What’s at Your Core? Knowing What’s Important to You and Why It Matters

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I was recently asked “What are your core values as a teacher?” For a moment I was stumped. I have taught students and colleagues about articulating clear and effective core values and the importance of using these to guide strategies and practices. I referenced established core values and used them in my own work as a museum educator. However, I realized that I had been thinking about institutional core values. What are the core values of your museum? What are the core values of your department? While I felt that I had a strong sense of who I was as a museum professional, it has been a very long time since I thought about and articulated my core vales, separate from the institution where I worked. This process was eye opening and resulted in something very valuable—knowing my core values.

So what are core values? In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras  define core values as “the essential and enduring tenets of an organization—the very small set of guiding principles that have a profound impact on how everyone in the organization thinks and acts.” The National Parks Service further defines core values as foundational values that are “so important to us that through out the changes in society, government, politics, and technology they are STILL the core values we will abide by.” I like to think of core values as:

  • Those things that you will go to the mat for and defend doing every time.
  • The things that you will keep doing even if you are penalized for doing so.
  • They must also have a consciously rejected but equally viable opposite (more on this later).

If we re-draft Collins and Porras’s definition for ourselves, core values are the essential and enduring tenets for our lives—the very small set of guiding principles that have a profound impact on how we think and act.

A key to this definition is the phrase “very small set.”  I recently read, “If you have 10 core values, you don’t have core values, you have a shopping list.” Core values should be honed to get at the depths of your guiding principles. You should be able to remember and list your core values on one hand, or may one hand and a thumb, and be able to practice these values everyday, not just on the ideal, perfect once-in-a- lifetime day.

“What do you love to do?” or “How to find your core values?”

I must admit this took me a while. When I had done this work with my own museum colleagues or students it had always been generative group process, but on my own I found myself staring at a blank page. Clearly I had to stand for something, but what? Lots of museum and education jargon floated in and out of my mind. I decided to start making notes throughout the week. I kept an ongoing list on my phone of all the things that I did that were important to me or I felt good about doing, from job tasks, to how I acted in a meeting, to how I taught a program. I also looked for things that I saw in others that I appreciated and respected. In addition, I kept a list of all the things that upset and angered me, both in my own actions and those I saw exhibited in others. The latter I analyzed for what was upsetting me and considered what the opposite might be. From these lists I had a more honed and simplified one, but it was still a shopping list.

The next step was to really get to the core. I took each item on my list and asked a series of questions.

  1. Why is that important to you?
  2. Why is that important to you?
  3. Why is THAT important to you?

This exercise is based on one presented by Geoffrey M. Bellman in “Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge” and “Your Signature Path: Gaining New Perspectives of Life and Work.”

While seemingly silly at the outset, this is a very challenging exercise. Each questions requires deeper soul searching and greater clarity. The process asks us to challenge our assumptions and look deeper at the things that we do and why we do them.

Through this process many of my initial ideas remained on my list of core values, others merged, and some fell off all together because I realized that they were more about my own capacities or an institutional culture, not a personal core value.

The final step was to ask myself what was the viable opposite of each value, and did I consciously reject it. As with many things in life, knowing something’s opposite makes you understand it that much clearer. For example, if I value collaboration, the opposite of that would be to work alone without the help or contributions of anyone else and the belief that a single mind makes the best ideas and products. I consciously reject that idea. By the end I was able to be more articulate about why my personal core values were important to me and why I would be willing to defend them, no matter what.

You are probably asking, “What did you come up with?” I came up with a list of five core values. I share them with you only as an example. You core values must truly be your own.

Listening— It shows care and respect for others and builds trust. When teaching in the art museum trust is essentially to creating dialog around works of art. It enables people to feel safe to share their ideas, leading to greater understanding of each other and works of art.

Reflection—enables us to pause and a look back upon what we have experienced and learned.  It is essential for improving our practice as teachers and the experience of our students. It is also critical to aligning our teaching with the goals and values of our programs, our institutions and ourselves.

Collaboration—enables us to create something that is stronger and better as the result of many people contributing to its creation. When teaching in the museum learning becomes a collaborative process in which all participants contribute to the experience, making it stronger and more meaningful than if the teacher solely directed it.

Acknowledging the skills, experiences and contributions of others—When we do this, we show respect for others and value what they bring. Although seemingly simple this is critical to open communication. In the workplace, in our partnerships and in our teaching, this practice can open dialogue, leading to more meaningful interactions, and a greater sense of agency.

Mentoring—mentorship and support can go in all directions, upward to our directors and managers, horizontally to our peers, and forward to a younger generation of practitioners. I am committed to the profession of art museum education and believe that as a practitioner I have a responsibility to contribute to the growth and improvement of the field as a whole. I also believe that I have not made it to where I am today in my career alone. I owe a debt to teachers, advisors, colleagues and the students I have taught. This cycle of mentoring invigorates and improves the field of museum education and thus the experiences of students, the value of works of art and art museums.

Why is THIS important to you?

So why should we do this work. As I said before it isn’t quick and it isn’t easy. But it is valuable.

