What do you stand for? I was recently presented with this question, and not within the context of health. I’d soon come to learn that values are not context dependent. There are no professional vs personal values. Values are values. But how do you truly know what those are? I honestly didn’t know, until I answered this one question. And it’s not “what do you stand for?”

This seemingly easy question, “what do you stand for?” caught me off guard. Not initially though. At first, it seemed obvious. I found it easy to write a long list of values – honesty, collaboration, knowledge, compassion, etc. In fact, I scribbled 18 of them in my notepad. When challenged to narrow my list down to two, I realized that I don’t truly know how to identify my values.

“Values—the beliefs that are most important to you, that help you find your way in the dark, that fill you with a feeling of purpose.”

Brené Brown

All of a sudden, my long list seemed like nothing more than a bunch of feel-good words. They looked good on paper. And they resonated – for some reason or another. It wasn’t like I picked them blind-folded. But, did they define me?

Humans are complex, so picking two words to define me seemed ludaaa. By the same token, how could any human possibly live and embody 18 values equally? Surely, there was a way to uncover the two core values that gave rise to all the other values on my list.

To truly identify my values, I needed to spend uninterrupted time with complete focus on the task at hand (aka deep work). Equally as important, I needed direction. That direction came in the form of a question that made everything super clear:

Is this a filter that I use to make hard decisions?

This question changed everything – for me. I sifted through memories, and found practical circumstances where I was faced with hard decisions.

Hours later, I would surface with two words. I felt confident and satisfied. From my initial analysis, these two words encapsulated everything – they were the roots from which all other values grew. I was quite chuffed with myself in fact.

Understanding and Connection. Those are my values. Or so I thought.

Another round of analysis would challenge my answer. Is this a filter that I use to make hard decisions?

I thought I had answered this question already. But only at a surface layer. I returned to those same memories, and found myself digging deeper. What filter truly supported those hard decisions?


Really? Could it be? I felt a resistance to this answer. Not because I don’t value kindness. Most of my closest people would tell you that I’m kind. It would probably be the first thing that comes to their minds. But is it my filter? In disbelief, I quickly compared myself to all the people in my life who are kind, and thought “well, I’m not that kind, so kindness can’t be my core value.” But why not? I know better than to compare myself to others! This is what coaches help people avoid doing, and here I am (a coach) telling myself that I can’t live this value because I’m not as kind as my friend. Sheesh, that’s one heck of mental-emotional roller coaster, Stef.

When I considered kindness (truly considered it), it was like a domino chain reaction. Everything clicked. There was clarity in situations that were perviously clouded with confusion. Kindness and understanding are the values that help me navigate hard decisions. It doesn’t mean that I always act in alignment with these values. But it’s certainly easier to live fully into your values when you know and understand what they are!

Humans tell themselves stories to make sense of their lives. It’s comforting. We understand stories. But they’re not necessarily truthful stories. There’s no right or wrong way to do this kinda work, folks. Be as honest as you can. Keep peeling the layers back. Take a scientific approach and try to disprove your theory – just for fun. As you contemplate real examples, try to identify that filter or lens that helps you navigate this world. If anything, you’re just one step closer to better understanding yourself.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash