I recently traded emails with an old friend. We had lost touch with one another for a long time and met again somewhat accidentally.
While catching up after many years, we got into the perhaps inevitable discussion of choices. We spoke about the specific choices we had made during our long time apart, those we were in the process of making now, and then turned to the more general topic of how we know when our choices are the “right” ones, either while making them or with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps you have had a similar conversation with an old friend.
Our connecting again and conversation after so long led me to think about choices in general, and the correctness of our choices in particular. These topics are interesting ones to us all, and are almost certainly useful ones to think through in a thorough way. If you are a natural health practitioner, you know already that the path to greater health and well-being involves many, many choices.
Let me use my chance encounter with an old friend, and the thoughts and ideas it stirred in me, to share some ideas about choices and our mastery of them.
Importance of Clarity
As the article’s title suggests, I think it is worthwhile to start with the idea that our knowing what we want, our being very clear on our priorities, in crucial to any discussion of choices and our mastering of them.
This idea may seem obvious, in one sense, but when we look around us, we find that knowing what we want (and articulating it to ourselves clearly) remains a challenge for many, if not most, people. So, the importance of clarity, and the achievement of clarity, about what we want may not be so obvious after all.
On the other hand, we probably all know at least a few people who are very clear on their priorities, and among them, perhaps one or two exceptional people whose priorities are not only clear, but especially rich, heartfelt, and exciting too. When we observe these exceptional people, we often find that their lives operate at a higher energy level and even with a certain elegance that is missing in the daily lives of many people. We may sense a decisiveness and directness about them, a feeling of vision and mission that comes from being clear, and clear in a rich and heartfelt way.
These exceptional people are extremely important to all our lives and to our mastery of choice, and they are worth paying special attention to whenever we encounter them. So often, though, we see just the opposite in the people around us – approaching life choices and decisions with caution and hesitancy, with anxiety and fear perhaps, with inadequate clarity about what is best or needed, or with impulsiveness and an ambivalence regarding long-term outcomes. We can also see that when many people look back on past decisions, it is with confusion and regret, with denial and rationalization, and perhaps with a sense that something important was overlooked in their decision-making. In these cases, a clarity and richness of both mission and needed result is often lacking.
If this general portrait of people struggling with key life choices and alternatives describes you, at least in part, or people around you, and if you know someone who makes decisions much more effectively than most of us, I hope you will take some time to think about the process of making choices. By this, I mean considering how you might be making important decisions in your life today, how you might make them beginning tomorrow, and how you might better understand and even be one of those exceptionally clear people I spoke of.
I can help you in this process, by giving you a way of thinking about choices that may be very useful for you, now and in the future. This article is an extended one and may take more than one sitting to explore fully, but it may well be worth your time, given the importance of our topic. Life, after all, is a series of choices, as much as it is a series of experiences, and the mastery of life in many ways is really the mastery of choice.
Different Types of Choices
As I mentioned, in an obvious and not-so-obvious way, knowing what we want is very important to making progress toward mastering our choices, and giving us added certainty that our decisions are or were the right ones.
The philosopher in me knows that the question of knowing when our life choices are “right” or correct is old and tricky problem, one that has been mishandled in the past by very intelligent people. A satisfying resolution of the question or definition of the correctness of our choices is not obvious, as we all can see in people and the world around us. To move toward a satisfying resolution of how we can know our choices are right, we might simplify this problem a bit to give us greater clarity on where the most difficult issues lie.
If you think about decision-making in general, it is obvious that some of our choices are very easy to make and that there are clearly correct solutions in these cases. These choices occur in cases where there is available information to guide us, or a high probability of benefits to everyone (and costs to no one) impacted by our decision. Exercising care in crossing the street, avoiding dangerous animals, and picking the correct answer on multiple-choice tests are all examples where clear, benefit-based choices can be made quickly and with great confidence. They are forms of choice where the options before us have high contrast and the correct one is usually quite clear.
I should ass that we may not always make the correct choice in these cases, but the correct option is usually at least clear in hindsight or the necessary information. As we’ll see, not all choices and few important ones fit this description, but people often treat their decisions as if they do, with far-reaching implications for the quality of choices we make, and the resulting quality of life we enjoy.
Often, we must make important choices where the facts and benefits are not so clear, where the options before us do not have high contrast and where the correct choice is not obvious. These types of choices are common in life, and often involve our most life-influencing decisions and alternatives. This is of course where the problem of choice and clarity in decision-making lie. In these cases, we may have a high number of options before us and have (or at least perceive) a great deal of uncertainty regarding potential outcomes from our choices. Importantly, we may also have uncertainty about our true preferences regarding these outcomes too. Here, clarity and simplicity are not the rule, and our optimal choices may even be obscured by a simple focus on benefits and outcomes.
This second group of choices is, in fact, where we spend much our time in life, considering and reflecting on our decisions of the past, present, and future. It is here, too, that many of our most difficult, anxiety-inducing, and even life-defining choices lie. To help shed light and make progress on this most important area of our choices – to help us get at knowing what we want and then getting what we want – I would like to talk about two distinct ways of thinking about and making these more difficult personal choices and decisions, which are ultimately two ways of acting in the world and advancing the quality of our life.
Rational Choice In Modern Life
The first approach to choice I want to highlight is a very common one in our modern world. As I’ve alluded to already, it involves thinking about choices and decisions rationally or logically. This approach to choice, often advocated by financiers, mathematicians, and engineers, assumes that the right choices are inevitably those that advance our utility, or individual self-interest. All things being equal, this model of choice argues, we should choose the more advantageous path. Choosing a lower priced product, over an identical higher priced one, is an example of this model in action, even if a trivial one.
Before you dismiss this approach to decision-making as abstract and not relevant in real life, which is only partly true, I would like to return to my earlier reference to multiple-choice tests. Not only is this a common and concrete example of rational or logical choice, it is a form of deciding or format for choosing that pervasive in our modern school systems, and in many situations of choice we face as consumers and in working life. We are all now extensively trained and deeply experienced in this and similar types of choice, in rational methods of choice in other words, to the point where this once revolutionary method is often unconscious and hidden from us, and imbedded in the common sense of our times. Because of this, rational choice is more ingrained and ubiquitous in modern life than you might first think, and it often intrudes far more than you may realize into classes of decisions for which this method of choice is ill-suited.
As I suggested, simple choices, such as two identical products with different prices, lend themselves to calculation and benefit analysis, but are usually not especially interesting, anxiety-causing, or life-altering forms of choice, personally or philosophically. And they are not where the problem of mastery of our choices lies. We are all presented with some choices amenable to calculations of utility in this way, and we make them and move on, leaving us to lead lives full of choices that are simply not this simple. In actual life, our own especially, we only find all things equal in certain and often highly contrived circumstances.
From another perspective, though, rational approaches to choice have a great deal of merit. They are a functional solution to the problem of making choices, even very complex ones, and are a step ahead of divination and other appeals for supernatural guidance (which rational choice has now largely, though not entirely, replaced). Rational methods of choice allow both individuals and groups to act, and even social policy to proceed. People and organizations can analyze their options logically against pre-selected criteria, for example, and make choices in an understandable and repeatable way. It is a workable approach to choice, and reliable decisions, though not always optimal ones, are made in this way every day. Deciding which criteria to use in our rational decisions, of course, is often another matter entirely and an example of the more difficult and often non-rational form of choice intruding into our seemingly rational methods.
While rational analysis can make simple decisions adequately, and can be a functional approach to fairly complex choices, a philosophy of choice based purely on calculations of self-interest and measurable benefit (often called utilitarianism) suffers from at least two important shortcomings. These shortcomings are worth understanding. They may even be at the root of why you, and perhaps the groups and organizations you are affiliated with, can have such difficult times with many of the important choices you must make, and often can make poor and uninspiring choices after so much effort.
