Where Do Core Values Come From?

Written by
Michael Wells

Where Do Core Values Come From?

Are We Born with Them?

Written by
Michael Wells

Where Do Core Values Come From?

Are We Born with Them?

Written by
Michael Wells
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"Are we born with our values?
Does life experience change them?
Does everyone start with the same values and then as we branch out from those, we get other ones?
Is it more useful to know our underlying values, or the activities we should do that bring us fulfillment?"
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I write a lot about core values, because they are perhaps the single most important thing I've found to direct my life and make decisions.

  • They are the compass for every decision that I make
  • They provide a framework for my lifestyle, career, relationships, and hobbies
  • They deeply influence who I choose to surround myself with
  • They form the very foundation of my identity

Since the core values "compass" is so fundamentally important to each of our lives, it's natural to wonder where core values come from, whether they change, and why we each seem to have a slightly different set of core values that defines us best.

I've been meaning to pen my thoughts on this for some time, and a recent post by one of our BROJO members brought these questions back to the surface. Time to take a crack at this. However, I expect my answer here is going to evolve a lot in the future as my perspective and experiences continue to develop.

Where do Core Values come from?

Are our Core Values with us at birth, or do we learn them as young children? Or, do they emerge throughout our lives as we grow and experience life?

Are Core Values Intrinsic, Extrinsic or Emergent?

Let's define some terms.

We often perceive core values as originating in one of three different ways.

  • Intrinsic core values would be values that have been with us since birth. They have always been part of our being, in the same way that an instinct would be. We cannot conceive of life or thought that pre-existed them.
  • Extrinsic core values would be values that we've learned from the world around us. They are not ours, but we adopt them and maybe personalize them as well to some degree. These are generally adopted at a young age, so they often feel like they are ours, but we can clearly see also where parents, peers, society & culture embodied them and influenced us.
  • Emergent core values would be values that surfaced later in life. We clearly remember the time before we knew them, yet they are central to us now. Strangely, it's often difficult to identify the origin. They seem to have appeared spontaneously, since we became aware of them suddenly- however we can also see life experiences that played a large part in their development.

Perhaps only one of these is an accurate source for core values, and the others are pretenders. Or perhaps 2 or even all 3 origins are possible for our values.

This is what we are exploring today.

Reflections on My Own Core Values

As I write this, in 2020, I define my top core values as;

  1. Growth - the desire to become everything I can be, to push my limits and explore beyond them
  2. Curiosity - the desire to learn everything I possibly can
  3. Creativity - the desire to create unique, powerful and beautiful things in the world
  4. Compassion - care for people, awareness and understanding of their emotional states, giving them or connecting them with essential support when necessary
  5. Connection - the desire to connect deeply with people, on physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological levels.

The ordering I've given here is important. I prioritize my core values in terms of their degree of importance to me, so values at the top of my list take precedence over values lower down my list.

Keep that in mind, it will come up again later.

Where Did My Values Originate From?

Of my own Core Values, I can clearly identify some that appear to be innate, like Curiosity and Creativity, which I can see even in my youngest memories.

I was rarely bored as a child because I could find fascination in everything I explored. I feel like these values were always with me, ever since I first opened my eyes.

However this isn't precisely true for all of my values.

Other values, like Compassion and Connection feel like they've emerged more strongly in recent years.

it's difficult for me to determine whether that makes them "emergent" from life experiences or whether they were "intrinsic" from birth- and have just become clearer and stronger in my life as I began to seek my values.

My value of Growth seemed different because it's now my #1 value, but I don't clearly remember feeling the desire to Grow when I was a young child. This puzzled me - was it always there, or did I only identify it later?

On deeper reflection, it turns out that both are true.

When I was young I related to Growth differently- it was Accomplishment, Achievement, Victory, Success. I wanted to achieve as much as possible in my life, but my focus was on the world outside of me.

It was only when I clearly realized that I could improve myself, at fundamental levels psychologically, emotionally & physically - that I realized that was what I had desired most all along.

I wanted not only to experience the best life that I could experience, but to be the best person that I can be. As a child, I simply had no real understanding that it was possible to change who I was.

My value of Growth was always intrinsic, but my understanding of Growth has expanded dramatically.

Realizing this highlights another interesting thing about my values list.

