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Don't "Clarify" Your Values

Attempting to clarify your values does more harm than good.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
5 min read
Don't "Clarify" Your Values

"Values clarification" exercises have become a popular method for determining and (allegedly) effectively pursuing value in life.

Unfortunately, values clarification does more harm than good.

Whatever its particular form, "values clarification" essentially encourages you to treat your values, desires, and purposes like ordering from a restaurant menu.

You sit down and think real hard about which foods you like and dislike. You strategize about what to order - always duck, beets, and chocolate, for instance. Then, you simply order it - you go out and get what you like. You go get your fun, creativity, impact, love, and so on from the world.

What's wrong with treating life like ordering from a restaurant menu?

What could possibly be wrong with clarifying values?

You can't get all of what you want

If you value even reasonably many things, you're not going to be able to optimize for all of them. Optimizing for even one single value (while still leading an otherwise decent life ) could be quite difficult.

You've decided that you'll always order duck, beets, and chocolate at the restaurant of life - but today's restaurant offers only an entire roasted duck and a molten chocolate cake for 2. Are you going to order those and eat until you vomit? Or, what do you skip?

The traditional antidote to this problem is attempting to "balance" life areas instead of optimizing any of them, but from how much people neurotically lament the difficulty of achieving "balance," clearly something is not working here. You can theoretically order the entire duck and oversized chocolate dessert and not finish them… but you know how that plan ends.

By focusing at the outset on a few particular values and then not getting most (or any) of them 100%, you snatch perceived failure in life from the jaws of victory. What you've "clarified" is that you really want things that you can't quite have. Oops!

Values inherently conflict

Ok so let's say that you're extraordinarily good at time management and also do well on only 4 hours of sleep per night. There's a chance of you getting most of what you want.

But some values that sound great on paper conflict with each other in practice. No one is surprised to find that obsession with work conflicts with family life. A commitment to spontaneity will preclude some forms of rootedness. Bohemian traditionalism? Ask me about how that one's going.

This is like rolling up to the restaurant with your pre-existing preferences and the duck is on the short tasting menu and the chocolate dessert is on the long tasting menu and no modifications are permitted.

Even though each of the tasting menus is lovely, your pre-clarified values/preferences manage to focus you on what you're notgetting. You can dream up any combination of dishes - values - that you like... but that doesn't mean the restaurant - actual world - will serve them to you.

Preferred values blind you to available values

Ok, so either you have too many values to get them all at once or some of your values inherently conflict. Since the values clarification exercise encouraged you to identify even more closely with these values than you already did, it hurt more than it had to when your list of pre-selected values made contact with real life.

Worse still, "clarifying" values makes your chosen values more salient - at the price of backgrounding other values. Now you're thinking about duck, beets, and chocolate. You've forgotten that you actually really like fish and potatoes and caramel, too.

Although people attempt to prioritize their values differently, there is much to be appreciated in every member of the standard set: something to appreciate about both spontaneity and routine, something to appreciate about both striving and settling, something to appreciate about novelty and familiarity.

On top of usually not getting what you want, "clarifying" values also sets you up not to want what you do get.

Your desires aren't real

Have you ever thought you wanted something, only to change your mind later? Have you ever struggled to figure out what you "really" want?

People tend to think about desires as if they're glowing gems of truth. Even if they're buried under the dirt of obligation and others' expectations, you can mine for the desire gems, find them, and hold them like guiding stars in your hot little hands.

I do not believe that desires are real (i.e. pre-existing, settled) in this way. Mining too hard for true desires is at best a waste of time, and quite possibly the road to personal ruin.

To keep up with this increasingly silly restaurant metaphor: you can't really know what your future self might prefer off the menu, and you can't know how to rank the choices if you haven't experienced more of them, and also the harder you think about it the (correctly) less sure you are at all.

We are complicated creatures with heterogenous interests deriving from physiological, social, and personal drives. This state of affairs is not well-conceptualized as any given person having clear "wants" that can be formulated on the spot, compressed usefully, and coherently carried through time.

You're not ordering off a menu, you're improvising in your kitchen

To sum it up: values clarification methods dubiously imply that your desires are knowable and real, that getting what you want is the most important thing in life, and that knowing and getting what you want is even possible in the first place.

Instead, like meaning in life itself, desires are characteristically hazy, ephemeral, and not reducible to specific values. Values conflict not just in practice but in theory. And getting what we want is just one slice of the human experience - the one that is likely to take care of itself without too much attention, whereas loving the actual is a quieter, more humbling practice.

Your life, then, isn't much like ordering from a restaurant's menu at all. Instead, you're just hungry in the kitchen at home one night. There are ingredients around - some you know how to prepare, and some you don't. You *could* leave to go get something else, but that would cost money and time, with variable expected payoff.

If you have confidence or low standards, you could throw something together. If you prefer to follow authority, you could look up a recipe. Maybe someone else is with you, so you take the needs and preferences into account too, but there's no one right way of being considerate.

Each night, the choice of how to handle dinner is a little bit different. There's just no good reason to pre-implement some hierarchy or algorithm to handle the situation. Instead, all you have to do - all you can ever do - is respond to reasons appropriately within their context.

"Values clarification" implies dubious things about value, then enshrines them. In reality it's just you, your shifting preferences, pre-existing knowledge, social factors, and all-things-considered situation. Course corrections are one thing - but don't commit a high modernist atrocity against yourself. Values necessarily emerge from the bottom up, in an illegible patchwork that exceeds anything we could ever design.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.