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Turning Values into Missions

In our first article of this series Making Sense of Yourself I introduced a 12 week program I co-developed with Alfi Oloo. In this article, the second of three, I will be outlining the second half of the course.

Here is a reminder of the process we walked through in the first article:

  • Step 1: Audit Your Life through a Personal Timeline
  • Step 2: Explore Your Strengths, Passions, Communities & Roles
  • Step 3: Ask Your Network for External Perspective
  • Step 4: Look for Themes

This article picks up right where that one ended. At this point in the process you have developed a better understanding of yourself and how you have approached things in your past. This next part of the process is about defining what is next based on what you value and the mission you are currently on. 

Step 5: Explore Your Values

With the themes of your life in hand you are in a really good position to explore your personal value system. In our experience doing this in a theoretical way doesn’t get you much more than a pile of aspirations.

In developing a toolset to help our students move through this complex exercise, we developed a taxonomy that took ~1000 terms found in 20+ values lists online, and landed us with 300 unique and appropriate terms.

If you thought this was the story of a perfect tool that helped folks choose from our neat and tidy lists, you are dead wrong.

Below are two of my favorite student quotes:

“I found myself needing two or more words. What I want to say is where these terms overlap.”

“At a certain point I went rogue”

From the moment that those pre-selected lists of words were presented, they served a few purposes:

  • Exhibits of what could be
  • Proof of what ought not to be

Some labels just make us feel “right” and some “wrong” — about many things — but especially about our values.

We developed five questions to lead students towards a set of words that felt directionally appropriate:

  • Which values do you aspire to see in yourself?
  • Which values do you aspire to in how you relate to others?
  • Which values do you aspire to when making a decision?
  • Which values do you aspire to when things are going wrong?
  • Which values do you aspire to when things are going right?

Each of these questions was based on a taxonomy of the words we had chosen to collect in our value taxonomy

  • Intrapersonal values – how you want to be when facing things alone
  • Interpersonal values – how you want to be when facing things with other people
  • Motivational values – how you want to be motivated to change
  • Dispositional values – how you want to be in conflict or facing hardship
  • Mission-derived values – how you want to be when things are optimal

For each of these Alfi and I identified 40 to 60 terms that might help answer each question in 5-7 words or less. The goal at the end of this step is to have ~35 words in consideration for your prioritized value set.

Step 6: Prioritize Values to Balance in Your Life

With the list of 35 or less values at hand, the next part was hard for many people. Prioritizing means letting go. During this next step we recommend you decide your top 3 in each category. This should leave you with ~18 values.

That doesn’t mean you don’t value all 35, but it does mean that you will be narrowing in on a subset of this superset to represent your next mission, focus or goal.

With the top three for each identified, each of these values is likely worth sitting with individually as you prepare to prioritize them.

Here are some guiding questions to ask yourself of each:

  • What connotations, associations, vibes or feels do you have with this value?
  • What do you see as potential opposites of this value?
  • What other words come to mind when you think about this value?
  • What do you think holding this value means in your day to day life?
  • How have you seen this value come up in your interviews and introspection so far?
  • Can you think of a time when this value showed up in someone else in your life in a way that you admire?

Use your answers to these questions to slowly reveal which values are truly connected to who you are and want to be. Take another pass at each of the 18 remaining values to decide which one represents most how you think about each question.

We also taught the students the power of voicing each value to try to explore what about each word specifically resonates with them. To start that process, we have provided the following mad libs to start from.

I value _______ because ______________

Abby’s Example:

  • I value authenticity because I didn’t find myself until my thirties, and I never want to lose myself again.
  • I value community because I have struggled my whole life to feel like I fit in or matter
  • I value kindness because it is not my default training.
  • I value curiosity because I have never known how something would turn out, and when I thought I did — the reality was always WAY more interesting
  • I value playfulness because I didn’t play enough as a child, and was taught to take life and work WAY too seriously.

Alfi’s Example:

  • I value being visionary because I feel as though it’s needed for my own sake and i think my generation as a whole is starved of a positive vision
  • I value openness as it enables me to connect and engage with a broad range of people, especially those who have something to teach me.
  • I value intuition because i’ve found that many important moments require action without all the facts, and in those situations intuition and ethics are the only guide.
  • I value collaboration because when things aren’t going well for me, I often need a shift in perspective that a good collaborator provides.
  • I value generosity because success shared is multiplied and difficulty shared is made easier to deal with.

Step 7: Describe Balance & Imbalance

To help students to harness the power of diagrams in this value-setting process, we introduced what is now perhaps one of my favorite tools I have helped to develop (not just for this course, but ever)

Balancing continuums are three point continuums that allow you to explore what it looks like when you truly value each of your values, versus what over and under-valuing looks like for each.

For each of your prioritized values we encourage you to develop a continuum that explore:

  • What would it look like if value was balanced in your life?
  • What would it look like if you undervalued that value?
  • What would it look like if you overvalued that value?

When a value is balanced we can make decisions with that value at the center. We can remain confident that our short term efforts will lead to long term values-aligned results.

