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Know Your Core Value to Build a Fulfilling Life

How to clarify your core value.

Key points

  • A fulfilling life may align with your core value; however, you must define that value.
  • Every goal or opportunity has the potential to get you one step closer to, or one step further away from, a life aligned with your core value.
  • To clarify your core value, ask yourself "why” until you reach the fundamental level of your reasoning.

Most of us want a fulfilling life, but what stops us from achieving it? One reason is that we lack clarity on what a fulfilling life looks like.

I’ve coached YouTubers with millions of subscribers (and dollars in revenue), founders of Google-backed companies, serial entrepreneurs, and others who were successful on paper. Despite their accomplishments, they were not fulfilled by the life or business they spent so much time and energy building.

But why?

Because until we take a step back, dig deep into what drives us, and evaluate what’s important to us as an individual, we’ll never know what direction is worthwhile. So it's easy to feel lost and have no idea how to course-correct toward a fulfilling life.

This is why, when I coach clients who want to build a fulfilling life (and business), we start by clarifying their "core value," and then develop goals that act as stepping stones—with each goal taking them one step closer to a life aligned with their core value.

What is a core value?

Your core value is the one underlying value that unites everything you stand for. It’s the running theme across the times you felt most alive, what matters most to you, and the fundamental piece of what a well-lived life must include for you–however you define it.

It acts as a compass pointing you toward your true north, where you spend every day doing meaningful, purpose-driven work that fulfills you.

Distilling what you truly care about into a single core value can clarify what matters most, so you know what is worth focusing on and what to filter out.

For example, my core value is freedom. When I was offered a high salary for a job I wasn’t passionate about that required me to work 60 hours drowning in bureaucratic red tape, I asked myself: “Does this opportunity get me one step closer to, or further away from, a life aligned with my core value of freedom?”

It didn’t, so I declined.

This is why clarifying your core value can be such a powerful exercise: It helps you decide if your current actions will lead to a life aligned with what matters most to you.

Clarifying your core value is hard work and can take time. But once you do it, you’ll have clarity on what a fulfilling life looks like.

How to Clarify Your Core Value With the "Why Shovel" Technique

The "Why Shovel" technique is a simple but effective strategy to help you clarify your core value: Anytime you want to get to the bottom of a question—in this case, to clarify your core value—ask “Why?” until you reach the fundamental level of reasoning.

It may take one “why” or a few dozen. When you search for buried treasure, how deep you have to dig depends on where you start.

If you’ve done a lot of introspective work before, you won’t have as far to dig. But it'll take time if you’ve never thought deeply about what makes you tick.

So how do you know when you’ve dug deep enough? When you’ve learned to distinguish between fool’s gold and the real deal. When you can no longer point your finger at a specific person or entity (church, media, society, etc.) and say, “Because [authority] said this is a good value to have.” Otherwise, you’re still accepting inherited values—the ones other people have told you that you should have, not the ones you’ve chosen for yourself.

Here’s an example of how the "Why Shovel" helped “Mark” clarify his core value.

Example of the "Why Shovel" Technique

Helping people was important to Mark, but he struggled to pinpoint why. Here’s how one of our conversations went:

Me: “Why is helping others important to you?”

Mark: “Because I enjoy it.”

Me: “Why?”

Mark: “Because I need human connection.”

Me: “Why?”

Mark: “Because I used to tutor people and realized I was good at guiding them to answers and enjoyed seeing them progress. So I want to keep helping people.”

Me: “Why?”

Mark: “Because I believe if everyone tried to help each other out, we would be in a much better place as humans. Many people don’t go through the trouble of helping someone else, even if it doesn’t cost them anything.”

Now that’s the nugget of gold—the fundamental kernel of clarity that defines his core value. He values service to others because he believes the world would be a better place if more of us helped each other out. He doesn’t just enjoy helping people. He relates helping one person to a mission that spans all of humanity and has the potential to make a global impact. This is why helping people is meaningful, purpose-driven, and fulfilling work for him—not because other people told him it was good to do but because he’s developed his reasoning about why it’s important.

It's easy to achieve success on paper but feel unfulfilled because we spent our lives chasing the "wrong" things. But by practicing deep introspection and using the "Why Shovel" technique to clarify what we truly want that resonates with us on a fundamental level, we can take the first step toward ensuring our actions progressively move us closer to a life aligned with our core value.


A version of this post appears at Corey Wilks, Psy.D.

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