The first problem with rational decision-making methods, which some see as an elegant omission of sorts, is that they avoid or greatly simplify the thorny question of how we actually examine and determine our self-interest or utility (our underlying preferences or decision criteria) in practice. An economist might say there is simply no accounting for tastes and takes our stated preferences at face value. Implicit in this stance, however, is an inability or unwillingness to fully explain how we can know or see plainly our aims and preferences when making complex choices (our central issue in making many important choices). All of us have probably answered a survey at one point of another, providing answers that the surveyor took away as fixed data points, but which we may view as approximations only – as far from fixed, satisfying, complete, and final for us. This superficiality regarding preferences is imbedded in (and even encouraged by) most or all methods of rational choice. This may be fine for statistical purposes, but is usually not compelling enough or ideal in our individual circumstances, when we need to make complex choices and want clarity in or high contrast regarding our preferences.
Often, to address this shortcoming in rational decision-making, financial advantage or benefit is used as a proxy for our utility or preferences, as in the case of our identical products at different prices. We do this ourselves quite frequently and often unconsciously in daily life, in small and larger decisions, even though we know that optimizing financial outcomes can be a meager or even imprecise approximation of our true personal interests and preferences. Our world, after all, is replete with wealthy people who report living empty, meaningless lives, who regret past choices and crave new direction for their future. Even a casual observer of modern life can see the inherent limitations and frequent aimlessness and languor of economic man, or of recreational man as the former is becoming in our time. We must thus consider that there are important limits to rational consideration as a model for optimal choice in many domains of our lives, due to its avoidance or superficiality regarding the central issue of understanding our personal preferences.
In discussions with someone you know who has special personal clarity and makes consistently good choices, you are likely to find that rational calculation plays a part in their decision-making, but a small part only and no more. Instead, you may discover that they rely more on another human and quite personal way of deciding, giving them both needed clarity and confidence regarding their preferences, and energizing their decisions and their lives.
Social And Cooperative Choices
A second problem with rational models of choice has to do with the way they describe, or fail to describe, how we can and do individually make complex social choices that lie beyond or even in contradiction to our personal or financial self-interest, choices that we in fact make quite often. Obvious examples include giving to charities, setting aside land for preservation, or even helping a stranger in need. These social choices can be among the most important decisions we must make as individuals, so this is a large class of choices not to get right or explain fully.
Economic or utilitarian orthodoxy has generally avoided this problem by suggesting that a separate mechanism for social choices is not necessary. The theory goes that in a world of calculating, self-interested people, the overall collective good will be advanced indirectly, most of the time at least, simply through the sum of our individual, and admittedly sometimes competing, self-interested choices. The ordered, decentralized structure of wild nature is often offered as evidence of this principle of functional selfishness in action, of the operation of an “invisible hand” at the collective level resulting from individual actions.
The proposition that we can achieve optimal social or environmental harmony through competing selfishness leaves many people unimpressed, if not deeply troubled. Even with the many benefits of using logic over divination, this idea seems a stretch and return to metaphysics, the limits of reason revealed and its power finally bounded. As an ideology, and through its wide circulation and acceptance among people today, the idea of harmony through rational selfishness certainly provides license for many of the excesses and indulgences, for the banality and contrivance, and for the general disdain for public matters of our modern times. “Greed is good” or “look out for number one” are familiar platitudes that do not ring fully true, but because of their familiarity and assumption that this is how others act, we find ourselves in world today where there is now more greed and less good -now masses of isolated people where communities and extended families once stood.
Theories of competing, rational self-interest as a mechanism for social good overlook at least three facts of the world we inhabit: 1) cooperative behaviors abound in nature – nature is not strictly competitive as was once thought, 2) extra-personal and cooperative feelings abound inside each of us – we humans, too, are not strictly competitive and even only partially and situationally so, and 3) material gain has diminishing returns and provides only fleeting impacts on the happiness of people – we need more than a material existence (comfort and security) to be joyful and fulfilled.