When a value is undervalued we can lose sight of how our value impacts our actual life. These are the values that we say we hold but then act against. These are the values we hold lightly and drop the second it gets hard to live by.

When a value is overvalued we can spoil the value through holding it too tightly. These are the values you feel like you are holding onto for the principle of the thing, or because of what your elders or community value.

Abby’s Example

One of my prioritized values is Authenticity. The quotes seen below are from me describing my balancing continuums to Alfi in one of our peership sessions.

Balancing Continuum Example

When authenticity is balanced in my life I feel confident in myself and my path.

“When I feel good about the truth of what is coming out of my mouth and pen, I have balanced authenticity”

When I undervalue authenticity things start to feel too crafted and contrived.

“If I ever find myself smiling and telling my friends I am fine, I have undervalued my authenticity.”

When I over-values authenticity I can forget how to protect myself and others from TMI (too much information) and have a tendency to overshare.

“If I feel a sense of – I shouldn’t have said that – it generally means I have overvalued authenticity”

This tool changed my life, and how I think about my decisions.

Two-sided, dichotomous continuums prove helpful for gaining consensus on meaning, direction and priority with a group of people. 

See the example below from a project I worked on years ago. In this case I developed a set of continuums to show the spread of buy-in across various stakeholders for different strategic directions.

Stakeholder Continuum Example

But when applied to our own values, personal direction-setting and decision-making I worry that dichotomous continuums can lead to the worst forms of perfectionism. Leaving us to believe that we are heading in a direction, and any sign of a backslide is counter to progress.

In reality, and in a balancing continuum, we are always living a life spanning two extremes seeking balance between them in any given moment. We won’t always get it right and we will overvalue and under-value our values at times. This tool allows us to have a truer diagnostic view of that reality, instead of a shaming perfectionist strategy no mere mortal could ever live up to.

Step 8: Writing Mission Statements

A mission statement is a concise and purposeful declaration of the purpose, values, and goals of an individual, team or organization.

  • When written from the external perspective these are often fluffy, vague and meaningless
  • When values aligned, and values derived we believe a mission statement can be a powerful intention setting tool

A mission statement is NOT best, first thought about as:

  • Marketing or Web Copy
  • Resume Content
  • Social Media Content

However, being thoughtful in writing strong mission statements can make the above list of writing tasks easier to align to your actual mission. We encourage our students to work through writing their mission statement based on and derived from their work on their values.

To keep their mission statements from being too lofty, we also suggested they think about the short term implications for each of the values they are working on.

Here are some questions to guide you:

  • What might you change in the short term to better balance this value in your everyday life?
  • What areas of your life are most impacted by each value and what are the shortest term changes you might make towards balancing that value?
  • Are there ways to stretch what a value applies to achieve more balance? For example: Abby saw that her playfulness at home should also perhaps apply to work as well.

Once they had the shorter term steps in view, we talked through how to focus on all the loftier pursuits that feel further out but worthy of their attention. This could be investing in education, taking a big leap, making a big change – whatever it is, it’s a signal as to the potential directions of the mission they are on.

Here are some questions we used to guide this part of the process:

  • What longer term projects or investments might you consider to strengthen your ability to balance each value?
  • How do you see this value applying to your life in five years?
  • How would you invest in this value if money and time were no object?
  • What would make it so this value became part of your legacy?

The final step of this step was to take those short and longer term thoughts and apply them to writing a mission statement for each value. Then seeing where missions for different values might actually intertwine. 

I developed five values for this process, and they all ended up in my mission statement which is:

“I am on a mission to create authentic and kind community-based education while prioritizing curiosity and playfulness in my creative and personal life.”

In Alfi’s case, he chose to focus him mission on just two of his identified values, openness and collaboration and wrote the following mission statement without using the words for his values at all:

“I am on a mission to build a strong foundation for a social fabric that unites a diverse range of people through challenging and joyful times alike.”

Some folks wrote a sentence, some wrote paragraphs, some broke the format entirely to express the mission they were on. The results of this part of the process were really special to behold and I am thankful to have seen all the various versions of that call to action. 

Step 9: Using Milestones to Manage Missions

Once the students had values and mission statements in progress they were paired up for the last month of the program to work with a peer to enact their mission through setting and working towards at least one small milestone.

Some of the milestones we heard from students included:

  • trying watercolors
  • singing to their partner
  • listing out a support team of loved ones
  • create an art film with friends
  • learning Spanish to connect better with loved ones
  • draw a series of metaphors that have come up in introspection

My milestone was to look into writing courses, specifically in memoir. Alfi’s milestone was to host a dinner with a group of people to try out new ways of connecting strangers deeply.

All of these milestones might seem like a drop in the bucket towards anything life-changing. But that’s the thing about growth. It does come one step at a time.

In our final article in this series of three I have invited Alfi to guest author a post about the power of dialogue and peership. In this piece he will walk through his peer collaboration framework, and the three conversations that lead to solid peer relationships.

Alfi and I have started a podcast where we talk about this course, and the take-aways from us and our students. If you are interested, look for Making Sense of Ourselves anywhere you listen to podcasts.