For the last few years, I’ve had an idea for a satirical self-help article called, “The Productivity Secrets of Adolf Hitler.” The article would feature all the popular self-help tropes—goals, visualizations, morning routines—except expressed through the exploits of Hitler.
“Hitler starts his day at 5 AM each morning with a quick round of yoga and five minutes of journaling. With these strategies, he’s able to focus his mind on his highly ambitious goals.”
“Adolf is a strict vegetarian, and makes sure to find time in his busy schedule of genocide and world domination to explore his creative side: he sets aside a few hours each week to listen to opera and paint his favorite landscapes.”
I know that I would find the article hilarious. But that’s because I’m a sick, twisted fuck. But in the end, I’ve never quite worked up the courage to write the thing, for clear and obvious reasons.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a) a bunch of people would get offended and devote themselves entirely to ruining my week with annoying emails and social media screeds, b) the satire would go over a bunch of people’s heads and they’d think that I was actually a Nazi, and c) some awful publication somewhere would run the headline, “Bestselling author outs himself as alt-right neo-Nazi” or some shit and my career would be over.
So, I’ve never written the article. Call me a coward. But it remains unwritten.
This bugs me a little bit because I think satirizing Hitler’s incredible productivity and influence perfectly embodies a point I’ve long made about the self-help world: achieving success in life is not nearly as important as our definition of success. If our definition of success is horrific—like, say, world domination and slaughtering millions—then working harder, setting and achieving goals, and disciplining our minds all become a bad thing.
If you remove the moral horrors from Hitler, on paper, he’s one of the most successful self-made people in world history. He went from being a broke, failed artist, to commandeering an entire country and the most powerful military in the world in a matter of two decades. He mobilized and inspired millions. He was tireless and shrewd and intensely focused on his goals. He arguably influenced world history as much as anyone who has ever lived.
But all of that work went toward demented, destructive aims. And tens of millions of people died horrifically due to his twisted, misguided values.
Therefore, you cannot talk about self-improvement without also talking about values. It’s not enough to simply “grow” and become a “better person.” You must define what a better person is. You must decide in which direction you wish to grow. Because if you don’t, well, we might all be screwed.
A lot of people don’t realize this. A lot of people obsessively focus on being happy and feeling good all the time—not realizing that if their values suck, feeling good will hurt them more than help them. If your biggest value in the world is snorting Vicodin through a swirly straw, well, then feeling better is just going to make your life worse.
When I wrote my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, pretty much the entire book was really just a sneaky way to get people to think about their values more clearly. There are a million self-help books out there that teach you how to better achieve your goals, but few actually question what goals you should have in the first place. My aim was to write a book that did just that.
In the book, I intentionally avoided getting too deep into what good/bad values are—what they look like, and why they work or don’t work—partly because I didn’t want to push my own values onto the reader. After all, the whole point of your values is that you adopt them yourself, not because some dude with an obnoxious orange book cover told you to. But if I’m being honest, I also didn’t get too deep into defining values because it’s an incredibly difficult topic to write about well.
So, this article is my attempt to finally do that. To talk about values. And not just what they are but why they are. Why we find certain things important, what the consequences of that importance are, and how we can go about changing what we find important. It’s not a simple subject. And the article is quite long. So enough of me blabbing, let’s get on with it.
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What are your personal values?
Every moment of every day, whether you realize it or not, you are making a decision of how to spend your time, of what to pay attention to, of where to direct your energy.
Right now, you are choosing to read this article. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing, but right now, you are choosing to be here. Maybe in a minute, you decide you need to pee. Or maybe someone texts you and you stop reading. When those things happen, you are making a simple, value-laden decision: your phone (or your toilet) is more valuable to you than this article. And your behavior follows that valuation accordingly.
Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave.
This is critically important—because we all have a few things that we think and say we value, but we never back them up with our actions. I can tell people (and myself) until I’m blue in the face that I care about climate change or the dangers of social media, but if I spend my days driving around in a gas-guzzling SUV, constantly refreshing my newsfeeds, then my behaviors, my actions tell a different story.
