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Know Thyself

Your values are your compass

In my first year as an assistant professor, I commuted to and from campus on the regional rail.

In the mornings, as I walked from the train station to the office, I planned my day by making a to-do list in my head: the scientific journals I would read, the papers I would write, and—most important—the piercing flashes of insight I would have about human nature.

Each evening, I walked back to the station, again ticking through my mental checklist, but this time sizing up my performance against the expectations I had set for myself that morning.

As the months passed, I realized that the grace period when I could call myself a rookie was evaporating. And that terrified me. Because time and again, when comparing my to-do list with my got-done list, I was falling short. And each night, as I trudged back to the station, I ruminated about my lack of progress.

But then something very strange happened. At the midpoint in my commute, without any conscious intent, my thoughts began to shift. Instead of cursing my weaknesses, I thought, and even said aloud sometimes, very softly: I’m a nice person. I’m a nice person. I’m a nice person.

By the time I boarded my train, I was done with my little mantra—until the next day when I walked home. After inventorying my failures, I’d repeat: I’m a nice person.

At one point, I wondered what the heck was going on, so I looked it up. It turns out, there’s a technical term for this practice: values affirmation. And what it boils down to is recognizing, and reinforcing, the personal values you hold most dear.

When you affirm a core personal value, you shore up your sense of self-worth. You broaden your perspective: instead of zooming in on your inadequacies, you switch to a wide-angle view that includes your resources and opportunities. Research also shows that the majority of adults spontaneously engage in some form of values affirmation. And the more people are in the habit of doing so, the happier, healthier, and more hopeful they are.

Over time, I made progress in my research and learned a lot about what makes most successful people special, including this: nobody has passion and perseverance unless what they do aligns with their values.

Try values affirmation for yourself. Take a moment and think of a value you hold dear, whether it’s kindness, creativity, gratitude, or integrity. Something that defines who you are today—and who you want to be tomorrow. Whatever it is, name it. And then say to yourself: Come what may, I know who I am. Your values are your foundation and your compass, too. Trust them, and they will lead you home.

With grit and gratitude,