When I was 20 years old, I was faced with the question: "What are your values?" I stopped dead in my tracks. How could I have lived 20 years of my life and never thought about this before? I quickly descended into a downward spiral during this existential crisis.
I tried all the cliche exercises. I looked at a big list of words, said which ones I most related to, and then ordered them appropriately. I did the exercise where you choose 20 values and one by one you give them up until you are left with just one. I did values quizzes. I did them all. I wasn't satisfied with my answers. I had learned words that I connect with, but I hadn't received a satisfying answer with the right motivations behind it.
The lack of reflection before picking really went against my grain. It sort of felt like I was arbitrarily picking values based on my current context. When I was in the exercise, was I: a student, a leader, a coder, a friend, a son? I needed a way to have consistency here. I needed a way to tie it all together to building a life I wanted to live. Which is when my big breakthrough question happened:
When are the moments in life that you feel most alive and why?
Now I expect a 5 pager on this in the next 20 minutes! Just kidding, these things take time. A great place to start is a mindmap of all those moments you feel most alive. Here's mine for reference:
From there I would suggest attaching a why to all these moments. For example, I love traveling to new places because I love to see new cultures and I am curious about how it will look and feel. I love that moment when I am at a blank whiteboard because I can dream up anything I want. I can strategically think through thousands of options and come up with a really novel solution that has never been tried before.
What I find is that your values start to come out when you start to think about the reasons why. For traveling, it comes down to curiosity and zest. For those whiteboard moments, it comes down to creativity and curiosity. Through this synthesis, the values start to overlap, and form a clearer picture. For me, here is the outcome:
Now with these in place, the beauty comes that you don't ever have to have regrets. Let me explain.
Anytime that I have to make a decision, I go through the following flow:
You take all the information you know about the situation, filter it through your values, and choose a decision that is most in-line with those values. If you do this, I do not believe you can have regrets. You might not have all the information or your values might be wrong for you at a given point in time...but you cannot blame yourself for that. Hindsight is 20/20 and you did all upfront work that you could possibly do to make the right decision.
Here's to operating in the gray areas of life and to making the most out of every opportunity.