Combining these ideas, we should not be surprised to find that strictly self-interested choice creates less than ideal outcomes in the world. It leaves people feeling far less than satisfied with and fulfilled in their choices and lives, and with the world their choices combine to create. After all, who wants to live in a society where everyone is cool and calculating, guarded and competitive? And yet it is just such a world we create when we focus primarily on rational choice and self-interest as a model for human life. Living in our reasoning, or perhaps as servants to it, we are reduced from gregarious and communicative human beings to far more needy and greedy animals than we naturally are. Our modern times are, in many ways, a tyranny of utilitarianism.
Contemporary proponents of self-interested individual and social choice borrow directly from Jeremy Bentham, John Locke, and Adam Smith’s eighteenth century mercantile and utilitarian ideas, including Smith’s notion of an invisible hand guiding purely self-interested people to optimal order. People of our time do this, perhaps not knowing or wanting to know, that these ideas were factually undermined a hundred years after Smith by Charles Darwinian and the evolutionary and life sciences that have ensued since Darwin. In modern scientific observations of nature and modeling of natural organization, including human society, broadly cooperative structures are the norm with all higher animals. These partially or wholly cooperative systems always outperform strictly competitive and self-interested ones. Still, the lure and philosophy of rational self-interest has great momentum in our time, though once a liberal force in society and now a conservative one. This ideology has significantly shaped our modern social environment, including the way we often make choices today.
Rationalistic approaches to choice suffer from at least the two problems I have described and, in all but the simplest decisions, often leave people feeling unsatisfied and that they have missed out on important opportunities for more progressive and fulfilling choice. People may even feel dehumanized by the approach and resulting choices in their lives, and rightly so. Rational and selfish calculation are almost certainly not the primary operating models of the exceptional people (and organizations) we know, who have found an alternative way to be clear on their preferences and become alive and energized in a higher way. I should point out, before we go any further, that these people need not be exceptions. The method they use and the results it provides are available to us all.
We might all agree that rational calculations of our personal interests play a large part in some of our choices, or some part in large numbers of our choices, but are left with the nagging feeling that they do not cover all our choices or describe the true decision-making of real human beings. In truth, we do not feel wholly or even largely rational when facing difficult, life-determining choices. Ideas about rational choice are thus superficial, and do not encompass how preferences are revealed or revealed optimally in our lives. Rational method does not satisfactorily reach into the total process of human choices, or help us make truly satisfying decisions. Our reason, in fact, always requires us or others to first “frame” decisions and choices (to come up with criteria, for example), in order to make our choices amenable to logic. But many choices do not fit easily into neat frames or are significantly altered or distorted by them. And how, we must ask, is it that we are to choose our frames, if logic is of little help?
For many people, something important and fundamental, something more than half of the process of successful choice, is missing in rational models of human decision-making. In the rationalists’ theories, our human nature is abstracted and made distant, and is perhaps even unwelcome. As this approach dominates in our time, we are left searching to understand why some people make fulfilling choices, consistently and with confidence, and live far better lives through these choices. We must return to our earlier question: how can we know when our choices are “right,” and thereby make more optimal and satisfying choices in our lives?
The Alternative Of Value-Based Choice
The way to get past the difficulties and incompleteness of rational models of human choice is not to work around their edges, and risk becoming mired there, or to criticize these ideas on their own terms, an important lesson for many fields. Instead, it is preferable to step back from rationalistic ideas of choice altogether, and reconsider the question of correct or optimal decisions from other, entirely different points of view.
I want to take this approach and use it to reconsider choice from a very different standpoint – from that of our personal values and feelings, from our emotions, rather than from our rationality and calculations of benefit. Both reason and feeling, of course, lie within us. In our modern world, we have been conditioned to give primacy to our reason and to treat rationality as more objective and dependable than our emotions, even though the case for the primacy and objectivity of reason is quite problematic. As we’ll see, the effect of this simple change, of moving to the conscious consideration of our feelings and values in the process of choice, are profound. The change affects both how we make many of our choices and what we achieve with them.