Actions don’t lie. We believe we want to get that job, but when push comes to shove, we’re always kind of relieved that no one called us back so we can retreat to our video games again. We tell our girlfriend we really want to see her, but the minute our guy friends call, our schedule magically seems to open up like fucking Moses parting the Red Sea.
Many of us state values we wish we had as a way to cover up the values we actually have. In this way, aspiration can often become another form of avoidance. Instead of facing who we really are, we lose ourselves in who we wish to become.
Put another way: we lie to ourselves because we don’t like some of our own values, and we, therefore, don’t like a part of ourselves. We don’t want to admit we have certain values and that we wish we had other values, and it’s this discrepancy between self-perception and reality that usually gets us into all sorts of trouble.
That’s because our values are extensions of ourselves. They are what define us. When something good happens to something or someone you value, you feel good. When your mom gets a new car or your husband gets a raise or your favorite sports team wins a championship, you feel good—as though these things happened to yourself. The opposite is true as well. If you don’t value something, you will feel good when something bad happens to it. People took to the streets cheering when Osama Bin Laden was killed. People threw a party outside the prison where the serial killer Ted Bundy was executed. The destruction of someone perceived as evil felt like some great moral victory in the hearts of millions.1
So, when we are disconnected from our own values—we value playing video games all day yet believe we value ambition and hard work—our beliefs and ideas get disconnected from our actions and emotions. And to bridge that disconnect, we must become delusional, about both ourselves and about the world.2,3
Just as we either value or devalue anything in our lives, we can value or devalue ourselves. And much like people celebrating when Ted Bundy got fried, if we hate ourselves as much as people hated Ted Bundy, then we will celebrate our own destruction.
This is what people who don’t loathe themselves don’t understand about people who do: that self-destruction feels good in some deep, dark way. The person who loathes themselves feels that they are morally inferior, that they deserve some awful thing to compensate for their own wretchedness. And whether it’s through drugs or alcohol or self-harm or even harming others, there’s an ugly part of themselves that seeks out this destruction to justify all of the pain and misery they have felt.
Much of the work of the self-esteem movement in the 70s and 80s was to take people from self-loathing to self-loving. People who love themselves don’t get any satisfaction from harming themselves. Rather, they get satisfaction from taking care of themselves and improving themselves.
This love for self is crucially important.4 But it is also not sufficient in and of itself. Because if we only love ourselves, then we become self-absorbed twats and indifferent to the suffering or issues of others.
Ultimately, we all need to value ourselves but also something above ourselves.5 Whether it’s God or Allah or some moral code or cause, we need to value something above ourselves to make our lives feel as though they have meaning.
Because if you make yourself the highest value in your life, then you will never feel the desire to sacrifice for anything, and life will feel purposeless and just chasing one high after another.6,7 In other words, you just become a narcissistic assface… and then get elected president.
And no one wants that…
You are what you value
We all know that story of the middle-class, educated person with a decent job who has a mini “freak out” and decides to take a week or ten days (or ten months) and cut all contact with the outside world, run to some remote and obscure part of the globe, and proceed to “find themselves.”
Hell, maybe this has been you at some point. I know it’s been me in the past.
Here’s what people mean when they say they need to “find themselves”: they’re finding new values. Our identity—that is, the thing that we perceive and understand as the “self”—is the aggregation of everything we value. So when you run away to be alone somewhere, what you’re really doing is running away somewhere to re-evaluate your values.
Here’s how it usually plays out:
- You are experiencing a large amount of pressure and/or stress in your day-to-day life.
- Due to said pressure and/or stress, you feel as though you are losing control of the direction of your own life. You don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. You begin to feel as though your own desires or decisions no longer matter. Maybe you want to drink mojitos and play banjo—but the overwhelming demands of your school/job/family/partner make it so that you feel as though you’re not able to live out those desires.
