You tend to become the things you believe are important. This idea alone defines much of the different trajectories people take. Luck, talent and habits constrain the path, but they matter less than which direction you decide to take.
If your finances are in order, that’s probably because being responsible with money is important to you. Ditto for school, career and relationships. If you never miss a week without exercise, then it matters to you.
This is all obvious—people who accomplish more in an area have more motivation. Duh.
What is less obvious is that you can change the things you feel are important. If you shift the things you value, you can shift the results you achieve. Many people obsess over how to get what they want, but perhaps it’s better to focus on wanting the right things.
What Things Should You Want?
At first glance this question sounds like it should be left to religion or professional ethicists. “Should” is a loaded word, so when you talk about changing your values, the topic quickly enters esoteric realms of which principles should be of ultimate virtue.
But values aren’t just about the ultimate meaning of life, they’re also cover the non-moralistic details of living well. For example, of the following things, ask yourself how important they are to you:
- Following the news
- Understanding science
- Speaking a second language
- How clean/organized your home is
- Eating well
I’d guess none of these things are really moral decisions for most people, they’re simply preferences. I’d wager almost all of the values people use which guide their lives are similarly detached from any direct link to moral philosophy.
This suggests to me that changing your values, is in most cases, a tool like anything else. You can shift which things you find important, and in doing so, generate different results for your life.
Things People Say They Care About (But Actually Don’t)
Part of the problem is that what people say they believe and what actually drives their actions are not the same thing. In many areas, the two diverge so radically it’s hard to see how they come from the same person.
Every entrepreneur has had to face a painful moment when developing a product or service that everyone claims to want, but nobody ends up buying. Most good marketers eventually learn to treat requested features or products with at least a little skepticism.
The difference between espoused and actual values is a big part of the explanation of many people who seem to care about a facet of their lives, but never take any action. Yes, habits, talent and genetic endowments matter, but if someone is motivated enough you’ll usually see it manifest in taking steps forward.
I believe that this dissonance is largely from social expectations. People tell you that getting good grades, being thin or traveling are important, so there’s an unconscious pressure to at least espouse these values, even if you don’t possess them.
Because of this, most efforts to change values are simply empty gestures. They aren’t the genuine effort of trying to change the things you want, but mock attempts to lie to yourself and others that you’re doing so.
What Kind of Shifts Should You Make?
I can’t tell you what you should find important. For me, the entire history of this blog is about the ever-shifting values I’ve gone over as I try to pick out and enhance the parts of my life that I either want to magnify or improve.
Before I started this blog, I had felt weak and lazy, so I made discipline and habits important to me, which is reflected in a lot of the early posts on this blog. Later I made building social skills more important. Fitness, travel, learning and languages have been just a few of those shifts.
The shifts don’t need to be permanent either. Reading my articles or bio may make me sound like I do a lot of things, but part of the secret is that I’m never doing them all at once.
Even now, as I’m nearing the end of one of those shifts, I’m contemplating my next focus. What should be important to me in 2013? I don’t know for sure, but my feeling is that it may be dramatically different from how I spend my days right now.
Choosing Who You Want to Be
I’ve always hated the advice to, “Be yourself.” What if you don’t like parts of yourself, does that mean you shouldn’t change them? Does it imply you can’t change them, so you’re better off just accepting your destiny?
Friends and family often don’t want you to shift the values you have, because they worry (rightfully) that it may change you as a person. If you’re introverted, but you want to be more social, those people may resist your efforts to be more outgoing. If you’re overweight and try to get in shape, they may resent your suddenly different, health-conscious attitude.
I believe the advice should be “be your best self.” That also means being flexible in shifting the things that are important to you when you realize your current values conflict with that ideal. Don’t be fake, but don’t let a rigid conception of yourself prevent you from being a better person.
Who Should You Become?
The meta-ness involved in thinking about what you should think you should do makes talking about shifting values difficult. After all, if you feel something is important enough to be a value, isn’t it, by definition, a value you already have?
These philosophical paradoxes tend to disappear in practice. First, an ideal can be an idea but not a commitment. You may have the inkling that you should be more ambitious, but not hold it as a conviction which could influence your actions.
Second, it tends to ignore what values are and where they come from. Most values (like the list of trivial items earlier in this article) aren’t ultimate values, but simply labels we attach to different strategies for living well. We can know about a strategy without following it yet, just as we can be aware of a value without necessarily holding it deeply.
The process of gathering new possible values is an important one. Meeting people, reading books, traveling and personal experiments are all ways you can expose yourself to possible different ways of living. The more you see, the more options you have to live. Rigidity is probably good for a few core values, but in most things flexibility is better.
Being open in how you achieve your goals is good. But perhaps it’s even better to be open about who you might become.