour around the snow-laden hills. It turned out that our navigator was not exactly sure which road we were now on (we don’t call this “getting lost” in our family), so The Map was not too helpful. To make matters trickier, at this point it was revealed that planning our route had not been done with precision. I’m not naming names, but some Adventurous Spirit had figured that we would “make our way” across the upper left corner of Arizona by generally following dirt roads in a northeasterly direction. As a result, it wasn’t clear when or if we would arrive at the first day’s waypoint, Colorado City.
Faced with unknown hours of snow travel and the real possibility of spending a frigid night in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, our little band turned back toward Mesquite’s lower elevation, where there was no snow, only cold rain. We followed our tracks in reverse and a few hours later, none the worse for the experience, we rolled into Mesquite, where we quickly warmed up with some hot chocolate.
It doesn’t take an expert navigator to know that plotting and following a course is key to reaching a given destination. By the same token, if you don’t know where you want to go, it’s virtually certain that you won’t get there. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote two millennia ago, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
In my work as an executive coach, I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, it’s good to remember that in the journey of life, our values serve as our compass. They are the criteria by which we make numerous decisions every day, both large and small. Our values inform everything from whether we return incorrect change to a sales clerk, to how to vote in elections, to how to treat loved ones and strangers, to how to behave in business dealings. Without clear and honored values, we are like the person who cannot read a map or who does not know where they want to go.
When we hit the snow on our journey to the Grand Canyon, my dad could have stuck with the original plan and insisted we keep going. If his highest values had been persistence and achievement, we could have ended up struggling through the snow in the dark. But the values my dad honored the most were adventure and connection. We'd already had the adventure to come as far as we did. The best way for us to experience more connection now would be to turn back, sit in front of a warm fire drinking hot chocolate together, and talk about what fun we'd had.
Somewhat surprisingly, a good number of my clients have never carefully identified, recorded, or internalized a personal set of values. When I run into this, one of the first pieces of work I do is help them gain clarity in this important part of their lives. Armed with their unique values, my clients can then make choices aligned with their most cherished beliefs, principles, and passions. This approach results in greater peace of mind, satisfaction, and confidence when they face both straightforward and complex decisions.
If you haven’t already, I challenge you to define and memorialize your personal values. Here are three tips for how to do it:
Think about a time in your life when you were “in the flow,” a time when the place, your actions, and your mindset harmonized almost effortlessly, producing a pinnacle experience. Try to remember the ingredients that were at play, including the people you were with. The elements that converged to create that magical moment can be vital clues to your values.
Consider the causes that matter most to you. The organizations, activities, philosophies, books, places, and ideas that you are genuinely passionate about can be shiny signposts signaling your personal values.
Reflect on your upbringing, your faith tradition, your formal and informal education, your heroes, role models, and mentors. Look for teachings and characteristics that you admire to this day. These too will uncover clues about the values you hold or want to hold.
Once you have thoughtfully identified your values, record them. Something about writing them down in a notebook or typing them into a document makes them real, makes them a part of you. Share them with your loved ones and others you care about. Giving your values a voice is a powerful way of making them truly yours.
It may sound simple, but when you are clear about your values, and you strive to honor them, you lay a solid foundation for quickly making choices that others around you, wide-eyed with fear or confusion, may consider too difficult, too fraught with the opinions of others, or too personally risky. You will confidently proceed in the knowledge that your choices are congruent with your dearest principles and beliefs – your unique values. They will give you the courage you need to make the most crucial decisions, some much more pivotal than whether to spend a cold night in a snowy desert with the great Bwana.