- This is the “self” you feel you have “lost”—a sense that you are no longer the one navigating the ship of your own existence. Rather, you are blown back and forth across the sea of life by the winds of your responsibilities—or some other deep-sounding metaphor.
- By removing yourself from these pressures and/or stressors, you are able to recover a sense of control over yourself. You are, once again, in charge of your own day-to-day existence without the interference of a million external pressures.
- Not only that, but by gaining separation from the turbulent forces of your day-to-day life, you are able to look at those forces from afar and have perspective on whether you actually want the life that you have. Is this who you are? Is this what you care about? You question your decisions and priorities.
- You decide that there are a few things you want to change. There are things you believe you care about too much and you want to stop. There are other things that you feel you should care about more and promise to prioritize them. You are now constructing the “new you.”
- You then vow to return to the “real world” and live out your new priorities, to be your “new self”—especially because you now have a bitching tan.
This whole process—whether done on a secluded island, a cruise ship, out in the woods somewhere, or at a raucous self-help seminar—is essentially just an escapade in adjusting one’s values.
You leave, get perspective on what in your life matters to you, what should matter more, what should matter less, and then (ideally) return and get on with it. By returning and changing your priorities, you change your values, and you come back “a new person.”
Values are the fundamental component of our psychological make-up and our identity.8 We are defined by what we choose to find important in our lives. We are defined by our prioritizations. If money matters more than anything, then that will come to define who we are. If getting laid and smoking J’s is the most important thing in our life, that will come to define who we are. And if we feel like shit about ourselves and believe we don’t deserve love, success, or intimacy, then that will also come to define who we are—through our actions, our words, and our decisions.
Any change in self is a change in the configuration of our values. When something tragic happens, it devastates us because not only do we feel sadness, but because we lose something we value. And when we lose enough of what we value, we begin to question the value of life itself. We valued our partner and now they’re gone. And that crushes us. It calls into question who we are, our value as a human, and what we know about the world. It throws us into an existential crisis, an identity crisis, because we don’t know what to believe, feel, or do anymore. So, instead, we sit at home with our new girlfriend, a.k.a., a bag of Oreos.
This change in identity composition is true for positive events as well though. When something incredible happens, we don’t just experience the joy of winning or achieving some goal, we also go through a change in valuation for ourselves—we come to see ourselves as more valuable, as more deserving. Meaning is added to the world. Our life vibrates with increased intensity. And that is what is so powerful.
Why some personal values are better than others
Before we get into exactly how to change our personal values, let’s talk about which values are healthy and which values are harmful. In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I defined good and bad values in the following way:
Good values are:
Bad values are:
Evidence-based vs Emotion-based Values
If you’ve paid any attention to this website over the past five years, you’ve seen a constant theme: overly relying on our emotions is unreliable at best and damaging at worst.9 Unfortunately, most of us rely too much on our emotions without even realizing it.
Psychological research shows that most of us, most of the time, make decisions and are inspired to action via our feelings,10,11 rather than based on knowledge or information.12 Psychological research also shows us that our feelings are generally self-centered,13 willing to give up long-term benefits for short-term gains14, and are often warped and/or delusional.15
People who lead their lives based on how they feel will find themselves perpetually on a treadmill, constantly needing more, more, more. And the only way to step off that treadmill is to decide that something matters more than your own feelings—that some cause, some goal, some person, is worth occasionally getting hurt for.
That “cause” is often what we refer to as our “purpose” and finding it is one of the most important endeavors we can take to enhance our health and well-being. But our purpose should be sought not merely through what feels good. It must be considered and reasoned. We must accumulate evidence supporting it. Otherwise, we’ll spend our lives chasing a mirage.
Constructive vs Destructive Values
This one sounds simple, but will start to scramble your brain if you think about it enough.
We don’t want to value things that harm ourselves or others. We do want to value things that enhance ourselves and others.
