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What are your core values, and why are they important to consider when evaluating your career options? Your core values are principles that you find desirable, important or even essential. An alignment between your career and your core values produces satisfaction, a sense of happiness and fulfillment. A misalignment can cause can everything from minor problems to major disruptions.

Work core values are typically broken into three types:

  • Intrinsic values are related to the intangibles about the career. These are the values that motivate you and help you feel fulfilled. Examples of intrinsic values are giving back to society and expressing your creativity.
  • Extrinsic values relate to the tangible rewards derived from your career and your work environment. Some examples of extrinsic values are pay, working as part of a team and providing influence.
  • Lifestyle values. Lifestyle values are a type of second-tier value. What you do for a career and where you work produces a certain type of lifestyle. The type of lifestyle you desire can help complete the picture of what you value. A few examples of lifestyle values include living in a big city, traveling extensively and living simply.

Some people’s core values may have been obvious to them for a long time. For others, a recent event may uncover a set of personal core values. Recognition of your own core values may come to you naturally, or the process can be a struggle.

I wish I could say that I knew from a young age what I valued in life and what I wanted to do with my career. It took many years and multiple jobs for me to understand myself, my values and the importance of keeping those things in alignment with the work I did. For me, I think the answer was there for a long time, but I just didn’t see it. I must have been looking for a great cataclysmic event to make things clear. There was no earthquake that produced a sign saying, “This way is your personal path to career happiness!” In hindsight, understanding my values shouldn’t have been such a mystery.

Two people can have the same core values, yet their values can be understood or expressed in different ways. An example of this can be seen when looking at Naveena and Stephen. Both hold Ph.D.s in the life sciences and decided to go directly to work after graduation. Stephen and Naveena share the extrinsic value of wanting to provide influence and the lifestyle value of desiring to travel extensively. While they share two of the same core values, they are honoring those values with different career choices.

Naveena just accepted a management consulting job. She believes that helping to guide different organizations spread across the world is the best way for her be true to her desire for freedom. Management consulting can be perfect fit for Naveena. She is not constrained by doing the same job, in the same office, every day. Her work duties and office locations change frequently based on the projects that her company assigns her. This amount of freedom keeps Naveena happy and fulfilled.

Stephen is working as a freelance medical communications specialist. He doesn’t want to work for one organization and likes the freedom to choose the types of contracts he accepts. As a freelancer, Stephen can work where and when he wants. One of his goals in the next 12 months is to travel extensively throughout Thailand. He plans to work while traveling because, as a freelancer, he can take his office with him on a daily basis. Stephen is thrilled to be able to combine his travel goals with his career choice.

You need to have a good understanding of yourself and your values to readily analyze your current or future situations. Tim had his aha moment regarding his values when he was in high school. His 11th-grade English teacher, Mr. Rubenstein, helped facilitate his interest with British and American literature. Tim often asked him questions about the readings after class, and Mr. Rubenstein happily provided Tim with additional stories and articles to read in his spare time. The mentoring relationship between Tim and Mr. Rubenstein created that aha moment. Tim learned that he valued helping others, continuous learning and influencing people. He finished his Ph.D. in literature, teaches at a California university and mentors a group of students who want to become teachers and faculty members. Tim is happy and fulfilled, and he enjoys his career.

Why it is important to understand and align your values with your career? Your values give you a sense of purpose and are guideposts to what fits you best. If you are working in a role or organization that is not a good match for your values, your “symptoms” may vary from mild to strong. On the mild side, you might feel a general sense of discomfort or a lack of connection with your situation. Feeling a lack of motivation and constantly wanting to take a day off are other indicators that there could be a mismatch. On the extreme end, a misalignment between your career and your values could make you completely miserable, trigger depression or even cause you to become physically ill.

What if you don’t know what your core values are? Where do you begin the process of understanding what you truly value at work and in your life? You can find numerous resources to help you on your self-awareness journey.

If you prefer to explore through books, you have multiple options. Each of the following tackles the subject of work and life values in a different way: Return to Your Core: Principles for a Respected and Purposeful Life by Jay C. Rifenbary, Unwrapping Your Passion: Creating the Life You Truly Want by Karen Putz, and Know Yourself, Grow Your Career: The Personal Proposition Workbook by Anne Marie Segal.

You also have numerous options if you want to take your core values journey via websites or article. For a running list of values to trigger brainstorming, consider this article by Allison Doyle or another by Dawn Rosenberg McKay. This blog post by Anne Loehr explains her journey and how she lives by her values.

More career-focused and detailed assessments can be found in other resources. The MyIDP tool for scientists offers multiple self-assessment tools, including a values inventory. Social science and humanities graduate students and postdocs can find a similar tool at ImaginePhD.

Another popular website for individuals in all career fields is O*Net OnLine. This site is a comprehensive resource for detailed job descriptions. The descriptions are cross-referenced by multiple systems including the Classification of Instructional Programs and the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The website’s advanced search function allows you to browse jobs by work values and other categories.

If you don’t know what your core values are yet, start the work to get those answers. Once you know your values, consider how your career meshes with your values. You may already have a great fit between values and career, or there could be a mismatch. It’s never too late to better understand your core values and align your career to them. Your career satisfaction and happiness may depend upon it.

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