Chase values, not goals
or, the life-changing magic of defining success on your own terms
My professional life was easier before I had kids.
I mean, duh. Right?
Before having kids, I never had to respond to emails while plastic funnels dangled off my nipples. Before having kids, I never had to engage in high-level decision-making while severely sleep deprived. Before having kids, I never knew the agony of having to choose between finishing an important project and missing a school musical presentation. And before having kids, I certainly never had the experience of answering a call right before a major client meeting telling me that my daughter had just projectile vomited all over her pre-K classroom and could I please drop everything I was doing and come pick her up immediately (I did, in fact, drop everything to get her and then she proceeded to projectile vomit all over my car. Yeah, still traumatized by this one…)
No doubt the logistical and emotional challenges of working parenthood are familiar to all of you, as well.
But many of my clients also find that it’s harder to define success when you become a working parent. This is a struggle I know well. When I was younger, I used to think of my career trajectory as a staircase, with each degree and job building upon the previous one. Maybe you’d skip a step or two, but you were constantly moving upwards, achieving more. Success meant external accolades: diplomas, promotions, and—above all—achieving my “goals”.
When I became a parent, my perspective broadened. Success meant so much more than reaching the next wrung on the ladder. To be sure, success to me still meant maintaining a meaningful career, but it also meant being an involved mom, prioritizing relationships that brought me joy, and making time to nurture myself.
And yet, we have a hard time shaking that old mental model of success. We over-schedule and overcommit in an attempt to “do it all”. We wring our hands wondering if we’ve lost our ambition. We perpetually worry that we’re not doing enough.
A few years ago, I shifted my perspective. I started judging my success by whether I was living a life that aligned with my values—as opposed to whether I was meeting “goals” and other external markers of success. This quote below, by a leading researcher of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), summarizes it perfectly:
“‘Successful people’ are typically defined in terms of the goals they've achieved. But if we buy into this woefully limited definition, then we condemn ourselves to the goal-focused life: long stretches of frustration punctuated by fleeting moments of gratification if and when we do achieve our goals.
So I invite you now to consider a new definition: Success in life means living by your values. Adopting this definition means you can be successful right now, whether or not you've acheived your major goals. Fulfillment is here, in this moment--any time you act in line with your values. And you are free from the need for other people's approval. You don't need someone to tell you that you've made it. You don't need someone to confirm that you're doing the right thing. You know you're acting on your values, and that's enough."
-Russ Harris, MD
Identify your values
Values are the principles that we hold most dear. They are at the foundation of who we are—they guide our behavior, inform our choices, provide the cornerstones of our character, and shape how we parent our children. In our new conceptualization of success, values also serve as a compass.
It would follow then, that we first need to clarify what our values are. Ask yourself: “What is at the heart of who I am and what I stand for? Who do I strive to be?” Values should be relatively stable across your life and transferable across domains (home, work, community, etc.). Once you have your list, take some time to briefly define what these words mean to you (most people need 20-30 to brainstorm and refine their values).
Below are some examples to spur your thinking. Of course, you may choose values that don’t appear on this list:
Autonomy: I value the ability to act independently and make decisions on my own behalf.
Connection: It is important for me to cultivate meaningful relationships with others.
Courage: I am willing to stand up for my beliefs, no matter the cost.
Enjoyment: I take pleasure in the things that I do; enjoying my life is important to me.
Excellence: I take pride in a job well done; I set high standards for myself and others.
Fairness: I have a strong sense of justice and I expect decisions to be made free from discrimination and dishonesty.
Family: There’s nothing more important to me than spending quality time with my kids, partner, parents, etc.
Financial security: It’s important for me to provide for my family and fund my lifestyle.
Integrity: I act in congruence with my beliefs and expect others to do the same.
Personal development: I am constantly striving to improve myself and maximize my potential.
Recognition: It’s important that I’m respected and admired for the good work that I’ve done.
Selflessness: I give my all to the people and causes I am passionate about, sometimes even at the expense of myself.
Once we identify our values, we can begin to evaluate whether we are living in alignment with them. Start by listing out four areas of your life that are important to you. For working parents, I recommend that three of those domains be: your family, your career, and your relationship with yourself. The fourth can be tailored to you. Examples include your friendships, your volunteer work, your faith community, etc.
Under each of these domains, write out your 5-7 core values. Assess, on a scale of 1-10, how well you’re embodying each value in each domain. I recommend focusing on one domain and value each month. For example, in January, you may want to focus on increasing your sense of connection (value) at your job (domain). Identify real, tangible steps—even if they are small. To extend the example above, you may commit to having coffee with a colleague once a week for the month.
Values are the forest through the trees
Life—especially when you’re a working parent—can feel like a never-ending marathon, and it can be hard to pause and see the bigger picture. Focusing on values allows you to see the forest through the trees. It allows you to focus on what actually matters. It’s the difference between “Make partner by 40” and “Find a job that challenges me intellectually”.
Finally, think about what you want to transmit to your kids. Do you want them to spend their lives using external validators as your sole indicator of success? Consider what it would look like if, instead, they drew success from leading a values-based life. And keep in mind that our actions always speak louder than our words.
Want to hear more?
I recently talked about this concept—along with a few others—on the Strategy Snacks podcast. Give it a listen to learn more about how I have implemented this concept of chasing values into my own life.
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