Values, Valuing, and Feeling Valued

Johannes Vermeer, "A Maid Asleep," ca. 1657-57 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | License: CC0
Title: “A Maid Asleep,” ca. 1657-57, by Johannes Vermeer | Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I often hear people say they don’t feel valued or appreciated at work. After I respond with something like, “It’s a pretty lousy feeling when you work hard but don’t get the sense that people recognize the importance of what you do.” And then I ask, “What do you value and how do you want to be valued?” The question is usually met with a blank stare that indicates it’s not a question they have thought deeply about lately. Or, for several years. Or ever. 

What do you value and how much weight do you assign to each value—let’s say with 1 being no value and 10 being great value?

When I think of values I like to categorize them as physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Thinking of them in those four broad categories enables me to expand my list fairly easily.

For example, my physical values are fitness (10), health (10), energy (10), home/work environment (8) and money (5). That probably explains why I’m in good shape but not rich.

My emotional values are family (10), relationships (9), respect (8), collaboration (8), recognition (7) support (6), and teamwork (5). That probably explains why I have been married for 45 years, love my wife and kids, and work as an independent contractor. I’m more of an outsider than an insider.

My intellectual values are creativity (10), substance (9), engagement (8), discovery (8) variety (7), challenge (7), and autonomy. That probably explains why I’m a bit of a recluse who enjoys spending time alone reading, researching, and writing when I’m not travelling to exotic new places.

My spiritual values are connection (10), joy (10) peace (10), and community (8). That probably explains why I don’t join a lot of organizations, but treasure time with beloved friends. It could also explain why I am always exploring new ways to make love to life and dance to a different drummer.

I’m sharing those values not to bore with you the details of my life experience, but to provide some examples of values and how they manifest themselves in our lives. I would encourage you to identify and weigh your own values. We measure our height and weight. We measure the size of our houses and bank accounts. We assign importance to titles and status. Why don’t we apply the same level of attention and rigor to what gives us meaning in life, i.e. the ability to satisfy our values?

But that’s only the first part of the question I asked at the beginning: “What do you value and how do you want to be valued?” So, here are some ideas about how to address that tricky second part.

I want to be valued for my energy, the quality of my ideas, the strength of my relationships, and the joy I bring to the dance. Yes, I need to be remunerated for what I produce and how much impact I have, but that’s of secondary importance. And clearly, given my career track record, I don’t need to be valued by acquiring fancy titles or hierarchical status. A dear friend of mine with a fancy title, an enormous salary, and significant positional power appreciates being valued in those ways, but they are far less important to him than the ability to make decisions and make a difference for people. I admit to having power envy, and I wish I had more decision making authority and policy positioning to make a difference. But life is a series of trade-offs. You can’t have it all. That’s why it’s so important to be clear about what you really value and how you want to be valued.

When I started to write this post, it was in response to a conversation I had with a friend about this very issue. I decided to write the post as a way to help that friend think through the issue. As I got into it, I realized I could benefit from looking inside, once again, to define what’s most important to me. In the process, I had to confront the incongruence between what I say I value and how I live my life. There are many gaps between my stated values and my day-to-day behavior. But I’m pretty clear about what I value and how I would like to act.

As I thought about friends whom I love and admire the most, I realized that we all make trade-offs in life and, hopefully, we don’t compromise what’s most essential to us as we make those decisions. In my privileged life, I’m not faced with trade-offs that some people need to make about whether to pay the rent or pay for food or medicine. And, in America, people should not have to face those choices. Universal health care, affordable housing, and food stamps should ease those burdens. So all life decisions need to be seen in the light of the history and context in which they are being made. When we look into the mirror, we not only need to ask, “what are my values and how do I want to be valued?”; we also need to ask, “what does our society value and how can it show the poorest among us that they are valued as well?” All lives matter.

So the next time you don’t feel valued and appreciated, do the work. Define your values, weigh their relative importance, decide how you want to be valued, and make it happen. Then, look outside yourself, and see what you can do for those less fortunate. Isn’t that our real value and how we should be valued? We don’t “have” values. The way we live and act are our values.

Also published on Medium.

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