Now, determining what is actually spurring growth and what is actually harming us can get complicated. Busting your ass at the gym technically damages your body—but it also causes you to grow. Taking MDMA can actually enhance your emotional growth in some circumstances16,17, but if you take it every weekend to numb yourself, then you’re probably causing more emotional harm than good. Having casual sex can be a means to enhance personal confidence, but also a means to avoid intimacy or emotional maturity.
There’s a blurry line between growth and harm. And they often appear as two sides of the same coin. This is why what you value is often not as important as why you value it. If you value martial arts because you enjoy hurting people, then that’s a bad value. But if you value it because you are in the military and want to learn to protect yourself and others—that’s a good value. Same exercise, different values. Ultimately, it’s the intention that matters most in deciding which ways the scale falls.
Controllable vs Uncontrollable Values
When you value things that are outside your control, you essentially give up your life to that thing.
The most classic example of this is money. Yes, you have some control over how much money you make, but not total control. Economies collapse, companies go under, entire professions get automated away by technology. If everything you do is for the sake of money, and then tragedy strikes and all of that money is eaten up by hospital bills, you will lose much more than a loved one—you will lose your perceived purpose for living as well.
Money is a bad value because you can’t always control it. Creativity or industriousness or a strong work ethic are good values because you CAN control them–and doing them well will ultimately generate money as a side effect.
We need values we can control, otherwise our values control us. And that’s no bueno.
Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty, building something new, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, standing up for others, self-respect, curiosity, charity, humility, creativity.
Some examples of bad, unhealthy values: dominating others through manipulation or violence, fucking more men/women, feeling good all the time, always being the center of attention, not being alone, being liked by everybody, being rich for the sake of being rich, sacrificing small animals to the pagan gods.
How to Reinvent Yourself
Below is perhaps one of the most inspiring TED Talks I’ve ever come across. It’s not filled with mind-blowing ideas. You’re not going to get huge takeaways that you can immediately run off and implement in your own life. The guy isn’t even that great of a speaker.
But what he describes is absolutely profound:
Daryl Davis is a black musician who has traveled and played blues shows all over the US south. In his career, he’s inevitably run into a number of white supremacists. And rather than fight them or argue with them, he chose to do something unexpected: he befriended them.
This might sound insane. And maybe it is. But here’s what’s more insane: he’s convinced over 200 KKK members to give up their robes.18
Here’s what most people don’t get about value change: you can’t argue someone out of their values. You can’t shame them into valuing something different (shaming them actually often has the opposite effect—they double down).19
Nope, value change is far more subtle than that. And perhaps without even realizing it, Daryl Davis appears to be a master at it.
Step 1: The value must fail.
Davis intuitively understood something that almost all of us do not: values are based on experience. You cannot argue someone out of their values. You cannot threaten them to let go of their most deeply-held beliefs. That just makes them defensive and even more resistant to changing themselves. Instead, you must approach them with empathy.
The only way to change someone’s values is by presenting them with a contrary experience to their value. The KKK members held deeply racist values and instead of attacking them and approaching them as an adversary—in a way that would reflect their values back to them—Davis chose to approach them in the completely opposite way: as a friend. And that friendliness and respect caused the KKK members to call everything they knew into question.
To let go of a value, it must be contradicted through experience. Sometimes this contradiction happens by taking the value to its logical conclusion. Too much partying ultimately makes life feel empty and meaningless. Pursuing too much money ultimately brings greater stress and alienation. Too much sex gives you chafed thighs and rug burns on your knees.
Other times, a value is contradicted by the real world. Many KKK members that met Davis had never known a black person, much less one they respected. So, he simply met them and then earned their respect.
Step 2: We must have the self-awareness to recognize that our values have failed.
When our values fail, it’s terrifying. There’s a grief process that takes place. Since our values constitute our identity and our understanding of who we are, losing a value feels as though we’re losing a part of ourselves.
Therefore, we resist that failure. We explain it away and deny it. We come up with rationalizations.20 Davis said that for months, his KKK friends would struggle to justify their friendship with him. They would say things like, “Well, you’re different Daryl,” or create elaborate justifications for why they respected him.
