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Values Reflection Exercise, a Self-Knowledge Inventory
An exercise for understanding yourself and your Values
I grew up in family that emphasized the importance of goals, but over the years I became less interested in long term goals beyond my more immediate sense of “this is an interesting problem; how could I solve it?” The first problem I noticed with setting long-term goals is that most (if not all) implicitly relied on predicting my future knowledge, which I was hilariously terrible at predicting. Sometimes as soon as six months after setting a goal I would have to completely scrap it because I had learned something new that completely upset the assumptions of the goal I had made. After realizing this, I started setting shorter term goals instead. But as time went on, I’ve found that even setting short term goals is a less useful framing than I was raised to believe. Instead, every time I notice the seasons changing, I do what I call a Values Reflection or a Self-Knowledge Inventory. This is an introduction to the basic process I’ve been refining over the last 4 years to better know and understand myself. If you, like me, have a strong desire to know yourself then maybe you’ll find this Self-Inventory a useful tool too! To this day, almost every time I do this exercise, I learn something new about myself that then improves my future decisions and this exercise is one of the things I credit most with improving my ability to live a high-agency life where Wonder and Joy are the rule rather than the exception.
1. What are my Values?
Before doing anything else, spend some time writing down the things you believe you hold most sacred. Ask yourself questions like: What are the relationships I most Cherish? What do I most Fear? What are my Greatest Needs? Describe your ideal romantic partner. Describe your ideal friend. How would someone who’s just met you describe you? How would your closest friends describe you? Write a list of words that you believe best represent your current values. (e.g. Liberty, Security, Knowledge, Peace, Community, Joy, etc.) Take as long as you need, there’s no rush here! I’ve spent half a day on this part of the process alone before. The more times you do this exercise, the easier this step will become.
2. Document My Feelings and Decisions
The second part of the Self-Investigation process consists asking yourself a series of questions about your feelings since the last time you did this exercise (or, if this is your first time going through a reflection process like this, just pick an arbitrary length of time like 6 or 9 months. The length of time isn’t as important as the questions. If arbitrarily changing the time frame, even on a per-question basis, leads you to better answers: do it.) Once you’ve documented your feelings, ask yourself about the decisions you made that lead to those experiences. Add, subtract, and modify the questions as needed to lead you to more interesting answers. Let yourself get caught up chasing rabbit-trails. The point of this exercise is to grow your knowledge about yourself, not follow a predetermined path.
What were my emotional highlights and lowlights?
What did I truly enjoy? When did I experience seemingly ‘effortless’ Joy? What experiences allowed me to experience childlike Wonder? When was I most engaged with what I was doing? When did I feel in touch with my Best Self? When did I feel closest to those around me? When did I feel most disconnected from those around me? When did I feel isolated/lonely? When did my Worst Self manifest? When was I upset, disgusted, or disturbed? When did I feel the need to self-censor?
What decision(s) did I make that lead to these experiences?
When did I prioritize my own needs over those around me (and vice versa)? What tradeoffs did I consider or fail to consider? What predictions or estimates did I make in the moment that were (in)correct? What surprised me/what did I fail to predict? Did I trust my gut instincts in making this decision?
What were the value judgements I made leading up to these decisions?
e.g., I made X decision because I valued the opportunity to spend more time in shared Joy and Wonder with Y person. OR I made X choice because it felt right and I trusted myself, despite social pressure. I encourage you to frame your answers as “I chose X because Y.” If your goal is to learn about yourself, focusing on what you decided and were in control of is usually more useful than focusing on what others did.
What commonalities do I notice in the emotional highlights/lowlights?
Specific people? Similar situations or social dynamics? Similar activities or problem solving (or lack of acknowledgement of a problem)?
What commonalities do I notice in the times I made Good/Bad Decisions?
Which part of myself did I most trust to make this decision? Was I around specific people? Similar situations or social dynamics? Similar activities or problem solving (or lack of acknowledgement of a problem)? Similar state of mind?
3. What do I Actually Value?
The purpose of the this entire Self-Knowledge exploration is to learn about and better understand your actual self and values. Before regularly doing this exercise, I had a self-concept that turned out to be completely wrong. Remember the values you wrote down in Step 1? Well, it’s time to revisit them. Based on your answers in Step 2, are these values still reflected in your revealed preferences? (Are the decisions you made and the times you experienced joy and fulfillment in alignment with these values?) Are the experiences you enjoyed the most shared with the people you expected them to be with? As a bonus, ask a few friends what they think your values are. Spend time reflecting on what you spent time doing that you most deeply enjoyed or disliked. Were the decisions you made in alignment with these values? Consider both the Good and the Bad experiences and decisions. Most critically, are these your actual values or is it time to come up with a new theory of who you are and what you value?
This is an incredibly meta exercise, but you don’t have to get caught up in a personal crisis of “AHHHH I THOUGHT I WAS A GOOD PERSON WITH ALL OF THESE WONDERFUL HIGHER VALUES BUT I’M ACTUALLY NOT.” (Though that’s basically what I went through the first time I did this exercise.) You also have agency, and a huge part of this exercise is intended to bring clarity to the decisions you’ve made so that you can keep making Good decisions and fewer Bad ones. Over time, as you get to know your True Self, your Deepest Fears, your Highest Pleasures, you will naturally begin to make more decisions that you look back on favorably. It’s also important to not forget: the Self is not stable or static. You always can create a better Self. But the first step to creating a better you, is to acknowledge who and where you are now. Hopefully this process is as useful to you as it has been for me!