Your value system gives you a reason why you work, why you are married, why you have children, why you sacrifice for them. Knowing your values gives you a framework for making choices and setting goals. You know that it isn’t enough to just exist. You want a certain quality of life, not only for yourself but also for the people you care about. You want to create happiness-producing environments and events.

To identify your ideals or values, try the following.

1. Imagine taking your heart out of your body and into your hands. You can suspend your life with your heart in your hands for two minutes. Now, with your heart in your hands, ask yourself, “What do I want most in my life?” Your response might be, “I want to have my heart back. I want to live.” So, put it back in. And then ask, “Now, what quality and quantity of life do I want?” You have the choice, the freedom, to choose to some degree the quality, and in some cases, the quantity of your life.

2. Imagine (or experience) some life-threatening event. Such events cause you to reassess your values. When your life is on the line, you tend to assess: “What is most important to me?” Life, yes. But what quality of life do I want?” If you’re in ill physical or mental health, you don’t have much of a choice. So if you value being well, you will adopt a wellness lifestyle. You will value mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health as much as physical health. You will create an internal and external mental climate that you want to live in. So, that would be the social life you want, the family life you want, the community life you want.

3. Experience some pain. Pain is the real reason why most people and organizations seek change. If you’re living a life of pain, misery, stress, or illness, ask yourself, “What is the root cause of this pain? What can I do to relieve the pain?” You may realize that you value safety, free from the fear of being harmed or injured. Pain tends to focus us on our core values, like freedom and liberty and justice those things that make up quality of life for you, for your children and grandchildren, and for the people around you.

4. Ask what makes you really happy. One characteristic of a mature human being is finding happiness in giving without selfish motivation. Until you reach that point, you’re going to be scrambling, especially the older you get. Ask, “What do I need to be happy?” If you stop to think about it, you might realize that you don’t need many material things clothes, cars, houses. Those likely won’t be on the top of your priority list. What do you think you need to be happy? Design the quality and quantity of creature comforts you want, the environment that you want, the relationships you want.

Learn to be happy along the way. If you’re happy only when you get what you want, then you can only be happy when you achieve your desired end results. You hate the rest of the process. You don’t want to start things because you don’t want the hassle.

find yourself

If you learn to enjoy the process the building of the team, the family, or the company you will want to start more things. If you love the process as much as you love the end result, you start and finish many more important things; and, you’re a happier, more fulfilled human being along the way.

As a young high school teacher and coach, I got caught in the trap of hating football practice and the slow learning process. About the only time I was happy was when we’d win a game. I was like an empty bottle walking around with a funnel sticking out of its mouth. I was just hoping people would fill me up. I could be happy when somebody gave me a present, applauded me, recognized me, or thought I was a wonderful person. Unless I got my fill first, I couldn’t be a very giving person. Once I got my fill, I could splash out a few drops on other people.

But over time, I started to realize that if the only way to be happy was to have somebody recognize, applaud, or praise me, then I couldn’t be happy very often.

Suppose you could be happy by giving somebody a gift that you knew they really wanted. Suppose you had a special gift that you knew a child, spouse, or friend would love to receive, and you just gave them this gift. Imagine that you are as happy for giving as they are for receiving the gift.

Once you know that your happiness can be the same whether you give or receive, you can become a more giving person who looks for ways and things to give to people in need. You don’t need to give just money. You can give of your time, help, skill, knowledge, ability, talent, and encouragement. A mother gives a wonderful gift when she gives her patience and her love to her children; in fact, that gift may surpass anything she might give to a community, school, business, or political organization.

When I was a high school teacher, I met a student named Bruce who had a cleft palate and was partially spastic. Many people at school avoided being around him. All I did was greet him every day as he would pass by me, ask him how he was doing, and occasionally talk to him. This went on for a couple of years. The day before he graduated, Bruce gave me a card with a note in it. He said, “Thank you, Mr. Tice, for saying hello to me every day at school.”

That card meant so very much to me. Because at that time, I still thought that the “big time” in life meant winning the state championship. My concerns were”How can I get my picture in the paper? What can I do to impress you? How can I make it big in this world?” But “bigness” was right in front of me. All I needed to do was to be a giving person. I didn’t need to give money. I just needed to give a bit of my time, my compassion, myself, to Bruce.