When our values fail, we have two knee-jerk justifications: 1) the world sucks, or 2) we suck.
Let’s say you spend your entire life chasing money. And then, in your 40s, you accumulate a good amount. But instead of diving and swimming in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, this money doesn’t bring you happiness, it brings you more stress. You have to figure out how to invest it. You have to pay taxes on seemingly everything. Friends and family members continuously approach you looking for help or handouts.
But instead of considering that the value sucks, that maybe you should care about something more than money, most people instead blame the world around them. It’s the government’s fault because they punish wealth and success. The world is full of moochers and lazy people who just want a handout. The stock market is a racket and impossible to win.
Others blame themselves. They think, “I should be able to handle this, therefore I just need to make even more money and everything will be alright.” They get caught on a treadmill of constantly pursuing their value more and more until they become a sort of extremist.
Few people stop to consider that the value itself is at fault. That valuing money got you into this situation, therefore there’s no way it can get you out.
Step 3: Question the value and brainstorm what values could do a better job.
In a previous post, I described how the process of maturity is replacing low-level, material values, with higher-level, abstract values. So instead of chasing money all the time, you could chase freedom. Instead of trying to be liked by everyone, you could value developing intimacy with a few. Instead of trying to win everything, you could focus on merely giving your best effort.
These higher-level, abstract values are better because they produce better problems. If your primary value in life is how much money you have, then you will always need more money. But if your primary value is personal freedom, then you will need more money for a while, but there might be some situations where you need less money. Or, where money is completely irrelevant. You’ll still have problems, that’s inevitable, but the insatiable need for more money won’t be one of them.
Ultimately, abstract values are values you can control. You cannot control if people like you. But you can always control whether you’re being honest or not. You can’t always control if and when you win or not. You can always control whether you’re giving your best effort. In a career, you can’t always control how much you’ll get paid. But you can always control if you’re doing something you find meaningful.
Step 4: Live the new value.
So, here’s the catch: sitting around thinking about better values to have is nice. But nothing will solidify until you go out and embody that new value. Values are won and lost through life experience. Not through logic or feelings or even beliefs. They have to be lived and experienced to stick.
This often takes courage. To go out and live a value contrary to your old values is fucking scary. I imagine the KKK guys were terrified to spend time with a black man. It probably freaked them out when they realized they liked him and respected him. They probably avoided him and put up walls between themselves and him.
We do the same thing in our own lives all the time. It’s easy to want authentic relationships. But it’s hard to live them. It’s scary. We avoid it. We come up with excuses for why we have to wait, or we’ll do it next time. But the “next time” inevitably ends up being another failure and another pain.
Step 5: Reap the benefits of the new value.
But when you do summon the courage to live out your new values, something crazy happens: it feels good. You experience the benefits. And once you experience those benefits, not only does it become easier to continue living the new value, but it sounds insane that you didn’t do this sooner.
It’s like the high you get after a good run. Or the relief you feel after telling someone the truth. Or the liberation you feel when you stop being a racist fuck and hand over your Klan robe to a nice old black man.21
Like jumping into a cold pool, the terror and shock passes and you’re left with a wonderful sense of relief, and a newer, deeper understanding of who you really are.
Examples: A List of Personal Values
If you’re having a little trouble coming up with values that are important to you, here’s a list of values grouped by categories.22
- Grounding – Our most basic, fundamental views of the world.
- Food and Shelter
- Physical Functioning
- Family – Our fundamental relationships to ourselves and to others.
- Management – Establishing and maintaining stability in our lives.
- Relational Awareness – Individual responsibility for developing yourself and determining the quality of relationships with others.
- Systems Awareness – How you interact within the context of groups and society at large.
- Empowering Others
- Expansion – Future-oriented aspirations and goals.
- Global Enfranchisement
- Human Rights
- Inspiring Others
- Mind-Body Integration
- Planetary Ecology
If you value this article, you will probably value my book, Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope. Values are one of the core themes of the book and I go much deeper in explaining them and how our psychology is constructed around them. You can order the book here.