How To Know Your Values . . . And Why

“The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of the proactive person. . . Proactive people are driven by values – carefully thought about, selected and internalized values.” ~ Dr. Stephen Covey

“Crossing The I-Beam”

If you have ever read much or listened to presentations by Hyrum Smith, founder of the company that developed the Franklin Planner time management system and co-founder with Stephen Covey of the Franklin Covey company, you have likely heard his “crossing the I-beam” exercise. If you haven’t, I’ll summarize it here.

Imagine there is a 100 foot long I-beam on the ground. (An I-beam is a steel girder used in construction. When you look at it from the end, it has the shape of the letter I.) This particular I-beam has flanges (the flat top and bottom parts) that are 5 inches wide. Would you cross this I-beam lying on the ground for $10?

Chances are you would. You have a flat 5-inch surface to walk on and the beam is stable as it lays on the ground. Easy money.

Now, let’s make the experiment a little more interesting. Let’s take the I-beam and place it between two towers that are 1200 feet off the ground (about as tall as the Empire State Building). We securely lash the I-beam so it is stable, but at that height, there is usually a stiff breeze and the I-beam sways slightly. Would you take $10 to cross the I-beam now?

My best guess says you would not. (I can’t say as I blame you!) How about $100? No? $1000? No? $100,000? How about $1,000,000? You are on one end of the I-beam and I’m on the other, with a $1,000,000 in my hand, ready to hand over to you. Would you cross a 100 foot long, 5 inch wide I-beam that is swaying slightly in a 50 mph wind, 1200 feet off the ground, for $1,000,000?

Perhaps you would. I can tell you that I would not and I suspect not many people would attempt it.

So let’s make the experiment even more interesting. Now, instead of $1,000,000, I’m holding your 2-year old child by the heel, dangling her or him over the side. If you don’t come over here right now — I’m dropping the kid. NOW would you cross the I-beam?

You bet you would!

“I just can’t get organized.”

Hold on to that example for a minute and we’ll come back to it. First I want to tell you about a client I had once. We’ll call her “Glenda” (not her real name, of course). Glenda had a dream – she wanted to start a non-profit to develop after-school programs for underprivileged and at-risk students. Glenda had a good idea of what she wanted but she was making no progress toward her goal. So she came to me for help.

As we worked together, it became apparent why Glenda was not moving toward her dream. She was in danger of losing her house because her mortgage payments were overdue. The power company had shut off her electricity on more than one occasion because she had missed paying the power bill. Glenda missed appointments, including an important one with some potential investors for her non-profit.

Glenda’s issue wasn’t that she didn’t have money to pay her bills or that she couldn’t get to her appointments. She was a competent adult but she was extremely disorganized. “I just can’t get organized,” Glenda told me.

Creative or Reactive?

“The decisions you make are a choice of values that reflect your life in every way.” ~ Alice Waters

Glenda considered herself to be a highly creative person. You might say that Creativity was one of her values. Unfortunately, she equated creativity with sloppy thinking (my words, not hers) — if she had to be bogged down in details, she feared that would hamper her creative freedom.

I pointed out to Glenda that the words Creative and Reactive have the same letters, simply arranged differently. I asked her to consider how being in a reactive mode – dealing with crises of her own making – was far more obstructive to her creativity than organizing herself enough to pay her bills on time or get to important meetings.

Gradually, Glenda changed her thinking and her values. She didn’t replace Creativity with Organized but added Being Organized as one of her values.

Principles for a life well lived.

“A value,” said Thomas Leonard (the “father” of Life Coaching), “is like a theme, not just a focus or orientation.” [Leonard 218]

Values are principles or qualities that we deem as worthy and desirable. They represent behaviors and activities that bring us joy, contentment and feelings of well-being when we engage in them. As Thomas Leonard points out, a value is a theme by which we live. There are any number of goals, actions, and behaviors that we can choose to express a specific value.

A value is not a want or need. A need is something you must have in order to survive and thrive. (Food, clothing and shelter are the big 3.) A want is something you acquire or experience with the idea of fulfillment (to a lesser or greater degree). A value is a feeling, a belief and a behavior that you are naturally drawn to – principles that you consider necessary to a well-lived life. [Leonard]

Values are intrinsically neither “good” nor “bad” but some can serve you individually better than others. Some will appeal to you more than others. These are the things you would cross the I-beam for.

Align your values, goals and actions.

“A value is something you naturally feel is important to you . . .You’ll realize its importance by the strength and depth of the feeling it awakens inside you.” [Leonard 217]

Sometimes, you get so caught up in the busyness of living that you fail to honor the values that are important to you — your Valid Values. When this happens, you feel disconnected from your life, harried, and unfulfilled. This was one of Glenda’s issues. Her results did not reflect the values she wanted to embody.

When your life is in congruence with your valid values — the principles you deem as important and desirable — you feel in harmony and balanced. If you are feeling out of touch or disconnected, you may not be living out of your values. It’s a good idea to check in from time to time to see that you are being true to your values, whatever they may be.

If your goals are not in alignment with your values, you won’t feel the same satisfaction as you do when your goals and values are in perfect agreement. If you are struggling with a goal, maybe it’s because the goal is not something you value all that highly. When you align your life goals with your top priority values – your Valid Values – your life becomes more fulfilling and effortless. If you are feeling frustrated, if you are struggling, if things just aren’t going your way, check in to see if you are truly honoring your highest values. Honoring your values doesn’t mean that your goals won’t take work, but the struggling is removed.

Living your dream

“The state of harmony between what you value and what you do will lead to inner peace. This can only be achieved when we reach down deep into our inner core and find what matters to us. If we don’t do this, we will be living in the reactive and not the proactive world. People that live in the reactive world live out of control lives.” [Smith – The 3 Gaps]

Simply knowing your values isn’t enough to bring inner peace. You must live out your values in the things you choose to do, the people you choose to be with, and the way you choose to spend your time. As you look at your life today, does it reflect your governing values? If it does not, you need to begin closing the gap.

Here is one way you can begin living your dream. The more closely aligned your life and work are with your values, the more fulfilled and happy you will be. The more you live out your values, the more authentic your life is and the more you begin living your dream.

Consider your life. What values does it reflect? Are those the qualities or principles that are really the most important to you?

Action items

1. Use The Excelerator JumpStart – Excelerated Values to select quick actions you can take right now to begin defining and living your Valid Values.

2. Use the Valid Values Excelerator for a more in-depth exercise to identify your Valid Values and to think about ways you are expressing and not expressing them.

3. “Play the ‘Goals equals values’ game.” [Leonard 221] Consider your current goal and your Valid Values. Does your goal allow you to express one or more of your top values? If it does not, how can you reframe the goal such that it does express one or more of your values?

Live from your values.

“When your daily activities reflect your governing values, you experience inner peace.” [Smith – The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management]

Think of that 100 foot long, 5 inch wide I-beam suspended 1200 feet in the air. What would you cross it for? Money? Family? A worthy cause? Discovering your Valid Values tells you what you consider to be valuable and important. Do your goals and aspirations allow you to express your Valid Values? Do your life and your actions demonstrate that you are living from your Valid Values? If not, what changes can you make now that bring them into alignment? If they are, congratulations! You are embracing the Excelerated Life!

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Defining and living your Valid Values is one step in creating your Excelerated Life, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.


Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989

Leonard, Thomas. The 28 Laws Of Attraction. New York: Scribner, 1998

Smith, Hyrum W. The 10 Natural Laws Of Successful Time And Live Management. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1994

Smith, Hyrum W. and Richard L. Godfrey. The 3 Gaps – Are You Making A Difference? Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2015

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