What Our Stories Reveal About Our Core Values

wooden scrabble tiles spelling out

by Ruth D Schwartz

What are Core Values?

  • Principles without which life wouldn’t be worth living
  • They are universal and cut across all cultures
  • They make you proud

One of my first jobs was at Lyon’s Restaurant, Santa Rosa, CA. I was a busser, but I really wanted to be a server. Every few months I put in my request to become a server. Every time the manager told me that the next time an opening appeared, I would get it. However, in reality, the job always went to another person. I became very frustrated.

One day there was a commotion in the back kitchen. People were crowded together at the dishwashing station. I stood on tip toe to see what was up. The dishwasher wasn’t working and the dishes were piling high. The manager was flustered and upset.


Now, when I was fifteen I worked in the scullery at church camp. Weekends and summers I was up to my knees and armpits in the most foul-smelling garbage you can imagine. We washed dishes for three meals a day, 200 – 300 people at a time. But the truth? I loved that job. There was a lot of camaraderie in that scullery.

And so, against my better judgment and in a fit of team spirit, I squeaked, “I know how to do that.” And so I became the dishwasher at Lyon’s restaurant.

It took me another six months before I again approached the manager about that server job. I’ll never forget his response. He said, “But… you are such a great dishwasher.” And I’ll never forget my reaction: I unzipped my brown, polyester jacket and I walked out of Lyon’s for good.

What is the difference between these two jobs? For me: R-E-S-P-E-C-T with a great big dose of cooperation, fairness and honesty. When I look at everything I’ve done in my life since that time, I think about these values as being core to everything I admire and everything I’ve been proud to create or be a part of.

When you look back at your life, all the way through your available memory bank, what values have always been present? It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between those values that are core to you and those that are core to your parents. Let’s look at another story. This is Alice’s story about how she sifted through everyone else’s values to find her own.

It can be hard to distinguish your true core values from values that you think you should have. Your core values-no more than three or four-above all else, should make you feel great about yourself. They are your personal purpose statement summed up in a few words.

Alice (a real person and a client) was overwhelmed. She was feeling the push and pull of her business, her family and herself. She also had the sense that everything had to be perfect. She knew that she needed to establish new rituals in her life to unwind, or a heart attack, like that of her mother’s, would surely be in her future. In order for her to create the right, healthful rituals, I asked her to identify her core values. Her list was LONG.

It became very clear to me that this was part of the problem and why Alice was overwhelmed. I asked her to narrow it to three. She came up with Excellence, Dependability, and Correctness. This choice made me very curious.

I asked, “Tell me a story of a time you were proud of yourself?” She told me a story of her parents. She explained that in her family she felt that she was never good enough. Her life became the very driven life of an overachiever concerned with perfection over purpose.

“Are Excellence, Dependability and Correctness your core values or your parents’ core values?” I asked.

She thought for a long while. She finally answered that those values were what mattered to her parents. After a long pause she chose: Continuous Improvement, Reliability and Fairness.

In some ways, these words are similar values to Excellence, Dependability and Correctness, but they gave her room to relax and feel good about herself. She can easily live these core values and build nourishing rituals to take her out of overwhelm. And because her values made her feel good they allowed her to take some pressure off of herself.

Identifying core values allows you to be strategic about your goals and actions. It may have been easy for me to tell Alice what rituals she needed: (“Go exercise.” “Go meditate.”), but when she identified her core values she was able to strategically create and commit to her own ritual.

Three times a day she would stop, close her eyes and just breathe: in a cab, before a presentation, before she entered her home in the evening, she would stop for no more than 5 minutes and concentrate on her breathing.

In this way she could relax, improve her attitude and performance and not let anyone down. In this way, living her values, Alice was able to make the changes that she wanted to make. Imagine yourself making the changes you would like because of clarity about your core values.

Be energized about your business and your life. Let’s talk about how to have a business that serves you rather than you serving your business.

About the author

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