How To Identify Your Real Core Values

You are who you are.

If there’s a better you out there to become, it’s going to be found by traveling from where you are now to where you could be. That means knowing who you are now matters. This is the purpose of identifying your authentic core values.

(Authentic core values? Yep. There are two kinds, authentic and aspirational core values. The difference matters. Read why here.)

Today we move to the “how to” question.  How do you identify your core values?

Identifying Your Real Core Values

Carve out some time.  Bring your journal.  Or Evernote.  Or a yellow legal pad.  This is going to take some time and effort.  But the results are going to be worth it.

1. Find The Clues in Your Story.

Your authentic core values are embedded in the important choices and turning points in your life. In a journal, start brainstorming a list of the major decisions that you’ve made. Start today, and work backwards as far as you can remember. Include things like:

  • Big decisions you made.
  • Traumatic experiences and how you responded.
  • Critical points of transition in major relationships and why you think things went that way.

For me this list included:

  • Choosing to adopt a son.
  • Choosing to live in a community household.
  • Reacting badly when my leadership was questioned in my job.
  • Participating in a number of entrepreneurial non-profit start-ups.
  • A long-term relationship I’ve worked at with a very high-maintenance friend, even when other people suggested I ought to step back.
  • A number of times I let myself be taken advantage of financially by people I cared about.

2. Consider the Why.


Go through the list and consider why each of those moments matter to you. For each, reflect or journal on why you reacted the way you did or made the choice you made. What internal problem were you trying to solve? What were you trying to avoid? What were you trying to accomplish? As you reflect, try to narrow your motivation or reaction to a single word or phrase.

For example, one of my life events was choosing to adopt my son. I journaled on why this was important to me and surfaced a number of ideas. I’m adopted myself and wanted to pass on the belonging that was given to me. I know how adoption transformed my life, and am aware that I have the power to effect that kind of change for someone else. I wrote that I wanted to create belonging and new chances for someone. So, my key words for this experience were “belonging,” and “2nd chances.”

 3. Get The Unvarnished Outside View.

This is the hardest part. It requires a great deal of vulnerability.  Brainstorm a list of ten people who know you deeply, ideally over a long period of time. Ask each of them to reflect on their experience of you, and give you some feedback. Give them instructions something like this:

“I’m working on a project for my personal and spiritual growth and I’d like your help.  You see me from outside my head, which means you see me in ways that I don’t get to see myself.  If you’re willing to give me some feedback on how you experience me, that would be a tremendous gift.

I’d like you to email me the top 5 things you think motivate me.  These can be positive or negative.  They just have to be things that you believe–through your experience of me–motivate my choices and reactions.  And please, tell me the truth.  For each of the five, it would be helpful if you’d write a few sentences, explaining an example or two where you’ve seen this in me.

I promise to simply listen to your feedback without defensiveness. I may contact you with some clarifying questions, but I won’t question your experience or get defensive. I authentically want to know the unvarnished truth about how you experience me.  If you’re willing to support me in this way, it would be really helpful to get your thoughts back by (such-and-such a deadline.)”

4.  Gather Yourself.

Take the words and phrases you identified when you reflected on your story, and add to that words and phrases that best represent the feedback of your friends.  Your goal is a single list of words or at most two-word phrases.  These things can be positive or negative.  It doesn’t matter.  At this point it just needs to be clear.  In my process, I ended up with several pages of my journal covered in words and phrases.  When you’re done, you have a snapshot of how you are experienced by yourself and others.  That alone is a pretty significant thing and worth reflecting on and journaling through.

5.  Refine The List.


At this point you ought to have a pretty lengthy list.  If you followed the directions above, you should have more than 50 words or phrases.  Interesting, but far too many to provide focus.  Now we turn toward what really drives your heart.

