"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." Lewis Carroll
All coaching, including self-coaching, takes place within a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. If self-coaching is a plan--a sequence of steps to help us effect positive change in our lives--then our values and our vision are the Big Picture--a source of meaning and purpose, and the underlying rationale for the changes we seek to make.
Overview and Timing
It's not necessary--or even desirable--to fully explore our values and vision at the very start of the self-coaching process. These are large, complex topics that take time and effort to address, and at the beginning of a change effort it may be more important to simplify: Break things down into components, build momentum with small victories, and scale up as needed.
But I'm not saying that a sense of direction is irrelevant. The passage above from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is often misquoted as, "If you don't know where you're going, then any path will do," and the whole point of a structured self-coaching process is clarifying just which paths we should pursue now.
I am saying that while self-coaching is an active and iterative experiential learning process, once we've determined our immediate goals and begun moving in a general direction, we must also insure that as we assess our progress, we also make time at regular intervals to pull up and observe the view from a higher perspective. Chris Argyris' concept of double-loop learning is highly relevant here; exploring our values and vision is a means of identifying and updating the assumptions and mental models that have been influencing and supporting (or undermining) our day-to-day self-coaching efforts.
While we have to determine for ourselves when and how often this work at a higher level should be done, we need to be mindful of two diametrically opposed but equally dangerous traps: 1) Doing too much, too soon, and 2) Doing too little, too late.
We may have a tendency toward one extreme or the other that we should bear in mind--or we may find them both tempting at different points in the process. I can get stuck at the outset of any project by indulging in an excess of high-level thinking as a respectable form of procrastination, but I can also build up a sense of momentum once I get started that feeds on itself and makes me reluctant to slow down enough to do any high-level thinking. (As much as I admire the Cult of Done, I also know how important it is for me to stop and experience some stillness every day.)
Exploring Our Values
A dilemma we face when discussing "values" is that their definitions can be so subjective--and when we arrive at a definition that's true for us, we still have to determine just what it means to actually live that value. Here's a simple exercise to reach an actionable definition of your core values:
- Create a list of words that you think of as values that have some meaning to you. Don't worry about what that meaning is at this point.
- Keep writing until the words stop flowing freely. Don't worry about how many words are on the list.
- Take each word in turn and think of a story that demonstrates that value in action, preferably an actual event you experienced or observed. Don't write out the entire story, but jot down a few notes so that you can readily reflect back upon it.
- Having illustrated each value this way, ask yourself:
- What intrinsic rewards are the result of this value? In what ways does it fulfill me or create a sense of meaning in my life?
- What extrinsic rewards--what forms of status or compensation--am I willing to sacrifice on behalf of this value?
- How important is this value to my self-identity? How different would my life have to be for me to abandon this value?
- Use the answers to these questions to narrow your original list of words down to no more than five--and preferably three. Consider the results your core values.
Another approach is to use a values-based assessment that incorporates a set of pre-defined values and relies on a questionnaire to determine which values are most important or meaningful to us. These tools offer a number of advantages, but as with any instrument, it's important to recognize that even the best results need to be weighed against our personal experience and shouldn't be accepted as universal truths.
An assessment I've used and recommend frequently is the Values in Action Survey of Character Strengths (VIA), developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, which helps us to identify the values from which we derive the greatest meaning. The complete, 240-question version of the VIA is available through the VIA Institute on Character and the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. For more on the VIA and Seligman's work on values and meaning, see the Signature Strengths section in Part 2 of my Happiness, Excellence and Boundaries series.
(I've also taken Scott Bristol's Life Journey Map and have found it tremendously useful, but it can be accessed only by people working with a registered coach or consultant. I have not taken the Clifton/Gallup StrengthsFinder, but it's been recommended to me, and I plan to take it soon.)
Defining Our Vision
Our personal values serve as the foundation for our vision for ourselves. I want to acknowledge that the concept of a "vision" is inherently fuzzy and consequently susceptible to abuse. We've all read dozens of "vision statements" full of noble, high-minded words that are routinely ignored. Most of them are empty exercises that ultimately serve no purpose except to breed cynicism. But any good tool can be misused, and I want to rescue this concept from airless committees, rehabilitate it, and put it back in the hands of active individuals.
I also want to distinguish between a vision and a goal. Goal-setting is a critical step in the self-coaching process, one that I recommend addressing at the outset to provide both direction and motivation for the work that follows. But even our most ambitious goals are dynamic components of a larger, more comprehensive vision for ourselves. We can and should feel free to simply identify a goal and begin moving toward it--goals motivate us, and difficult goals motivate us even more under the right conditions. By driving action they serve an essential function in self-coaching. But our vision for ourselves should be more deeply rooted, more enduring, and should be the product of deeper, more far-reaching reflection.
Truly great [professionals] understand the difference between what should never change and what should be open for change, between what is genuinely sacred and what is not. This rare ability to manage continuity and change--requiring a consciously practiced discipline--is closely linked to the ability to develop a vision.
This quote is from Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Building Your Company's Vision, a classic Harvard Business Review article aimed at motivating leaders to identify a vision for their organizations--a novel concept in 1996. I've adapted their method for defining a vision for use in coaching and have found it extremely helpful in my work with individuals. (Toward that end, I've substituted "professionals" for "companies" in the passage above.) According to Collins and Porras, a vision consists of two interrelated elements:
- Our Core Ideology: What we stand for and why we exist, lasting qualities that in some cases will never change over the course of our lives. Comprised of 1) our core values, our essential and enduring tenets; and 2) our core purpose, our reasons for being as professionals.
- An Envisioned Future: What we aspire to become, achieve, or create--a goal that will change only at long-term intervals. Comprised of 1) an audacious goal that looks beyond our current capabilities and environment; and 2) a vivid, engaging and specific description of what it would be like to achieve this goal.
For more on defining a vision, see the exercises in my post on Developing Your Professional Vision.
For an overview of my self-coaching framework, see A Self-Coaching Guide for Leaders at All Levels.
For all my posts on this topic, see my Self-Coaching category.
Thanks to Thaler Pekar for her thoughts on The Trouble with Values and the importance of stories.
Photo by Mohamed Muha. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.