We all need a reason for living and the stronger the reason, the more motivation we have. You can think of your life’s purpose as something you do, such as being a good parent, or good husband/wife. Or, you can think of your purpose in terms of achievement such as being successful or helping others. I found that a better way to distinguish my purpose from my achievements, which can be ego driven, is to focus on my values. I demonstrate my purpose every day through my actions in the way I treat people and the way I react to life’s challenges. Who you choose to be is the code of honour that you live by.
Unfortunately, most people have never really thought about their values in depth. They usually have a vague idea but not enough to give them a clear sense of purpose.
Knowing and living according to your values has a number of benefits. Firstly, by making a commitment to demonstrate your values on a daily basis you have a very clear code of ethics and standards to live by. This makes it easier to respond positively to the ups and downs of daily living. Secondly, by choosing to act on these values you break the pattern of reacting, and this is how you change old beliefs and create new beliefs about yourself. And most importantly acting on these values makes you feel happier.
Let me give you an example of how this works. If a person cuts you off just as you are about to drive into a parking spot, think about how you want to act. If you reacted you might be tempted to make a rude gesture, give the other driver a black look, scream abuse or mutter to yourself, you could even go so far as to let another person’s actions spoil your day. Or, you can make a conscious choice to act like the person you choose to be. If, for instance you choose to be a kind person you might let the other person have your parking spot. You might even feel irritated for a short while, but you will feel good about yourself and the way you behaved therefore turning a potentially negative experience into something positive. Acting on your values is a form of self mastery.
When you react you give your power away. All you have to do is observe the world around you and you will see people reacting constantly, and it doesn’t make them happy. When you consciously choose to act on your values you not only feel good about yourself, you reinforce your chosen beliefs. When you act consistently on your values your perception about what you can be, do and have changes, and the world in turn changes its perception of you.
I recommend to my clients that they choose three values, although there is no rule that says that you can’t have two or four. My reason for choosing three is that it is really easy to remember them. I once asked a client what his values were and he extracted a piece of paper from his wallet and read off around twelve values to me. This made me realise that if you have to consult a piece of paper, then it is unlikely you will be living those values on a daily basis. Remember the car park scenario. Just imagine if you had to stop driving, find your wallet, then find the piece of paper in your wallet before deciding which value to act upon, it simply wouldn’t work. You need to know your values intimately because there will be many times when you will have to make a snap decision about how you wish to respond.
Before you make any hard and fast decisions as to which values you are going to live by, try them on. Choose three and act on them for a week and see how it feels. Does your life work better? Do you feel happier as a result of acting upon these values? Do you feel good about yourself? If you don’t answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions then experiment with other values. You may only need to change one, or you may choose to change all of them. This is your life and it is your choice.
I once worked with a client who had trouble choosing values and didn’t want to work with them. I asked her to persist, explaining that she hadn’t found the right ones yet and she reluctantly agreed. Then one day she made the choice to be ‘light-hearted’ and it changed her life. She explained that ‘light-hearted’ was her real nature. However, since having children she had lost that side of herself. Another client was struggling with how to value herself and be kind at the same time. I suggested she try being ‘gracious’ and this allowed her real self to come to the fore.
Although being values are what you give to others, it is equally important that they enhance your life. There are various ways to choose them. You can go back to the early days of your childhood and look at what your real nature was like. Were you gentle, compassionate or even funny? Can you find any value matching those traits that appeal to you? Goldie Hawn says in her book, A Lotus Blooms in Mud, that when she was asked as a child what she wanted to do when she grew up she would always reply that she wanted to be happy. People were referring to what she wanted to do as a career and she says she had no aspirations to be famous, or to be an actress. All she ever wanted was to be happy.
If going back to childhood doesn’t inspire you, you can look at people whom you admire. They could be people you know, famous people or fictional characters. Take note of the character traits that appeal to you. Or, you can simply go down a list of values and make your choice.
