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The Big-picture Value of Little-picture Values

Wednesday February 26, 2020

“What are your values?”

Lately I’ve been reflecting on this question. The nature of the question and the usual answers trouble me a bit, especially after recent progress in cataloguing my interests, which was very much a values-related exercise. (I highly recommend that exercise by the way, if you could use some more energy and enjoyment in life.)

First, when asked “what are your values,” it seems like no one ever answers with little-picture values like, “I value golf,” or “I value donuts,” or “I value spy films”. They’d get laughed out of the room, or possibly even rebuked, especially in a corporate setting.

Instead people will naturally use big-picture words. “I value personal growth.” “Learning.” “Passion.” “Creativity.”

Sure, those are passable answers, I guess. They also lower the mental overhead of finishing a simple group exercise. That’s for sure…

“Creativity? Oh, that’s nice. Who’s next?”

But I’ve never heard anyone talk about the qualitatively frustrating results and potential costs of discussing values at this level. (By the way, I discuss values all the time with my coaching clients, and this also inspires my thinking here…)

First, a big-picture, vague-wording bias can make it hard for individuals to act on their values. A vague word like “passion” looms large as a nebulous cloud of things. And which of them should you choose and act on? Where do you even start with that? Do you remember them all? And which do you choose to the exclusion of which other passion-related thing?

In that way, the issue of acting on values can become front-loaded so heavily with executive function requirements that we can blame no one for finding themselves distracted or bored with values.

Values are boring!? What a thought. I can’t imagine that being anything but the opposite of the real intent of values discussions.

So, are you “passionate” and yet struggle to live a values-centered life lately? Do you value “Creativity” and yet find yourself adrift and uninspired?

Maybe anchoring one’s identity such a vague, big-picture description is part of the problem.

So let’s look at some little-picture, specific values: Do you really like donuts? If so, it’s almost hard to not know what you should do about that: You go and enjoy a donut. Or you put that on your calendar for tomorrow, a near guarantee that the day will be at least a little bit more enjoyable.

In my view, that’s positive energy right there. Good vibes, good feelings, and easy to execute. This is how it should feel to work on any value, whenever we’re in the mood.

Another issue: A single, big-picture answer like “personal growth” can also lead to a state where people wear themselves out unnecessarily, due to work on their values. Doing one thing about personal growth is great! But the risk is that it can grow deadly-boring in the blink of an eye. Even though it answers the “am I doing values-based work” question, the fact is, you can do values-based work and still feel like you’re ready to give up on a values-centered life out of sheer annoyance, boredom, or exhaustion!

And so one of the best advantages of tracking little things like “I like donuts” as a value is that it’s never the only value. Even Homer J. Simpson also likes beer, for example. If he gets bored with donuts, he can switch to beer and still live a values-based life.

This has all only highlighted, to me, the importance of cultivating a broad set of very specific interests-as-values. For many people, INTJs certainly included, the big picture answer can in fact be a psychologically damaging outcome of a values discussion, if the little-picture answers are not also taken seriously.

Bored? Want to live a values-centered life? Like golf? Great! Watch it on Youtube, go hit the putting green, play golf online—at least two of those things are usually instantly doable.

Exhausted with your “Creativity”-values project? Like donuts? Go try a new kind of donut! It’s still creativity. And even if it wasn’t, you’d still be living a life according to your values, because you like donuts.

Feeling down, but like spy films? Go watch one, and pat yourself on the back for successfully completing this values-alignment exercise.

So, if you’re feeling like your values could use some attention, and life is feeling dry or boring or exhausting: Take those little-picture values more seriously. In doing so you might actually discover what it really means to lead a values-centered life.

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