9 min read

Values: Guiding Principles

There is no "moral compass" app.
CC Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures.

But you can go through a moral compass development process…

And there is no better time than now.

About 3 years ago, around the time I quit working for someone else and took things into my own hands, I became deeply entrenched in goal research.

I even started a book, got about twelve chapters deep and had a friend edit it.

It was their feedback that made me never publish it; I believe his exact words were, “this reads like a graduate school thesis.”


I’m still working on that whole sounding overly technical and kinda lame with my writing.

Years of conditioning and wanting to sound smarter than I am, probably…

I’ll admit, the feedback was a bit of a buzzkill, but it was what I needed to hear.

Even though it killed my motivation for that project, and delayed any goal setting book release indefinitely; The research I did get through in that short amount of time was extremely valuable for the purposes of my own process of self-discovery.

See one of the things that kind of set me off in leaving my last position was what I always thought was a lame emphasis on a very traditional and not particularly effective way to set goals.

Once I had started my research into goal setting methods, however, I discovered it was actually far deeper than that.

Fundamentally, and unknown to me at the time, the values of that particular gym increasingly started to conflict with my own.

The traditional method for successful attainment of objectives or goals, I learned, is an outside-in approach, rather than an inside-out approach.

Not unlike I revealed in this post, some three-years ago.

Ultimately you need to develop an internal compass and know where you are, before you attempt to get somewhere else.

I was doing it backwards!

Chances are, you are too. I was reminded about actually posting this (it’s been in my draft folder for ages…) after receiving a very common email from a reader of my newsletter.

I won’t name names, but I’ll quote the most valid part of the email I received:

“I feel very lost.  Before six years ago I had two fitness goals that pushed me on.  One I wanted to get married and have children.  Two I wanted to run a marathon and finish…

Now those goals are realized.  What do I do now?…

I think I’ve lost my vision.”

This is a conversation I’ve found myself hearing many times over the years; People who achieved these awesome goals, but still lost the intrinsic or internal motivation.

I think like I did, most people have it backwards, we set and rely on goals like this:

how people set goals

We tend to start with what we want to achieve, rather than understanding our motivations behind wanting to achieve something.

Then we move to how.

And often hope to arrive at the why.

Working from the outside in, or trying to find deep meaning from external objectives, is typically a recipe for disappointment.

Like I said, it’s completely backwards (as I outlined in this post).

We should instead be looking inward before moving outward to external objectives and goals like this:

how people should set goals

The why, or your purpose or your vision is what helps you craft better methods of achievement for goals and provides more perpetual motivation.

If purpose is the compass, then values represent the direction bearings/headings (points of directional reference).

If purpose is the why, then values are the how.

Self-Defining Goals

I use the word Purpose (this article is worth reading), Peter Gollwitzer (one of the goal researchers, whose work I looked at in depth) at NYU, might call it a ‘self-defining goal.’

There are a few different potential names for it:

  • Mission Statement
  • Vision Statement
  • Tombstone Statement
  • Purpose Statement

Depending on who you talk to…

Basically a self-defining goal is a sentence or statement of what your aim is in life.

It is often open ended, and extremely lofty.

It is often worded in a way that it would be difficult to know if you’ve ever accomplished it, or will ever accomplish it.

Very unlike traditional SMART objectives that have a specific, measurable and time-oriented expectation…

For example; “I want to be, the best dad I can be,” might be an example of self-defining goal.

In this context, it is extremely difficult to know for sure if you were the best dad you could ever be, even if you create markers of success, there will always exist a certain undertone that you could be better in some respect.

The point of creating a purpose statement or a self-defining goal isn’t to create an objective you’re 100% sure you can measure or complete.

It doesn’t exist so that you can compare yourself to the success of others.

Creating a self-defining goal serves the purpose of providing a long-lasting internal source of motivation — don’t get me wrong, there will always be days you don’t feel particularly motivated — and is something that you deliberately cannot know to achieve.

It’s something you can perpetually work to get better at.

And in my opinion, it’s the bedrock of how you create other goals.

Side Note: Having or feeling a sense of purpose is also largely correlated with a greater lifespan… 

However, before you get into setting other goals, you should consider establishing a few other pillars of support for other outcome-oriented, process-oriented, or experience-oriented goals.

The ‘Whats’

After developing the bedrock of a self-defining goal, you want to form a set of what I call Value-Oriented Goals.

Values are:

a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.

If purpose is the compass, then values are your north, south, east and west.

Why This Matters

Understanding what you value in life is the best way to understand and create other goals.

It’s also a great way to make decisions easier, when presented with options.

For instance, if you have a high value on family and a new job opportunity presents itself that will remove you from your family for much longer than you deem acceptable, (say you’ll be forced to travel a lot or move away), then you will most likely have an easier time making the decision to turn down this job opportunity.

A self-defining goal might be what you want to contribute to society the next 60 years of your life.

Values are the guidelines you want to stay true to, along that journey.

You’ll find it incredibly difficult to fundamentally attempt to cheat yourself out of your own values, though many people try.