Earlier I said you know when you have chosen the right values because they will enhance your life. That doesn’t mean they will not challenge you. Whenever you make a decision to be, life supports you by providing opportunities for you to gain mastery. A swimming champion does not become one by deciding to be a swim champ and never getting in the water. He swims daily and continues to push himself in order to gain mastery. So in order to gain mastery of yourself, to really be, you need to continually act on your conscious choices. Just imagine that you chose to be a ‘patient’ person and suddenly everything that challenges your patience occurs; the traffic is heavier than usual, your boss makes unreasonable demands, your children decide to be especially difficult, your best friend forgets to turn up to a lunch you have planned. You can say, ‘Bah, this stuff doesn’t work’, or you can say, ‘This is an opportunity for me to become a really patient person, life is supporting me in my choice’. If you don’t get any challenges, if acting on a value is really easy for you, it may be time to reassess if you have chosen the right value.
It may take you a week, a month or three months to choose your values, it doesn’t really matter as long as you keep experimenting. Then, when you have chosen your three most important being values write out a code of honour that you commit to live by. This will give you a very clear standard of behaviour to base future choices and actions upon. It is no good deciding to act in a certain way then not knowing in a moment of stress how to act. You need to be very clear on what each value means to you and how you will act when challenged. Unless you are a very rare person you have reacted for much of your life. Now it is your turn to consciously choose the values you wish to live by and you need to be very clear on what those are. If for instance you choose to be honest, understand how honest you want to be. Are you prepared to say what you think to everyone even if it means hurting their feelings? Are you prepared to pay all the taxes you legitimately owe? What is your definition of honesty?
When I chose my first three values they made an enormous difference to my life and how I felt about myself. After five years though one of the values that I had chosen, which was ‘generous’, stopped working for me. I am generous and I felt that I had to give more than I wanted. Consequently, I began to feel resentful. Resentment is a low energy emotion which takes you away from what you want so I knew it was time to change. Another value I originally chose was ‘kind’ and eight years later I felt that I was being kind to others to my own detriment. At the same time I found myself drawn to the value ‘gracious’. On both occasions I changed my values and am immensely glad that I did. Being kind and generous has become my automatic response and I am building on that foundation with my new values.
Choosing who you want to be
At one time I had a built-in cupboard installed in my home. On installation the fitter discovered that one of the doors was the wrong size and took it back, promising the right door would be delivered two days later. That same promise was made and broken five times over a period of two weeks, causing me a lot of inconvenience.
When I felt tempted to be extremely rude, I would ask myself, ‘Is this how a kind, loving, generous person would act?’ These were my being values at that time. After a promise was made and broken for the sixth time, I decided to act like a ‘powerful’ person. I rang the manager and very politely told him that I was going to stay on the phone until we found a way to get my door to me that day. I was very pleasant and said, ‘I am prepared to work with you on this, but I won’t accept being fobbed off any longer. What can I do for you so that you can get my door to me today?’ The man was so taken with my approach that we ended up laughing about the matter, although he also knew that I was adamant. Eventually the manager guaranteed that I would get my door that day. By late afternoon it still hadn’t arrived. I rang again and he promised to deliver the door himself. After work he drove to my home, a long way from where he lived, not arriving until eight that night. However, he did keep his promise. I don’t believe he would have done this if I had been abusive.
I demonstrated to myself that I can have what I want without compromising who I am to obtain it. I can still go back to that company at any time without any feelings of embarrassment that I would have felt if I had lost my temper.
Choosing who you want to be is your own personal code of honour – it is setting a standard of behaviour for yourself. Not only do your values provide you with guidelines for making decisions, they also present you with opportunities to change beliefs that no longer serve who you are, or what you want today. How you react to everyday challenges, determines the quality of your life. You have total control over how much you allow into your life and total control over how much you contribute. Who you choose to be is your compass. Use it to guide all of your choices. You will never make a wrong decision if you act on your highest values.
An excerpt from my book Love the Life You Live.