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Nosce te ipsum

Posted by Seth Elliott On June - 10 - 2010

ethics word cloudIn order to advance in business or life, the old aphorism holds true: Know Thyself. We’ve examined the process of goal setting before – but can you set goals without a comprehensive level of self-knowledge?

Identifying your core personal values and, by extension, those values that underpin your business is of critical importance in the goal setting process. Articulating key goals that are not congruent with core values is a sure prescription for failure.

It sounds straightforward right? Unfortunately, when it comes time to set pen to paper, many people discover that identifying and articulating values is more difficult than anticipated. Let’s take a look at the process of discovering, communicating and integrating your core values.

You’ll need to clear about 15-30 minutes of time for these exercises, and have a pen and paper available. Although you may be tempted to skip ahead, do your best to work comprehensively through each of these activities.

Create Your World’s End Calendar

Tomorrow, scientists announce that the Earth will collide with a super-comet one week later. There is no doubt that this will happen, and the Earth (and humankind) will not survive. What will you do with your remaining week?

First, brainstorm a list of anything and everything that you would want to do after learning of this circumstance. Don’t ignore odd or random whims – and don’t make judgments at this stage. Just write down all the desires that come to mind.

Once you’ve exhausted your list, it’s time to put it on a calendar. Take an hourly calendar of the week (be sure to leave time for sleeping) and schedule your time, based on your list. This step imposes some discipline about prioritizing those things that are important to you.

By the way – there’s no magic about the one week timeframe. You can use 2 weeks or 1 month if that makes you more comfortable. The key is to have a discrete time frame that imparts a level of urgency to your thinking process.

It Takes a Hero

Do you have any heroes or even just individuals that you admire? These can be people that you know or simply follow – they don’t even have to be living. Make a list of the qualities that you most respect in each of these individuals. Again, do your best to create a comprehensive list. Once you’ve finished, narrow it down to the three most admirable traits for each of your heroes.

King for a Day

Now, it’s time to shift perspective a bit. Imagine that YOU are someone’s hero. What skills and traits that do you possess that are most worthy of admiration by another? Try and develop 15 – 20 individual answers.

Lifelong Learning

Imagine that the end of your life is approaching. As you look back on your days, what are the most important lessons that you have learned? You may find, once again, that the best mechanism for identifying these is to simply brainstorm and list all possible answers. Once you can no longer think of any, take a look at your list and revise and prioritize down to the three most important.


Finally, what epigram would you like to see on your tombstone? This one sentence should capture the core of your personal essence in life. If you wish, you can extend this exercise to writing your own obituary or eulogy.

Your Values

Now you have the tools needed to codify your personal values. Review the answers that you developed to the previous exercises. Are there recurring themes? Which answers resonate strongly with you? Where are the congruencies among the exercises?

As you analyze your answers, begin to express them in the form of core values. If, for example, you find wealth to be a recurring theme, try and determine the key motivation(s) behind this. Does your desire for wealth manifest itself in the form of philanthropy? Is it a function of security? Perhaps abundance is of great importance to you.

You may find this reductive process difficult – particularly identifying the specific words that embody your values. If you need to, take a look at this list of values – I’m sure it’s not ultimately complete, but I think you’ll find it to be comprehensive and useful.

Finally, you’ll want to prioritize your values and, if necessary, winnow them down to a manageable amount. You want to choose 3 to 10 values and write them in a separate list. These should be those concepts that truly define you. They must resonate with you on a deep level. You should read each of these and recognize that you cannot imagine a life that does not take these values as a foundation.

You may want to list your values in a priority order – particularly if you’ve chosen a larger number as important to you. This step is not absolutely necessary, but often the process of considering which value is more important to you is a very useful thought experiment.


Once you’ve articulated your values, it’s time to reexamine your goals. To begin, I’m going to assume that your business values are congruent with your personal values (if not, you need to reevaluate your circumstances). Of course, your business may have additional key values that are not as important to you personally. If so, be sure to articulate those, as well.

Now, take a look at each of your goals in the light of the work you’ve done. Are any of your goals in conflict with your values? If so, you need to determine why the incongruity exists and immediately take steps to address it. When considering goals, take the active step of considering how your values and the goal integrate. In fact, now that you have enumerated your values and hold them in your conscious mind, you can evaluate every major decision in the context of your core values.

Extra Credit

If you complete the preceding exercises, my guess is that you are in advance of more than 99% of the population in regards to your understanding of yourself and integrating your desires and goals with your values. If you want to do even further work, here’s one final exercise.

Once each week (or once each month, or once each day – whatever discrete time period works for you) ask yourself what one, single change could you immediately make in your behavior that would help you to live in greater harmony with your values. Keep a log of the answers and evaluate your progress in regards to actions on a regular basis.

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About the Author

I have spent the last 15 years advising entrepreneurs on starting and growing their businesses, as well as assisting in financing those growth efforts. I have also been an entrepreneur on several occasions myself. By writing this blog, I hope to provide actionable advice on how to achieve your goals and become more successful.
  • Parissa Behnia

    Seth – really enjoyed this and timely as I'm in the midst of writing a blog post about internal and external brand alignment and “walking the talk” as I like to call it. One company that has done it well is Southwest and a few others are Jet Blue and Zappos.

  • Parissa Behnia

    Seth – really enjoyed this and timely as I'm in the midst of writing a blog post about internal and external brand alignment and “walking the talk” as I like to call it. One company that has done it well is Southwest and a few others are Jet Blue and Zappos.

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