Core values can help us make decisions. In “Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values,” Rosebeth Moss Kanter explains that principles guide choices. While she is speaking about for profit businesses, this can also apply to us. When we know our core values, our decisions become clearer and simpler.

conquerCore values can help us be our best selves and guide us in aligning our actions with our values. Rosebeth Moss Kanter also writes, “principles are codified, made explicit, transmitted in writing in many media, and reviewed regularly to make sure people understand and remember them.”  While I don’t think you need to scream these from the mountaintop or put them on a t-shirt, I would encourage you to write them down. I keep mine tacked to the wall next to my computer. I see them everyday. As I wrote this I reviewed them and asked myself if they still held true. They guide me day-to-day, project-to-project, and keep me pointed in the right direction. If you are in a safe work environment I encourage you to share your core values with your colleagues. This process can build understanding and generate a discussion about how your shared work embodies the values of your team members.

For me, this process helped me better understand the kind of place I wanted to work and the kind of work that I wanted to be doing. Many of my core values share similar sentiments and ‘lead in a direction.’ Is that the direction that I am going? Is that the direction that this institution is going? Am I living my core values? When we ask ourselves these kinds of questions and live our core values we work smarter and more passionately, our work is more meaningful, and we are better educators.


6 thoughts on “What’s at Your Core? Knowing What’s Important to You and Why It Matters”

  1. Briley… Thanks for your blog post. It’s great food for thought, and is inspiring me to take a much deeper look at my core values as an educator. This is important work for all of us—helpful for getting on track with how we want to steer our work and our organizations! Thanks… Sharon

  2. Thanks, Sharon! It was an incredibly clarifying and valuable process for me. I recommend that everyone give some thought to their personal core values. Please share your ideas as they develop! I’d love to keep this conversation going!

  3. Terrific article Briley addressing the fundamentals of our practice as educators and what drives us as passionate human beings. Thinking about core values was driven into my head as a pre-service teacher and I often imagine my lecturer Julie sitting on my shoulder quietly whispering, “What core values underlie this (lesson, policy, action…)?” Now that I have returned to study I’m finding myself thinking these things through in greater depth again and recommend Jack Whitehead and Jean McNiff’s 2006 book “Action Research Living Theory”. To add mine to the list, I value passion (Whitehead and McNiff call it love), respect and divergent thinking. I might try the exercise at my next volunteer meeting.
    Thank you,

  4. Yesterday I was at a workshop where we were working on the same exercise. I particularly enjoyed the ‘why/why/why’ part to drill down further into your emerging list of values. A good tip was to ask those around you – professionally and personally – for their opinion on what they find most memorable about you. If any of their feedback chimes with your draft list, then you know that you are on the right track. I look forward to working on my list over the next week or so.

  5. I agree with others, that this process of defining and refining our core values is so important — and it can help drive the work we do. But I wonder how the core values of each member of a team can best interact, and perhaps eventually inform the core values of a department or institution. Is that possible? What would that process look like? I was sparked to think about this from the beginning of your post, Briley, where you write that we’re always thinking about “institutional core values” but not our own personal core values. If institutions built their core values from those of their staff (a bottom-up process), I wonder if this conflict might be less dramatic. I’m not sure I have ever worked at an institution that worked this way — I think most have leadership and key stakeholders define the vision, mission, and core values, and then it trickles down (right?). Even if there is a strategic planning consultant who sweeps into town and “meets with staff” to gather some thoughts, it ends up being senior leadership that decides what sticks and what doesn’t. I’m interested in what it would look like to turn this process of its head — build departmental or institutional core values from the personal core values of staff (especially if those staff are encouraged to dig deep and ask the triple ‘why’). Would this be productive, or just frustrating?

  6. Thank you for this wonderful post, Briley. Mike, I love the questions you raise about how organizational core values and staff core values interrelate. Many organizations have publicly stated values, and all organizations have unstated values that permeate the organizational culture. But in the same way that an organization can’t “speak” or “think” — it’s the people who make the organization who do this, not the organization itself — can an organization actually have values? Or is it indeed the constellation of us in the organization who are driving that org’s values at any given time, acknowledged or not?

    I had an interesting experience recently in my own work that brought this home to me. My museum recently formed an audience engagement board; at the first meeting, my goal was to generate a short list of organizational values that would guide our efforts. Since it was a large group, we broke into three teams and then shared. All three groups came up with roughly the same list, which argues for the existence of an enduring organizational value set. However, where it really got interesting was in the seemingly trivial task of picking one synonym over others for each core concept. When we started hacking into the connotations of each word, it became apparent that each person saw things very differently depending on their value set. For example, we had both wonderful and exasperating discussions about concepts of “knowledge,” “scholarship,” “expertise,” “education,” “learning,” and “accuracy.” It’s easy to overfocus on word choice, but I think these words do really matter. Saying we value “scholarship” (an activity with its own set of implied values) is a dramatically different thing from saying we value “knowledge” (an entity that can be achieved through many different kinds of activities, and can have more democratic implications).

    It’s very helpful to think about whether a value has “a consciously rejected but equally viable opposite” as a clarifying step. I wish I had used that at the meeting!

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