Through intersecting natural and cultural processes that result in our human nature and systems of human nurture, deeply held values and feelings reside in all of us. While these values and feelings may be discounted or marginalized by modern rationalists and utilitarians, as they were by stoics and cynics in an earlier time in history, our human feelings and values are actually quite consistent, across people and cultures. Our values, in fact, can be shown to fall within identifiable bounds, just like our patterns of reasoning, and form clear and similar patterns in all human societies.
We all have values. They inform but lie outside of our reasoning. We can define values has deeply held feelings of principle and personal preference. These feelings come from our emotional center, an older part of our brain than our reasoning, and they speak to us primarily through the voice of conscience. In truth, our values and deeper feelings have primacy over reason. They are more important than our reason to our fulfillment, since feeling is what is fulfilled in the act of fulfillment, even as reason plays an important role in our lives and choices.
For people raised in and living amidst rational methods, the direction I have taken may seem like a return to divination. In a sense it is, except that now the foretelling I propose is one that occurs entirely within us and no longer involves the extra-personal appeals of our past (and some cases, our present). In truth, personal values and feelings are what we use to frame choices for rational calculation, even if the rationalist takes them as given, as data points, and makes no attempt to examine their nature, structure, and source. Emotion is the institution of all our life aims and personal standards, and we transgress our values and feelings only with great risk to our happiness and even to our own identity (possession of which we often correctly describe as having “integrity”). Our values and feelings are mysterious and unreliable only to people who have not examined and cultivated them, or who have been taught to think and act in this way, which are many of us today.
In our alternative, value-based approach to choice, our primary focus shifts from external calculation to internal examination, comparing and ultimately using our personal values and aspirations to guide our choices and decisions. This process involves cultivating our emotions in way that has important parallels to the manner in which contemporary rationalistic thinking leads us to cultivate and use our reasoning and intellect (over the course of many years of schooling and then through ongoing life experiences in a rationalist system of society). Though each process of cultivation has similarities, what is cultivated and how it impacts our ability to make optimal and fulfilling choices is very different.
As we seek out and begin to better understand our deeper feelings and personal values, we often find almost immediately that they are much richer, more complex, and more orderly than we might have first thought. We learn that our core values themselves are remarkably constant over time, despite our changing circumstances and opportunities for expressing them, and that our values are in fact reliable allies in our personal (and group) decision-making. We even learn that our deeper feelings are foundational to and inseparable from whom we are as people and the ways in which we can fulfill ourselves. In the end, we find it is through our values and deeper feelings, first and in many ways only, that we can make “right” choices, reliably and repeatedly, as both people and groups of people.
For many people today, brought up in modern rationalism, or in traditional or other social systems that impose fixed values and thinking on their members, the exploration of our personal values and inner feelings is inevitably new and often awkward at first, even as it proves surprising and soon forms a new knowledge of ourselves and the world. As this exploration deepens, as we gain comfort with and understanding of our feelings and better understand and appreciate more deeply our own emotions, and those of others, we can observe directly how our values are actually more central to us, more critical to our person and well-being, and steadier and even more reliable than our rational or calculating intellect. In fact, cognitive science can demonstrate that the regions of our brain that feel and value are deeper, older, more constant, and more central to us than the portions of our brain we use to calculate and pursue self-interest.
Connecting, or re-connecting, to our inner values and feelings, which lie below our moods and impulses, to the deeper parts of our brain and self that hold and engender our constant values and compelling feelings, reveals to us in degrees that the calculating, self-interested part of us – and the at times clever, greedy, envious, and even anxious and fearing part of us – is a part only, not our whole, and certainly not our center.