First, do some weeding.  Cross out any words that simply do not resonate with your heart.  Be honest with yourself. You’re not crossing out words you don’t like.  You’re getting rid of words that you honestly believe aren’t core motivations for you. In my case, there were several words that didn’t seem to fit me.  But I journalled about each of them.  I prayed about them.  I even asked my therapist for her input before I was willing to take them off the list.

Second, identify the themes.  In your list you will find words and phrases that are similar or related.  These represent themes in your life.  Group these together and select a single word that represents this theme.  Choose a word that resonates with your heart.

In my case, the following were all on my list:

  • Forgiveness.
  • Marc Values grace.
  • Giving second chances.
  • Letting people off the hook.
  • Redemption.

My therapist and I decided that “Redemption” best represented the collection, and seemed to be an authentic motivation in my life.

When you’ve finished this process, create a new list from the themes you’ve identified.  By now the list should be considerably shorter.  Each word left represents a motivation or value that you connect with and that both you and others agree is true of you.

Third, determine the core.  From this list you want to select the 3, 4 or 5 themes that are the most powerful and central to your life.  Not the ones you like best.  Not the ones you wish were most true.  But the ones that have gotten the most stage time in your life, driving your choices over and over again.  How you get to this is up to you.  Journal on the themes and see what comes up.  Pray over them.  Ask a trusted counselor for input.  Then make your final selection.

6.  Express your “Working Core values.”

Now you have 3-5 themes that identify the core values of your life to this point.  If you’ve done the process honestly, these are your authentic core values.  They may all be wonderful things. They may not be.  So they don’t feel so cast in stone, we’ll call them your “working core values,” and keep in mind that they will evolve as you learn more about yourself and grow.

For each of these values, write a short statement that expresses the heart of the value.  It should only be a sentence or two.  Here’s how the theme of forgiveness and second chances turned out for me:

Redemption.  Forgiveness creates the opportunity for people, relationships and opportunities to be restored, opening the door to a better future.

Once you’ve crafted this statement for each value, you’ve finished the task. Now you have a clear, concise statement of your authentic core values.  That’s a pretty great accomplishment.  Congratulations.

Next, we’re going to talk about how you can use these in your life, and what to do if it turns out that you have core values you’re not that thrilled about.

This is part 3 of a 5 part series. Catch up here:

10 thoughts on “How To Identify Your Real Core Values

  1. OK, Marc, I copied your letter text word for word and sent it out to six people including one long-time client of mine. I can’t wait to see how this turns out. You rock, man.

  2. Very practical ways to find our core values. Knowing and following our core values are so important when it comes to living a significant life. Great post.

  3. So… I’ve been going through this process of looking at decisions/experiences to define my core values, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to 6. But I can’t figure out how to distill it down any further without losing part of who I think I am. So do you think 6 is okay, or am I not clear enough yet in my thinking and I’d do better with 5 or less?! 🙂

    1. 6 is a lot, but you don’t need to rush or stress over it. Getting clear on the central things that motivate us is a process. I’d recommend moving forward to write out and articulate the 6 as clearly as you can. Then live with them for a while. Read them through periodically and reflect on how they are showing up in your decisions. Remember that preferences, opinions, and even beliefs are different than core values. I have lots of beliefs, even more preferences. But I really only have 3 or 4 core values that keep showing up in my life over and over.

      Do you have a copy of “Discovering Your Authentic Core Values?” Or are you just using this series of blog posts?

  4. So far I’ve been using these blog posts. I feel like several of mine are related, so maybe they can be coalesced into an overarching one. I like your idea of sitting with it for a while. I don’t think I’m talking about beliefs, but I’ll look at them again with an eye toward that. Thanks!

    1. I had that exact same experience. As I played with the ideas, I was able to coalesce several into a shared over-arching value. But don’t force it. If you would email me so I have your email address, I’d be happy to send you a .pdf ebook version of the book. The book’s not long (70 pages) but it expands the blog posts with some additional steps and explanations that might be helpful to you. I’m thrilled that you’re working through the process.

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