The values I identify as clearly intrinsic seem more fundamental and rise to the top of my values list. Other values fall beneath these. Perhaps the higher ones are more "more deeply intrinsic", or perhaps I'm simply more familiar with them and they have a more established place in my identity.

Whichever the case, one thing I am certain of is that my understanding of my values has evolved continually throughout my life.

At the start of this journey, I knew the rough outline of my values, like a vague shadow. Gradually they become a crisp, clear image that I clearly recognize and understand in my day to day life.

Over time, my core values have matured - but more accurately, my understanding my my values has clarified.

Core Values v. Virtues

Some psychologists suggest that core values are extrinsic ( externally acquired ) rather than intrinsic ( internally pre-existing ) or emergent ( internally generated ).

In this view, we are born without any values, however they emerge between ages 0 - 7 as a result of our life experiences and influences.

Personally I'd describe these as virtues, because in this situation they are externally acquired from parents, friends, teachers and society.

Virtues are not bad, and sometimes they can add value to your life too - but this is a different concept from core values.

This is an important distinction, because the bandwagon effect is a very powerful bias and society affects us hugely. Often we are unable to determine which aspects of our identity are naturally ours, and which were socially grafted onto our identity from outside.

A lot of my work as a coach is about separating these out, because people often experience deep conflict between their internal core values and their externally-acquired virtues.

  • Their parents want them to be a lawyer / doctor / engineer, but they want to be an artist
  • Their parents want them to get married, but they want to pursue career, or a solo single life
  • Society has expectations of them, that just don't fit their deepest plan for themselves
When you don't understand the difference, and you embrace virtues as values, your entire worldview is fundamentally based on people-pleasing.

I can't even calculate the amount of suffering, confusion, and paralysis I've helped people through as a result of confusion between values & virtues.

Your core values and your socialized virtues are not the same thing, and learning to distinguish them is essential. Consider how a child must separate themselves from their parents in order to become an adult- this is the process of developing independence.
In the same way, you need to separate your values from society's virtues, and identify your own compass to make your own life decisions. This is the process of developing integrity.

Working with Your Core Values

Ultimately it's not that important to me which origin story is more accurate, the discovery and learning process is the same.

Whether core values are intrinsic, emergent, or both, my relationship with my values involves;

  1. Discovery. identifying my core values.
  2. Learning. Exploring and testing them,
  3. Refinement. Refining them carefully.
  4. Authenticity. Becoming skilled in their application, learning to use them everywhere, and developing them into my identity.

In these processes, there are no differences that I can see.

All of these experiences lead me to understanding more about my core values, and the cycle repeats, going deeper and deeper into understanding with each iteration.

Embrace that.

Practically, your goals in life are-

  1. To become the person that you are happiest being, and the most proud of.
  2. To build the best and most fulfilling life possible.
  3. To surround yourself with the people who you connect with best, and who add the most value to your life - and to repel others.
Ultimately, embracing and embodying your core values into an authentic identity is the most powerful thing you can do towards all 3 of those goals.
It's far more important to know how to use the compass, than to know who made the compass or why it works.
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First published on 
. Last updated on 
October 28, 2020

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      Are There Different Functional Categories of Core Values?

      Values are fascinating because they run so deeply, that there seems to be no "bottom" to the depths that you can dive.

      At some point, your relationship with your values becomes more emotional and intuitive than rational, and things are sensed more than understood.

      My gut has a lot more to teach me about my values, and the nature of values in general.

      I'm intuitively fascinated... not only by where my values-compass is pointing, but about how compasses work to begin with. And what the heck is magnetism anyway?

      You see my point- there's a lot of intriguing mystery behind core values, and my curiosity flares up in a spectacular way.

      However, what I have to share here is more intuition than understanding.

      As I get deeper, I'll have a much clearer perspective on this and be able to relate it more effectively.

      Right now, my intuition is telling me that there are different kinds of values- categories that have different characteristics.

      If you look at emotions, you can clearly categorize emotions into multiple distinct categories, such as Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment. Pain is further divided into cravings an aversions.

      I feel intuitively that values have clear groupings in similar ways.

      Most importantly, there seems to be a fairly solid distinction between fundamental core values such as Honesty, which seem to be deeply beneficial for all humans- and personal core values which are highly unique to an individual.

      More on that in a future article.