Modern science has in recent years validated what thoughtful people have long known: that our brains have both emotional and intellectual centers, that both are essential to satisfying and fulfilling human life, but that we often dismiss or overlook our more central emotions and feelings today and at our peril, at great potential cost to the quality our lives, individually and collectively. To explore this idea, take a moment to reflect on the people we discussed before, those exceptional people you know that have clarify and richness of direction in their lives.
Perhaps you will begin to see this alternative approach to choice at work and emerging in your understanding of their lives and choices. Perhaps what is different about them is that they have a connection to and clarity about their values and feelings, in ways that many other people don’t today – allowing them to create patterns of choices (affirmative and negative ones) that act from and work to fulfill these values and feelings, and that generally bring a sense of knowing what is “right” (not morally, but practically, in terms of activating their values) in their personal aims and priorities.
On closer examination and in discussions with people you recognize in this way, you may well see that their choices and decision-making are actually far from perfect, even that they have made choices, maybe confidently and decisively, that they would like to take back or that have had unexpected or unintended consequences. And yet, perhaps, they may still feel good in important ways about these less than ideal choices too, that they were made in truth to their values and were “right” at the time. You may also find that they have made many more good choices than bad ones, many more satisfying then unsatisfying ones, and that they have been able to learn and move on from their mistakes more quickly than others, aided by their internal compass, by the strong personal values they are living with and through.
Connecting To What We Want
If you are coming to the topic of choice for the first time, I know I have given you much to consider already, much that is central to our lives and fulfillment, and perhaps this feels a bit overwhelming. But there is still one other topic we must cover to reach our goal of understanding and fostering correct and more optimal choice, We must discuss how we can best connect to our own values in a direct and powerful way, especially if our values and the process for reaching them are unclear to us.
As we have discussed already, making this connection to our inner values is not obvious and is even widely de-emphasized in the world today. But such connection is central and even critical to making more optimal choices in our own lives, and to creating the more energized and satisfying lives you see and suspect is possible for you too. The truth is that finding and acting on our values is both very easy and somewhat difficult at the same time, like all things that are basic to life but unfamiliar to us at first. Consider the years of training we all have had to walk or to talk, or to reason effectively. And, in all these examples, we inevitably still find room for improvement, but nevertheless use these abilities each day of our lives. Seeking and articulating our inner values is much like this – simple in one sense, and yet real work in another, and always with room for improvement.
If you are willing to start slowly and work gradually to fluency in understanding and acting on your values though the choices you make, I can offer fairly straightforward guidance that will help you begin this life-long and life-enriching process learning and self-fulfillment. Once you have begun to work at uncovering your values, you can then personalize and deepen your approach on your own or with others over time. The guidance I have in mind is a four-step process for uncovering and validating your inner personal values, which I have framed as fours A’s only to help you remember them and not for their literary merit: 1) Access, 2) Articulate, 3) Act, and 4) Affirm.
In reading this article, you have perhaps already begun to “access” your own inner values in a new way, to reflect on seek and out your feelings. Perhaps you are relatively clear about your personal values. Or perhaps I have begun to make you wonder how well you know them and if you are operating with only a superficial sense of your real underlying values. Understanding our values is something we all have the ability to do, and yet it is something few do deeply, and none of us ever finally and completely. Life and new experiences often force us to access and examine our values in new ways.
If you would like to better access your values and feelings, try to come to yourself and the world around you, beginning right now, with new curiosity – more as what is often described as a learner, rather than as a knower. We are all often raised to put a premium on and feel pride in knowing, but every instance of knowing comes from learning and thus learning is a more important and central human attribute. To commit to new life of perpetual learning, in other words to unknowing and always knowing tentatively and open-endedly, is a big step for many people and often contrary to their upbringing as I suggested. But turning to life as a learner is the universal price for and beginning of new and accelerated understanding, growth, and maturation.
We all know, of course, but compared with what we could know, or what we do not know, our knowledge is always a small thing, capable of vast expansion or transformation. To become a learner, to commit to lifelong and day-long learning, and then to focus our quest for learning on what you and others value, in different circumstances and over the time, begins the process of more deeply accessing your values. It then sets the stage for you to live and act directly from this deeper and broader part of you, and to gain and create greater depth and breadth in your life as well.
“Articulating” your values is the next step, as you look for and gradually access your inner values and feelings across the full range of daily life. This part of the process of understanding our values often takes time, though sudden insights along the way are the norm. It is worth noting here that our values are often locked from us in the silent, unconscious part of our brain that lies beneath our obvious thoughts and feelings. When our values are expressed consciously, this often occurs at unexpected times and in unexpected ways, and even often imperfectly and awkwardly at first. Articulating our values is thus inevitably an iterative process, as we attend to and learn from the voice of our conscience and the depths of ourselves, and gradually assemble the mosaic of feelings and imperatives that underlie us and reveal who we really are. As I said before, this process is also an unending one, especially as we are confronted with new experiences in our lives.
To begin articulating your personal values, a technique many people find useful is writing down their “key words.” To do this, pick the 4-6 words that most describe you and what you value, particularly when you are at your personal best. Don’t worry about forming a complete or coherent sentence – just a few independent words are fine to start. And limit yourself to just a few words, forcing you to choose the ones that are most important, the ones that most deeply describe you and what you are about, the ones that cannot be erased without misunderstanding you. Live with your list for a time and edit it whenever you want.
You may well find that about half of the words on your list settle down quickly and do not change very much, but other words need editing and revision before they settle down too, and are just right at describing you and your values. Stay at this exercise and eventually you will get to a set of words that do not or only rarely change, to a few words that really do describe or define you at a deep level. Once there, you might use your words to create a personal mission statement, which is simply a short paragraph expressing what is central to you and your life, and summarizing where you are going and what you want to achieve.
In formulating your personal mission statement, you should again expect editing, again for accuracy but now for eloquence too, until the words of your personal mission equally “settle down,” which I assume you realize means that they align with and fully express your deeper feelings and emotions. As your mission statement takes shape, since it will likely be a living document that you edit periodically, you can begin the third step, of “acting” on your values. You might begin this by creating an action plan and beginning to tackle needed changes to make your life more in harmony with your values and emerging mission. In contemplating such new choices, it is often wise to start with small but still important decisions that provide rapid feedback, ones that allow for learning and adjustment.
This brings us to the last step, “affirming,” which also takes time and which we will return to each time we feel the need or desire to re-articulate our values. That said, you may have begun to affirm your most basic values even before you have adequately articulated them for the first time. Affirming our values, however, ultimately comes though action, though choosing or deciding based on how we perceive our values and mission, and then watching and evaluating how we feel about the consequences and process of these choices.
Inevitably, and throughout our lives, we will make mistakes in articulating our values and especially in our making of specific choices, but it is only though the process of choices and their consequence, through action and learning, that we can come to know clearly what our deepest values are, who we are, and come to trust both our values and our selves amidst our often changing and unpredictable external environment (which we can never fully know or control).
Once We Know What We Want
With our values accessed and articulated, and gradually acted on and affirmed, and with a bit of clear reasoning and the attitude of a learner to aid us in our lives, choices and paths to new and more energized ways of life almost inevitably open up to us.
In my own experience, both in my personal life and in my work as a coach and counselor, I have found that when we tap into our inner values and feelings, into what we are “really all about,” we reach more deeply into our larger, truer, and more constant selves. The near immediate result is that our personal lives, and even our personal experience of life itself, are changed and enlarged forever.
Once we know what we most want, once we have a clear connection to our personal values and can act from them consistently, our lives become more compelling and self-encompassing, more satisfying and fulfilling, and more heartfelt and inspired. We become inspiring to others too, and decidedly less fearful, calculating, and guarded in the world and in our relationships. We become deepened and more centered as people, more alive in the deeper and more central parts of ourselves, and through this deepening and centering, become larger as people, our selves changed and our lives re-energized.
