The Definition of Values

Your personal values are what you identify as guiding principles in your life. There are many words often used to describe values, like motivations and goals. These terms are used synonymously among academics when describing human values. In short, values are motivations that represent an outcome we are aiming to achieve or maintain in our own lives.

However, when you ask someone about his or her values, 99% of the time, someone will usually rattle off a list of morals. Most people tend to think that the nature of values is about morality. However, if we're using the prevailing academic wisdom on values, then morals are only one component of the nature of values. All morals are values (in that they represent a motivation), but not all values are morals (in that there are many other motivations well beyond morals).

Underneath the large umbrella of values are two domains:

  1. Values of the ego and self (e.g. success, ambition, pleasure, etc.)
  2. Values that are more altruistic in nature (e.g. protection of the environment, social justice, equality, etc.).

You might be asking is there any structure and organization to the nature of values? The answer is yes. Social psychologist, Shalom H. Schwartz, theorized that human motivation can be distilled into a framework of 57 individual values and 10 value themes. You can download this list of values for free or check out our article on the list of values.

How Do You Identify Your Personal Values

Before you dive into any values discovery work, there are a couple of key concepts that are important to the process. First, you have to know how to spot your motivations, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through success and struggle.

Success & Struggle

Your personal values tend to show up in your life through success and struggle (sometimes referred to by life and career coaches as "peaks and valleys"). Success and struggle are good indicators of when your true motivations are being fulfilled or not.

People often witness their values as they experience success and struggle (sometimes referred to as peaks and valleys). Success and struggle are good indicators of when your motivations are being fulfilled or not.

When we feel a state of flow in our lives, there is success. When we have unmet needs, there is often struggle or tension—both of these areas are expressions of your values. Listen to them, there is power in their message.

Here are a few questions you can ask to help you identify your values:


  • What are the peak experiences in your life? Your moments of success.
  • What values do you think are expressed in your moments of success?
  • What do you do well?


  • What are the low points in your life when your needs are unmet? Your moments of struggle.
  • What values do you think are expressed in your moments of struggle?
  • What do you wish you had more of in your life?

Use the list above as a reference to narrow down your top 5 to 10 core values as a guide. Your moments of success and struggle may give you some clues about what truly motivates you.

Must-Have vs. Meaningful

Sometimes when people do the above exercise, they'll come up with a long list of values and might have difficulty narrowing down their core values. The challenge is that we often mix things we can't live without with things that we can negotiate.

So, there's one more lens we can apply to this activity to help get to your true, core values. The lens of must-have vs. meaningful. Your core values are your must-haves. Everything else meaningful or less. You might be asking, how do you tell the difference?

  • Must-have value = things you do, need, or think of just about every day
  • Meaningful value = high priority, but not done, needed, acted upon, or thought about every day

If you're ready to take your values discovery to the next level, you might want to take the Schwartz Values Survey or get a copy of The Values Deck to evaluate your personal values even further.