06/05/2014 09:12 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Taking a Hard Look at What's Important: Validating our Values

When someone asks what our values are, we can probably start listing things that seem important to us in life right away. These things will determine how we assess our level of success, and so getting them right is very important.

However, as we eagerly list those values we may not quite as readily step back to decide which of those are actually ours and not ones that have been handed to us over the years. These 'hand-me-down' values are still very valid, so much so, that by now making that distinction may seem like a bit of a struggle.

I first noticed this when talking to students at the business school about their careers, goals and aspirations. What they considered to be important to them as they thought about their new post MBA lives was strikingly similar. It made sense; a set of like minded, highly driven individuals with similar backgrounds were likely to have common values. But equally, they were also very different people, and though I didn't get this information the first time, after a bit of prodding I found out that:

Jo, had lost his father when young and grown up in a small home in Kansas, Peter was dealing with huge financial burdens and was born and raised in London, and Emily came from a long line of doctors in Kenya and was breaking away from her family tradition to pursue her dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. So, I pushed further and asked about their backgrounds and what that meant in terms of who they wanted to be, and how they defined success.

Soon the validation started trickling in,

I mean sure, when I say making an impact, of course I am talking much more than money.

When I said I'd never move back to Kansas, I mean I guess, if my mother needed me to, I would... It's actually not so bad.

Hearing the students start to modify that initial checklist inspired me to do the same. Which of the values I held most dearly were ones I actively chose? It made me think about how far away from my Mediterranean origin I had come, and more so about the fact that I never really chose a fast paced, big city lifestyle, but yet here I was, allowing the city to define what success meant to me.

While we busily chase what everyone else chases, and make comparisons based on selective information through things like social media, it may be hard to really take the time to examine what really matters to us, personally. It gets even harder if it directly conflicts with what matters to those around us, or more accurately what appears to matter. I suppose we can call this, 'value pressure.'

For the business students it was as important as ever to perform that validation, as they thought about their future careers and continued to define success for themselves, but I worried that might not happen. What I also realized was that we are all at risk of pursuing a path assuming it will define success for us. Without taking the time and being flexible enough to examine those values constantly and checking to see which hold true, and which lost value along the way, we may stop really remembering or trusting what we believe. It is then that we risk that all the effort we put into our endeavors, career and projects lead us down a path where our values just aren't valid.