Our values, we find, are indeed valued, and are not to be confused with our surface feelings and fleeting vacillations in mood. Our values are trustworthy, essential to a full and fully human life, and are certainly not to be feared, dismissed, or taken as given. They are in fact fundamental to successful living, to successful choices and to the successful self, to the mastery of our life and the many life choices we must make in our own mastery. Through our values, we become our own wellsprings, and wellsprings for others. The rationalist or utilitarian view overlooks the fact that we are all naturally evolved for and universally esteem intense social and even self-transcendent values as humans, and that our natural inclination to care for others is our true utility – to others and to ourselves – in our natural state, which is human society and social life.
Practically, as we explore and cultivate our personal values, we learn over time to accurately name our values and then to envision more idealized ways of living through them, ways of living that are more true to our deeper feelings and selves. We learn to act and make choices increasingly from values, rather than reacting impulsively or only rationally to our surroundings and circumstances. Through this process of learning, we even may begin to separate ourselves from the mental and material clutter around us. Our actions and aspirations then become strangely more principled and more personal, and less calculating and generalized. We become both more focused and more receptive, seemingly contradictory attributes to our reason, but not to life lived in a heartfelt way.
As we learn to live with and from our values, we gradually reach into what we want, what we really want, what we want in a most deep and personal and non-negotiable way. We reach a point where we know what the fulfillment of our values entails and requires in our life – amidst our circumstances, which may change, and even if the path to what we want, and our life itself, are always unfolding and never completely clear. Our choices thus become inherently “right,” even if they are always nuanced, probabilistic, and iterative. We make choices and mistakes, we learn and we live, in a good and fulfilling way.
As I said to my old friend, once you know what you want, really want, the path to it has a way of opening up for us, even if this is clear to us only once we have traversed this new path a bit. Our values open paths for us and light our way too, sometimes dimly, at other times brightly and in ways we cannot deny, unless we are inclined to deny ourselves.
Many Paths To The Heart
For me, periodic time in nature, time walking, alone or with friends, is a way of re-finding or reminding myself what I really want, of what my innermost values are and what they compel me to do with my life, in the circumstances of my life, what choices I must next make to be true to my values and self. Walking with my values, on country footpaths and in mountain trails, in a sense, is a metaphor for the larger process of living with my values in the course of my life.
If you walk regularly, and adventurously, you know there are many “right” choices that allow us to keep walking enjoyably in the unfolding natural landscape. The world is rich in this way and offers this great wisdom to the attentive traveler. And so it is, I suspect, in all our lives too. Acting from our values, acting even with indifference to old plans and obvious paths at times, there are always many right choices that allow us to keep living, genuinely and honestly – in harmony with our values and in a “settled down” way. Once we are living with and from these values, as when walking adventurously, the world is rich and seems forever unfolding.
I would encourage you to spend a few minutes now, making a list of your five or six deepest values, so you can live with your list and refine it over the next few weeks. Find the few simple words that most deeply describe who you are and what you stand for as a person. Perhaps these names of your values will coalesce and become quite vivid, as they do for me, on long walks. Perhaps you will emerge one day, more whole and complete in your values, interconnected in your feelings and connected to a personal life mission.
When you reach the point of a sense of personal mission, I will challenge you to live not just with your words but through it, to live aligned with and acting from your deepest values, and to let your words and values live through you, even if this way of living seems awkward at first and takes time to master. Ultimately, what is at stake for you, and all of us, is a new and more satisfying and larger way of living. It is a way of life better than being led by our often superficial calculations and reasoning, or by the vagaries of supernatural divination.
Once you know what you want, really want, or perhaps once you know who you are, really are, and once you are acting from and through your deepest personal values and aspirations, your life will be new, I am sure. And it will be new in ways that neither of us can calculate nor foretell.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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