Are Your Core Values Real or Aspirational?

You live according to your core values.

I’m not saying you should live by your core values or that you need to dream up a list of core values to live by. I’m telling you one of the most painful truths about life: You already live according to your core values. Already. Every day.  Show me your life and I will show you your core values.

Let’s back up a moment.  Core values are a hot topic these days.  Amazon presently sells over 2600 books with the word “Core Values” in the title. Nearly every corporation has a brochure or plaque or page in the employee handbook that present a shiny bullet-point list of core values.  A few years ago this started becoming popular in churches.  Nowdays any church without a clearly presented list of core values runs the risk of being accused of lack of focus.

Being values-driven is important, but having a well-articulated list of qualities that you or your company hope to live by doesn’t get the job done.  You have to ask what it is that you really have there on your list.  

What most people don’t understand is that there are really two different kinds of core values.

What we aspire to may have nothing to do with our actual lives.


That’s right.  Two kinds of core values.  Aspirational and Authentic.

The vast majority of core value lists floating around out there are aspirational core values.  

They are values that the person or company ardently wants to be true.  But they are not actually true.

Many years ago I was a member of a large church that hired a new senior pastor.  During the hunt they expressed that they had a core value of outreach.  They wanted to grow.  They hired a leader who was passionate about that mission.  But when that pastor began making changes so that the church could more effectively reach people the truth emerged.  Resistance, undermining behavior, and exclusivism became more and more apparent.  The influential core of the church didn’t really want to grow.  They wanted to be safe, surrounded by people just like them.  They imagined that they held a core value of outreach when really they lived from a core value of comfort.

An aspirational core value isn’t a bad thing; it’s a great tool for casting vision.  But without clarity an aspirational value can mask the real values that are driving you or your organization.

Who you really are is who you really are.

Authentic core values are (unfortunately) the more powerful kind.  Why?  Because these are the values that really, truly motivate your current behavior.  Sometimes these values lead to really wonderful, noble acts.  Other times they lead to choices that we’re ashamed of.  They represent what is authentically true about us; both what is great and inspiring, as well as what is shadow.

Here’s an example: I have an authentic core value of reconciliation.  Sounds good, right?  Especially for a pastor.  I’ve experienced powerful reconciliation in my life and seen how transformative it can be.  I’ve thought long and hard about the ethics, philosophy and theology of forgiveness.  I even have the example and teaching of Jesus to validate and guide this value.

Years ago I had the brutally painful experience of being profoundly betrayed by two close friends.  My heart was crushed.  There were serious consequences in my life and circle of relationships.  Yet as I wept and worked through the pain and grief, this value kept me from falling off the rails.  When the grief had finally gone, I was able to experience and be a part of conveying reconciliation with these two friends.  While our relationships are much different now, that experience was transformative for all of us.  That’s a time when this value led me well.

Another time, I found myself caught up in a controversy around behavior that I and some others found offensive and hurtful.  I knew I needed to have some conversations with people.  I felt the sense of urgency in my heart that I’ve come to recognize as an important intuition, maybe even God’s prompting.  But I didn’t want to see these friends alienated from each other.  At the time it seemed like avoiding the conflict would allow us to move more quickly to reconciliation.  What happened instead was that the hurt grew deeper, and even more people ended up being hurt.  I allowed this value (or a self-justifying version of the value) to lead me to a choice I am still sad and ashamed about.

This is the thing about your authentic core values: They motivate the choices you make.  Both good and bad choices. These are not a set of hopeful ideals some imagined better version of your self lives by. These are the real values at the core of who you are.

So why not aspire?

I want to suggest that your authentic core values are more important than any values you aspire to.  How can this be?  Doesn’t this undermine the idea of life change?  Growing?  Becoming a new creation?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why.

If you want to change, you have to know where you’re starting.  Wanting to travel to Chicago isn’t enough.  You have to know where you’re starting from, so you can plan the trip.