Those who do try, often end up experiencing strong feelings of guilt, regret and remorse.

The Process

Note: It is important to do this exercise when you’re in a good or decent mood. Neutral is the best reference. Attempting to go through this exercise while you’re frustrated, anxious or depressed in anyway will often lead to a poor result. It’s not an exercise you use to dig yourself out of a low state of mind.

Step #1

Quickly brainstorm a small list of words or phrases that you associate with your character.

I suggest using a timer, as time constraints often force the most pertinent ideas to the surface quickly.

Three to five minutes should suffice and may even want to consider going through this step, with a very close personal friend.

For instance you may end up with a list that looks like this:

  • Dependable
  • Trustworthy
  • Family Oriented
  • Reliable
  • Secure
  • Introverted
  • Etc…

That’s just a quick example, you’re likely to have a few more descriptors, especially if you have help from a friend.

*Note: There are no right and wrong answers for this process. Everything and anything counts, the process below will provide further clarification. Even seemingly undesirable personality traits are useful, especially if they are true to your nature. Perhaps you have a high value on money, social status, power or influence. Nothing wrong with that, and certainly there are other people out there who share similar values. Again, attempting to work around your true values, will typically only lead to emotional/mental resentment down the road. Only attempt to write things you feel are true to your nature, even if they seem insulting or against cultural or societal norms.

Step #2

The next step is important to complete on your own, without your friend present, as a friend will contribute an external personal bias of their own views.

Look each word up in the dictionary and look to provide personal context to each word.

*This doesn’t take as long as it sounds like it should…copy and paste is a wonderful here…

This should literally be a sentence at this point, followed by a sentence or more explaining how the definition is relevant to you.

Keep it to a paragraph, but put your own personal flare into it.

For example, let’s say you put a descriptor like ‘secure.’

Secure is both an adjective and a verb, with a dozen definitions ranging from:

protect against threats; make safe.


fixed or fastened so as not to give way, become loose, or be lost.

So you need to decide on which definition is relevant to you and your situation.

After some thought, maybe you decide that ‘secure’ means that “you and your family are safe from the threat of poverty and physical harm.”

Then go on to describe how that value needs to be addressed.

For example, maybe between you and your wife or husband, you identify a certain amount of financial security required to live in what you consider to be a safe neighbourhood, put high quality food on the table, and provide an ideal level of education to the family, etc…etc…

So you expand that definition to include:

“Being secure requires an estimated 60k, between the two of us, so that we can live in Southlands neighbourhood in Nowhere, Illinois.” 

You can take it however far you like, but I’d generally recommend working to simplify and whittle down your personal definitions as much as possible.

AGAIN…keep in mind that the process here is what really really matters (rather than the end result), so don’t try to skip steps, or do this half-assed…

During the process you may also discover that some words you wrote down are actually very similar descriptors.

Notice for instance that reliable, dependable and secure are very similar in nature, and so you may want to pick the most accurate word, and combine your definitions of some words into one or join them with backslashes.

i.e. Reliable/Dependable

What may start as a dozen or more descriptors can eventually be five or six, but it’s different for everyone, maybe you like having fourteen.

There is no minimum requirement nor limit on how many values you choose to describe and give personal meaning to, nor are there any ‘rules’ about what you can and can’t write.

At this point, there are few things that are worth doing as well:

  • Make sure these are written down somewhere and kept. I like to use Google Docs, because digital makes for easier review and editing at a later date, but a pen and paper works too.
  • In your calendar (iCal or Google Calendar) make a recurring note with a link to your document (if you choose digital) that reminds you to review your values every 3-12 months. You may want to review them more frequently at first and less as they become more defined and more ingrained in your memory.
  • When you review, consider the fact that your values can and do change. Some key moments in life that may lead to values changing include, marriage, new relationships, new friendships, new jobs, kids, retirement, etc… Look for ways to further simplify what you have written and combine certain values under a new name or descriptor. Perhaps there are new definitions to write. Perhaps your circumstances have changed. Sometimes it is worthwhile to go through this entire self-discovery exercise once every other year, or every five years, rather than just a periodic review.
  • Consider that depending on your frame of mind at the time of writing your values can change. Try to write out values when you’re in a good mood and frame of mind, rather than from a low mindset. When you review or update, try to do so under a similar context frame of mind. It’s a poor idea to make any changes or critical reviews in a low state of mind as well.
  • In some cases, you may want to go through this exercise separate of your spouse and then come together to share them. See where you line up and where you may be different, it’s a great exercise to go through in terms of better understanding yourself and your partner and where the overlap is. There is great value in this.
  • Use your values to create your other goals. For instance, if you write that health, wellness or fitness is something you value then take this process a step further and detail what needs to be done in order to maintain that value. Just don’t overload yourself with goals and objectives (easy to do with this exercise) and remember to stay focused on one goal/objective at a time.

Now, grab a pen and paper, set a timer for three minutes, and spend the next thirty minutes or so going through this process!