Do you ever feel lost, aimless, or a little confused, like you’re sailing through life without a rudder to guide you?

If so, it’s likely that you’re not aligned with your values.

Your values are what give you meaning, purpose, and direction in life, but if you don’t know what they are, how are they supposed to guide you.

How to identify your values

Valuesare beliefs, attitudes and standards of behaviour about what’s important in life. They are also subjective and may change over time. Some commonly held values include integrity, loyalty, compassion and honesty.

To identify your values, you might start by asking yourself a few questions:

If I was at my own funeral, what would I want my friends to say about me?

If I was getting married, what kind of person would my in-laws want me to be?

If I became the leader of my country, what qualities would I need?

You could also ask people you respect about their values, especially those who are further along the path.

When you identify your values you will then need to act towards them, and that’s what principles are for.


Unlike values which are subjective, principles are fundamental truths that are permanent, unchanging, and universal in nature.

For example, if you drop something, it will fall on the ground. This is a natural law that is controlled by the principle of gravity. Human behaviour follows the same rules. If I lie to you, you’re not going to trust me; that’s a natural law.

One of my own guiding principles involves neutralizing negativity. If I refuse to engage in negative situations, it’s a natural law that there will be less negativity in my life.

It’s the same for many human behaviours. If you always walk your talk, people will respect you. If you meditate every day, you’ll be less reactive to challenging situations.

The point is, if you implement principles on a regular basis, it’s a natural law that corresponding improvements will occur over time.

Leadership expert John Maxwell describes this process with great clarity:

Imagine you have a large tree in your garden and you want to remove it. You acquire a large sharp axe and strike the tree five times every single day. You do this repeatedly. So every day you go out to your garden and strike the tree five times. Another day, another five times. Another day, another five times.

What do you think will happen? You will get closer to your goal every single day, and the tree will eventually fall down. This is a fact. This is a universal law of nature.

However, you must use the correct tool. Hitting the tree a thousand times a day with a baseball bat will not get you closer to your goal.

“We control our actions, but the consequences that flow from those actions are controlled by principles” — Stephen Covey

A compass for life

Through my own suffering and aimless behaviour, I developed a technique based on values and principles. I call it my life compass, and use it whenever I feel anxious, overwhelmed, or frustrated; or any negative state for that matter. In other words, I use it when I’m not aligned with my values.

The aim is to develop a set of principles that will guide your actions when life gets tough. Note that values direct you towards what’s important in life, while principles are actionable and always result in outcomes.

Below is a list of my own values, and several of the principles I’ve developed to keep me on the path.

Using the life compass

Whenever you’re not aligned with your values, the world will let you know. You might feel stressed, lonely, resentful, or irritated; it could be many things, but all of these are signs that you’ve strayed off course.

When this occurs, you’ll need to scan your values and implement a principle to guide you back home.

For example, when I feel overwhelmed in work, this is in direct opposition with two of my core values: ‘clarity’ and ‘stillness’. Scanning my values provides me with a guide; then I’ll identify a principle (or develop one) that brings me back into alignment with those values. In this case, I would use the principle ‘prioritise and execute’. This involves taking a step back, assessing the situation, and choosing the task that will have the biggest impact. When I execute the primary task, I move on to the next one, and then the one after that. When I implement this principle, I immediately have clarity, and I’m no longer overwhelmed.

Another example involves inaction, or what’s commonly known as procrastination. This usually surfaces as a feeling of unease and clearly conflicts with my value of ‘industry’. When I recognise this, I ‘take relentless and massive action’ to get back on track. Instead of thinking, talking, and avoiding, I start doing, which guides me back towards my values.

It’s important to note that values and principles can also interact. For instance, ‘boldness’ is one of my core values. If I’m not taking enough risks, I tend to get restless and bored. When this occurs, I implement several principles, including ‘set audacious goals’ and ‘life it up. What’s more, these actions may conflict with other values and principles such as ‘patience’, ‘balance’, and ‘practising consistency over intensity’. In this case, context is key, but it’s important to prioritize your values, and for me, boldness comes first.

Discovering hidden values

The life compass technique can also be used to unearth hidden values. If you feel uneasy, unsettled, or ‘off’ in some way, and at the same time aligned with your existing values, maybe you’re not as balanced as you think. Through subtraction and reflection, you could then use your compass to guide you towards undiscovered values.

I exploited this process myself several months ago as I battled with my innate impulsivity. I had made contact with several influential CEO’s, and I was overly eager to resume communications. I was literally a button press away from ruining any potential relationships. Thanks to meditation — my number one principle — I could sense my unease, and I reflected on my predicament. It became clear that I was being highly impatient. I wanted things to happen now, but life doesn’t work like that, especially when you’re trying to build important relationships.

Patience has now become one of my core values, and in turn, I developed a principle to navigate my impulsive nature. I simply remind myself:“Play the long game. This is not a lack of action, but the timing of it”, and this subtle cue brings me back into alignment.


By implementing the life compass technique, you’ll be more aligned with your values, and have a rudder to guide you when life gets tough. You’ll also have greater meaning, purpose, and direction in life, and move closer to achieving your goals.

You obviously don’t need the compass for every occasion. I don’t ‘prioritize and execute’ when I’m deciding what to have for breakfast. But when life gets busy, or you feel overwhelmed, maybe you should take a leaf out of Stephen Covey’s book, and “live your life by compass, not a clock”.

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  • Brian Pennie

    Brian is a PhD candidate studying the neuroscience of mindfulness, a practice that provided him with the foundations to recover from long-term addiction.

    On October 8th 2013, Brian experienced his first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Instead of perceiving his addiction as a failure, he embraced a second chance at life and went to university to study the complexities of human life. He graduated with a degree in psychology in 2017 winning several awards, including a fully funded PhD scholarship in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Since then, he has become a lecturer at University College Dublin, published academic writer, motivational speaker for mental health awareness, and personal development consultant in both commercial and private settings. With a relentless belief that we are what we think, his mission is to show people that change is possible, demonstrating actionable steps through a lived experience.