Determining Your Values with Hypothetical Extremes

To be happy is an enormous achievement because it entails working very hard to learn what one needs to be happy and most people choose the incorrect things. – Marty

My great uncle and I have had a long running email conversation about life, philosophy,  happiness, and the like. One of the tenents of his philosophy, which is based heavily on the works of Ayn Rand and Nathanial Brandon, is that happiness is a consequence of living your life in a way that’s aligned with your values, which in turn should be based on your own rational self interest.

Determining your values can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before but I highly encourage you to take some time and figure them out if you’re not sure. I came up a simple way of determining my values that works pretty well for me so I thought I’d share it with you all in case you’re having trouble:

1. Start by identifying one thing that you value. It doesn’t have to be the most important thing, but it should be something that you would say “Yeah, that’s important to me.”

2. Imagine a hypothetical life where that’s the only thing in your life. Would you be happy if that’s all you had?

3. If not, ask yourself why? What’s missing? Add that to your list of values and repeat these steps until you’ve got a life that you’d be happy with.

The list of things that make up this hypothetical world is what you value.

Here’s an example for me:

I enjoy making things. Would I be happy in a world where all I did was make things? No. It’s not enough to simply make something. It has to be something new and creative.

So I want to make new, creative things. Would I be happy in a world where that’s all I did? No. If I have someone telling me new, creative things I should make I wouldn’t be satisfied. I have to have the independence to make what I want.

So I want to make new, creative things (ie. innovate) without anyone dictating my actions or direction. Would I be happy in a world where I was an independent innovator? No. I could sit in a dimly lit room all day making cool things with legos, but I wouldn’t be happy. The things I build have to have some impact on the world.

So I want to be an independent innovator who creates things with impact. Would that be enough? What if I could change hundreds of lives but no one would ever know it was me? Recognition isn’t paramount, but I find that I would like some recognition for my work. I don’t want to be anonymous.

So I want to be a recognized independent innovator who creates things with impact. Getting there. Would it be enough to do this completely alone, without any friends or family? No. I want those things too.

So I want to be a recognized independent innovator who creates things with impact who also has a great family and friends. Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me. It’s not perfect: I could continue adding other things (physical and mental health, education, self improvement, integrity, etc), but you get the idea.

By following this simple little algorithm you can determine with high fidelity what your values are. It won’t tell you whether these things are in your own self interest (ie, you might imagine a world where you’ve got an endless supply of cocaine to get high on), but it will help you identify what’s important to you.

Give it a shot. See what you come up with.  Figure out how you’re going to get there, then do it.

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