Why Values Are So Dang Important For Your Career Happiness

Why Values Are So Dang Important For Your Career Happiness

If you or someone you know has ever come within five miles of a coach, then you’ve heard about the importance of understanding your values.

But in the busy-ness of work or the stress of trying to change careers, “understanding your values” can feel abstract and straight-up woo-woo.

Yet your values provide one of the biggest keys to career happiness, whether you’re in search of a new career or trying to succeed in the one you’re in.

Why? Because your values are your code. And as Omar Little taught us: everyone has a code.

Your values tell you what’s most important, worthy, and useful. They’re your personal standard for how you live your life. They govern what you think, say, and do—whether you know it or not.

When your job (or anything else) threatens your core values, it threatens who you are. When your core values are honored, you feel honored. Whether your career is going effortlessly well or tragically poorly, values are often at the center.

So, yeah, being in a job where your values are not just tolerated, but shared and celebrated, is pretty dang important for your career happiness.

  • If you value transparency but work in an organization that values back-door deals => probably not happy

  • If you value innovation but choose a company that is known for its time-tested, repeatable processes => probably not happy

  • If you value social responsibility but are beholden to shareholders above all => probably not happy


The career happiness sweet spot lies at the intersection of what’s most important for: 1) You, 2) The people you work for, and 3) The people you serve.

Let’s zero in on this sweet spot by getting clarity on your values.


How To Uncover Your Values

The interwebs offer a ton of exercises where you can choose your values from a long list. I’m not crazy with that approach because it’s easy to choose the values that you think you should have.

Who wouldn’t choose “honesty” from a list of values? I’ll bet honesty is pretty important to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the key values driving your decision-making every day.

Another challenge with choosing values from a list is overlooking those that quietly govern much more than you think. I never thought to pick “fun” as a top value over many years of taking Values Assessments, yet as I dug deeper, “fun” repeatedly showed up behind the scenes as an important indicator of my career happiness.

Try uncovering your values rather than picking them from someone else's list.


Values Exercise:

  1. Write down the things you must do every day to be happy

  2. Ask why those are important, and you'll start to see the values behind them

This exercise helped me uncover my values and allowed me to design my career and life by maximizing what’s most important and minimizing everything else. It keeps my most important values—and my favorite activities that uphold them—front and center.



Through the Best and Worst of Times, Values Are Often At the Center

Now that you’re getting some clarity about your values, let’s explore another way to uncover them.

Generally, when you’re unhappy or uncomfortable in your career, there’s a value being challenged. Conversely, when you’re happy, it’s often because you’re freely expressing your values.


  1. Think of a time when you were really unhappy at work, really struggling...could be with people, the organization, or the role. Ask what was at stake in that situation and why it was important to you.

  2. Now think of a time when you were really happy at work. What felt so good about it? What’s different from #1?


Understanding What Your Values Look Like Day-to-Day

Let’s take a common value that shows up for a lot of people: Autonomy.

Your idea of Autonomy and mine might be very different, so it’s critical to define what this would look like day-to-day for you.

  • What does the flow of work look like when you feel fully autonomous?

  • What do interactions look like with your boss? Co-workers?

  • What does being fully autonomous allow you to do?


Once you define what your values look like for you, you can more accurately assess whether a potential role and organization share that same approach, and thus be a good fit.

If you’re already in your dream job but struggling with a day-to-day expression of a value, understanding your definition can help you have the necessary conversation with your boss or co-workers to make sure you’re all in sync.

One of the rudest awakenings I had as a manager was learning that the hands-off approach I’d adopted in the spirit of giving my team autonomy actually felt to some like a lack of clear direction. Why? Because we were working from different definitions.

We all wanted autonomy. Who likes to be micro-managed? Yet, despite sharing the same values, we still had to define it in specific and meaningful terms.


When Values Collide…Dun Dun Dun

My top values are Fun, Freedom, Creativity, Excellence, Integrity, Personal Growth, and Michael Jordan.

I’m pretty darn aware of my values and work to keep them at the forefront of everything I do.

Yet sometimes values collide, causing conflict, stress, and indecision.

That’s exactly what happened to me this week. I typically publish a blog post every other Tuesday. Usually, I have the post done way ahead of time during Week One, leaving Week Two to tweak it continuously and procrastinate writing another post.

These past two weeks have been particularly busy, and I just didn’t get to it.

My Fun and Freedom values whispered, “Ah, just skip it. You want to enjoy writing, not make it a chore. You can use it as a lesson for high achievers that sometimes stuff just doesn’t get done, and the world doesn’t fall apart.”

Meanwhile my value of Excellence was saying, “Dedicate the time necessary to produce a quality post. Better to stick to your standard than rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.”

Yet my pesky Integrity value couldn’t resist, “You made a commitment to post every other Tuesday! You need to follow through! Breach of contract! Alert! Alert!”

As we ticked closer and closer to the publishing deadline, I went back and forth as to whether I should grind it out or relax and have a weekend.

So how did I choose which value to honor? They’re all important.

As you know, I’m a huge fan of Yes, and... to increase my options. Once I recognized my values at work, I didn’t want to choose one over another. I decided to change up my writing process to keep it Fun and Free (and not work the weekend) even though it meant a much tighter deadline. I honored Excellence by committing to writing a quality post, even if it meant it would be shorter than normal (so much for that, verbosity). Finally, I committed to getting the darn thing out because there’s something about that invisible Integrity contract that’s really important for me to uphold.

Note: Michael Jordan didn’t weigh in on this one, but when the Michael Jordan value speaks, I listen.


Follow the Energy

What’s particularly interesting about values colliding is to understand where the energy is coming from…and going.

Let’s take a common example of the elusive work/life balance struggle.

Especially with women, there’s a tendency to weight values in the direction of others rather than themselves. Personal Freedom may be really important to you, but when it bumps up against Achievement or Compassion, whoa Nelly, your personal freedom is going to lose every time. If gone unchecked, soon you're feeling boxed in and stuck. 

Watch out for unconsciously deprioritizing core values that directly have to do with your personal well-being. Look for ways to highlight all your values, so you can take care of yourself as much as others.

Neglecting any of your values for a prolonged period of time can lead to imbalance. Follow the energy to make sure your values work for you, not against.


Fear-based and Conscious-based Values

Values can be fear-based or conscious-based. This is a coach-y way of saying that your values can spring from something you want to avoid or from something you choose with intention.

One way to tell the difference is by asking whether you actively want more of that value in your life, or whether it’s masquerading as a value because of something you don’t want.

Let’s use Freedom. Freedom shows up for many people, so let’s dig a little deeper. Where does your desire for Freedom come from? Is it because you’re energized by the idea of fully controlling your work and cash flow as an entrepreneur (conscious-based), or is it because you feel trapped in your current role (fear-based)?

Check in with yourself on your values. Are they indicators of what you want to create more of or simply a stand-in for what you want less of?

For long-term career success and happiness, go with the values that feel expansive and empowering rather than the ones that put you on the defensive.


Know Your Values

I hope this post has made the importance of understanding your values more concrete for you. 

For many, a deep understanding of what's most important to them starts to break their career options wide open. Suddenly, it's so clear why that great-on-paper job bugs them so much or why they've always loved working for start-ups.

You've heard of the exercise where you can only carry five things in your backpack. What five values would you bring?

Update April 14, 2018

The wonderful reader who inspired this post wrote in to share how she used the exercises in her own life. Take a read, then scroll down to share your own take.


Hi Caroline,

THANK YOU so much for sharing these thoughts with me - and in your latest blog post! The exercises were so helpful and concrete. After reflecting on the prompts, I've already made positive adjustments to my morning routine so that it is in alignment with my values (waking up earlier to include time for reading) and work life (going to our faculty/staff lunchtime tennis classes rather than making excuses about why I can't!) Here is my list of things I must do every day to be happy: 


- Foam rolling session

- Read

- Movement and exercise (tennis, yoga, lifting)

- Space and time for expansive, creative thinking

- NYT crossword puzzle

- Inspiration from strong leadership in action

- Walk in my neighborhood while listening to a podcast

- Quality time with my boyfriend


I'm still sitting with this list to start to identify five "backpack" values, but a few that are emerging are 1) Learning; 2) Openness/Space; 3) Personal Growth; 4) Leadership; and 5) Play.

The connection that you draw between frustration at work and values being challenged was a light bulb moment for me - a number of these values (all five, maybe?!) are being undermined by the situation and people by whom I am surrounded.

I so appreciate you taking the time for a long, thoughtful response, and I can't wait to read more of your archived and upcoming blog posts. Also eagerly await your new podcast! 




What shows up in your values? Are they fear-based or conscious-based?

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Author Bio: 

Before becoming a coach, Caroline spent 20 years in management consulting and financial services. She's made it her mission to help people grow, contribute, and get wherever they want to go.

Caroline wants women to recognize how much power they truly have to define their careers. The life and career you want really is possible once you have the roadmap. Take the first step by downloading her free guide.

She’s also a tennis fanatic, aspiring Minimalist, FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early) enthusiast, and Aloha Spirit seeker 🤙. She loves to share stories from her unconventional life and career focused on freedom, creativity, fun, health, family, and community. If she can do it, you can, too.