This is the same for core values.  For example, if I aspire to be a forgiving person that’s great.  But until I understand that I am liable to use forgiveness as a mask for avoiding conflict, I can’t grow more healthy in my relationships.  But once I know that this is true, I have the ability to evaluate the situation I am in.  I can decide whether I am avoiding necessary conflict or seeking true reconciliation.  Knowing this has allowed me to become much more authentically forgiving, where I can forgive without held-back bitterness or resentment.

Why does this matter?

Identifying your authentic core values is incredibly important if you want to live an intentional, wholehearted life. Knowing what drives you allows you to be thoughtful about your actions, instead of living from reaction. Knowing that your values have a shadow side allows you to step away from harmful choices, fully aware of what you could do and choosing not to do it. Naming your values allows you to re-envision a better, healthier future for yourself.  This won’t be an idyllic imagined future, but a real future connected to who you actually are, where your God-given best self gets more of the stage time.

In eighteen years of working spiritual growth and transformation I’ve seen this:  When people grow, sometimes they become something altogether different than what they were before.  But more often than not, they become a better, more focused, more life-giving version of who they were to begin with.  If you believe that God wires us up from the beginning, that would only make sense.  

The Bible talks a lot about redemption, not much about transmutation.

If you’re wanting a more intentional life, a more wholehearted spiritual journey, then this is a good place to start. Get clear about the values that drive you.  If you’re ready for the focusing clarity that comes with knowing your values, my next post will give you some ideas about how you can identify them. It’s not a quick or painless process. But it is the beginning of partnering with God in the redemption of who you are.

This is part 2 of a 5 part series. Catch up here:

8 thoughts on “Are Your Core Values Real or Aspirational?

  1. Thanks Marc. Many years ago I wrote a personal “success statement”. Here it is:
    “Succes to me is…Being in touch with Childlike Wonderment, Independence, Creativity and Uniqueness. Building intimacy and generating harmony. Bringing Variety, Challenge and Recognition into my life, while making a difference in the lives of others.”

    I think it was pretty authentic at the time but I haven’t really looked at it or updated it in years. I look forward to reading your next post and identifying my “current” authentic core values.

    1. Hey Kim, thanks for sharing that.  Knowing you, I’d say it still seems to be true of you.  The idea of sitting down with it and reflecting on where you’re at now is a good one.  (My next post will be about this process.)  I wonder if you could take these very broad themes and get it down to something tighter and more specific?  The challenge with value statements that are very broad is that it’s easy to justify anything under them, and then they stop providing guidance in your life.  The more specific and clear they are, the more they can help you make decisions in your day-to-day opportunities.

      1. I like that idea. I will check out the next post and see if I can hone mine in a little. (although I am MUCH more comfortable being able to justify everything I do! :))

  2. Marc – spot on: “You already live according to your core values.”  I agree 100%.  Many of us have values that we aspire to, but our behavior reveals what our real values are.  Values define the boundaries of behavior, determine our priorities and drive all those little decisions day to day decisions.  

    1. Hey Greg – Thanks for stopping by.  I’ve participated in a lot of “core value processes” in my life both personally and organizationally.  And it always struck me as a disconnect that those conversations were almost always about things we wanted to be or hoped to be.  I was a part of creating some pretty inspiring core values statements.  But they had nothing to do with our DNA as  an organization, or who I really already was.  When I got to do the process I lay out here, it was so encouraging to me.  It seems to me that starting with where you really are is a much better launching point if you’re wanting to change your future.  Does that resonate with your experiences?

      By the way, if you like what you see here, I’d be honored if you’d subscribe.  Have a great day!

  3. Just want to say thanks for clarifying the distinction between aspirational and real core values. I’m on my way over to Part 3 right away to keep moving into a “more intentional life, a more wholehearted spiritual journey.”

    1. Hey Karen, it’s an important distinction, don’t you think? In some ways it was a bummer to discover, because it meant that some of my core values weren’t everything I’d hoped they’d be. But the truth is always the best medicine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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