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Discovering your values by ‘knowing thyself’

“When you flip to the last page of your handout, circle your top five values from the list.”

This was my first career center event as a first-year student. My friends and I signed up for the “Know Thyself 101” workshop, thinking it would take us one step closer to securing an on-campus job.

My eyes scanned over the long list of values written in alphabetical order: Aesthetics…no…Competition…no…Geographic Location…how is that a value? I finally circled five words that seemed to represent me, but I left the workshop questioning what it was that I valued.

Understanding your values

When someone asks you what you value, they are asking you to define what is important to you. Values are often described as abstract qualities or principles that determine how people live their lives. For example, someone who values aesthetics and creativity may choose to become an artist or graphic designer, while someone who values decision-making authority and community may aspire to be a school principal. By understanding your values, you can make thoughtful choices about your future.

Growing up in a city, I always valued my independence. I loved the feeling of spending time with friends just as much as I loved walking through the city alone, observing my surroundings and the interactions between strangers. I preferred working on school projects independently and insisted on making my own decisions (especially when it came to which college I would attend).

Based on what I understood as my personal values and sense of self, my ideal on-campus job in college was working in the college library. I imagined myself briefly interacting with classmates as I scanned their books, walking between the shelves with my headphones on, and secretly finishing my papers at the front desk. To me, this job embodied independence and stability, so I decided to apply.

After not hearing back from the library for a few weeks, I decided to apply to a job that had several openings but was completely out of my comfort zone: working as a peer advisor at the career center.

Discovering my real values

After getting an offer to work at the career center, I then had to complete a full semester of training with a group of twenty classmates—and by training, I mean icebreakers, team-bonding, and mock workshops. As an introvert, I shied away from raising my hand; I rarely volunteered to present and heard my voice shake every time I needed to speak. I felt like the only shy student in the room, hiding from my boss who started every meeting with “isn’t today the best day ever?”

When I officially started working as a peer advisor, I finally felt a sense of alignment. During my appointments, first-year students handed me their resumes, full of the same uncertainty I felt about my work experience and quest for an on-campus job. After asking various prompting questions, helping them draft a cover letter, and tweaking their resumes, I helped others secure their dream jobs.

The semester of training paid off. I felt like I could articulate my knowledge clearly, provide valuable advice, and even convince reluctant students to participate in workshops. While most of my time as a peer advisor was spent working in groups—in team meetings, leading workshops, or hosting student events—I still managed to maintain my sense of independence.

My job at the career center demanded a lot of my time and attention, but rather than stressing me out, it allowed me to create bonds with other peer advisors. Community, teamwork, and friendship were all aspects of my job that I realized I valued, in addition to leadership, knowledge, and personal growth. Despite how much my friends teased me for always talking about my job at the career center, I felt a sense of belonging and purpose from the work I was doing. I often think about how working in the library would have been a perfect fit for my first-year sense of self, but it wouldn’t have pushed me to grow into who I am today.

As I moved from peer advisor to a student trainer, it was funny looking back at my first workshop I attended, “Know Thyself 101.” I finally discovered the feelings and experiences behind the list of abstract values and could differentiate between the values I held as a person, a student, and an employee. Without challenging myself, I never would have realized my core values, nor would I have experienced such a strong sense of belonging in an on-campus job.

So, what do you value?

You may not realize what you truly value until you experience something new or outside of your comfort zone. Just remember that the experience of trying something new will not always be what you hope for; in fact, you might try a new activity and not enjoy it at all. But no matter what, you will gain a better understanding of what you do want and value. For instance, after my friend interned at a fashion company in New York City, she realized that she didn’t thrive in hustle culture and wanted to move back home after graduation. Without trying something different, she wouldn’t have realized how valuable geographical location was to her as a person and employee.

I walked into college thinking I knew myself: an independent, slightly shy, and authentic person. However, college was really just the beginning of my self-discovery journey. While I embraced my independence in various situations, I also opened myself up to new people and activities that fostered my growth into an ambitious, open-minded, and (sometimes) outgoing person.

Accept the challenges you are presented with because you will always walk away having learned something about yourself. Accept that you will never stop growing, and as you do, you will gain a greater understanding of what you value and how you want to live your life.

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