5. Ask the tough questions. Take a hard look at what you value most. You need to ask yourself, “What do I value most in this life?” “What would I fight for?” “What would I die for?” Is it freedom, liberty, justice? Loved ones? Creature comforts? Mental and physical health? Sort out your values. When you get down the six or seven things that are most important to you in this life, you know what to hang your goals on.

For example, because I believe in eternal life, my spiritual life is more important than my physical life. My family comes second. Then I think my life’s work is third. My health may be fourth. Our family and community environment may come in fifth.

It’s not an easy task to sort out your priorities. It takes some time. If things are tough at work, it’s hard not to have it tough at home, too, because they’re interrelated. If your work goes down, it may affect the economy of your family and lifestyle.

All Things are Not to Be Valued Equally

If you don’t know what you value most, you tend to value everything about the same and that means you have a disaster every hour. How do people who value everything equally act when their car gets dented? They just fall apart! How do they act when they break a shoelace? They go into a fit! How do they act when their house is a mess? They think the world is coming to an end. How do they act when their business doesn’t go right? They go crazy. Why? Because they’re caught up in a system of values where everything is equal.

Years ago, I knew a man who was an athletic director of a university in the Midwest. He was ready to commit suicide because somebody dumped the 16-pound shot in the school swimming pool. That was it! That was suicidal for him. Stupid, you say, but not to him. See, everything was on equal plane and of equal value.

I told him, “You couldn’t be more upset if somebody had just raped your daughter.”

If everything is of equal value, then every disaster is of equal consequence and equal pressure. You may be with somebody who says, “How did your day go?” “Terrible!” “How come?” “Oh, it’s raining outside.” ”Well, who cares?”

You need to sort out your values, so you can concentrate your time and energy on worthwhile goals. Every person should ask, “What is number one, number two, number three, number four, in order of preference?” If you truly value your children or spouse or the people around you most, your house could burn down and you wouldn’t blow up, as long as nobody was hurt.

One time Diane and I returned from a trip to Australia, and we went out to dinner that evening with one of our daughters. We were sitting around the table talking when our daughter Bonnie said, “I need to give you some bad news. While you were gone, your horse, Just a Pebble, broke its leg in a race and had to be destroyed on the track.”

Even though the horse represented a loss of many thousands of dollars, my first question to her was, “Was Jens hurt?” He was the jockey riding the horse.

Sure, the money was important, the horse was important, but far more important to me was the person riding the horse. And I didn’t have to think about what mattered most to me at the table. Human life is much more important than the horse, or the money. But if I didn’t understand that, I could have been very distraught at the restaurant.

It really helps me to have clear in my own mind what is important to me on a hierarchy of values. That way, I’m not thrown off by the little things.

I have learned, however, that the little things to me might be very big things to other sand that I need to respect their values.

Once Diane and I were racing two of our thoroughbred horses at Golden Gate, just outside of San Francisco, California. Again, one of our horses broke a leg and needed to be killed. This was a favorite horse of mine one we had raised from a colt.

Our trainer, a young man who traveled with us and took our horses all over the nation at the time, was with us. And when they gave the horse a lethal injection, he started to cry.

That night we were having dinner, the three of us, and we started talking about the horse. And he started to cry again. And I said to him, “Wait a minute. How can you cry over a horse? You’re eating a cow, you know.”

I gave him lesson #77 in ethics and values and told him what was most important in the hierarchy of values, but it didn’t seem to do any good. He was more disconsolate than ever.

Later that evening, Diane and I were talking, and she said, “You know, you’ve become very insensitive. I think that you’re losing your sense of values.”

Her statement hit me hard. And she said, “You didn’t show much empathy for him. His whole life is tied up in racing. It isn’t just losing the horse that hurt him, but your treatment of him. You lost your compassion, your sensitivity for the person and what his life is all about. You’re starting to treat him not as a person, but like a possession. It’s as if he’s inhuman to you, as if he’s just a thing to work with your horses to cause them to win. He has a right to be upset; this is his life.”

I learned an important lesson: if you don’t carefully sort out your values, and find out what is important, then gradually, without even knowing it, you lose what is really important. You lose touch with your core values, the things that are essential to you. I wouldn’t treat people that way intentionally. But I sure did by accident or by neglect.