Valerie Tiberius is a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota. Much of her work is centered at the junction of practical philosophy and practical psychology, examining how both disciplines can meaningfully improve lives. She has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto and a master’s and doctorate in philosophy from the University of North Carolina.
Below, Valerie shares 5 key insights from her new book, What Do You Want Out of Life? A Philosophical Guide to Figuring Out What Matters. Listen to the audio version—read by Valerie herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Values are the key to living well.
Everyone has goals, from the mundane to the profound: buy groceries, join a gym, read more novels, clean the bathroom, get promoted, ask for a raise, have children. These goals compete for our limited time and resources and sometimes they are in conflict. That conflict causes stress and frustration. People often call this problem the work/life balance. The quick answer is to connect our goals to our values. Understand and reinterpret our most important goals and try to live our lives everyday with our goals and actions aligned with our values.
Our values are very important because they are an essential part of the narratives that we use to make sense of life. Values are what you think about when you reflect on how well your life is going. If someone asks you how you’re doing, you’re likely to think about how you’re doing in the domains of the things you value. How’s work? How are things with my family? How’s my health? Values also anchor us when we have doubts about whether our goal-directed activities have any point.
2. Understanding your values is harder than it sounds.
We know what matters to us in the most general of terms. Most of us have a list of core values related to relationships, health, finances, security, and fun. However, we don’t always know what it means to fulfill those very general values or how much they matter. Everyone values family, but what does this mean? Spouse and kids? Chosen family? How do you fulfill the value of family? By being a stay-at-home parent? By being a financial provider? A bit of both? Maybe you value fun, but what kinds of fun? Does your work have to be fun, or are you better off with a fun hobby? Is fun ever important enough to sacrifice career goals for?
“We keep changing, setting new goals, encountering new conflicts, and then we have to figure out how to resolve them.”
By adulthood, we have diverse, multifaceted, and interrelated goals. When we don’t know what it means to fulfill our values, or how much they matter to us, it can be hard to know how to pursue them and how to resolve conflicts among them. Moreover, even if you know exactly how much you value something at a point in time, as we get older, we often need to change those values.
When I was young, I thought that when I was old I would have it all figured out, but life isn’t the kind of thing you can set to autopilot. We keep changing, setting new goals, encountering new conflicts, and then we have to figure out how to resolve them. Fun may mean snowboarding in your thirties and ballroom dancing in your sixties. Family may take priority over work when your kids are very young or your parents are very old, but not at other times when you need to put more energy into work. So, understanding what matters to you is a lifelong process.
3. You can’t get there just by thinking.
What we value, what really matters to us, is revealed at least as much by how we feel as it is by what we think. Values that fit our persistent desires and emotions are more likely to be the kinds of stable commitments we need to resolve conflicts, and anchor our sense that things are going well in life.
To understand our values, we can’t just introspect. We also have to observe our patterns of reaction to things. Trusted friends can help by pointing out how we respond emotionally to our activities in ways we are resistant to acknowledging. For example, if you identify as a person who reads great literature, it may be hard to recognize that reading classic novels makes you fall asleep. We can try to see ourselves as a friend would see us, by noticing our emotions in the moment and looking for patterns without making judgments about them.
4. When values conflict, be flexible.
Even values that fit you perfectly compete for time and resources. Fortunately, values are typically open to interpretation and reinterpretation and we can manage conflicts by being flexible.
“Over time, and in response to conflicts, we need to adjust the standards for fulfilling our values so that we can get the most out of them.”
A value can be interpreted in many different ways by different people, or by one person, over the course of a life. In your twenties, you might think that career success means raises, promotions, and personal progress. As you near retirement, it may make more sense to see career success as defined by the small, but meaningful, contribution you have made to a larger project or organization. Over time, and in response to conflicts, we need to adjust the standards for fulfilling our values so that we can get the most out of them, without feeling like we’re always failing.
5. Keep your focus on what matters.
To live life well, we need to live in accordance with the values that fit who we are. This means prioritizing the things that are more important and letting go of things that don’t really matter. We can do this by changing our habits one step at a time. We can also take a moment once in a while to reflect on how well we’re doing at living up to our values. We can also ask ourselves whether we need to change how we are spending our time.
This process of understanding, refining, and aligning our actions with our values is ongoing. One common theme that will run through it is that other people matter—we always value our relationships with other people. We also value many activities that involve other people in significant ways: musicians play music together, basketball players need a team, even readers join reading groups. What’s more, because of how we are wired—we are naturally social creatures—values that involve other people tend to be stable, well suited to us, and reliable sources of feelings of purpose.
To listen to the audio version read by author Valerie Tiberius, download the Next Big Idea App today: