Creating a family motto always seemed kind of cheesy to me. It seemed like the kind of thing I might do to feel put together, or be on-trend, or build an “authentic” life. I didn’t think I needed to boil our lives down to a bumper sticker or decorative sign. But Alex and I had been talking about our shared values off and on for a few years, and one day three words popped into my head - Generosity, Curiosity, Simplicity. These weren’t qualities that I already embodied or had already accomplished, but they were attitudes that I wanted to cultivate in my own life. They were perspectives that I aspire to. I took the words to Alex and he was completely on board.
And it turned out that I was wrong. A motto was a great idea.
First of all, I was being fussy over semantics. While I think personal mottoes are cheesy, I think organizational value statements are essential. Except (spoiler alert!) those are effectively the same thing. I regularly scrutinize mission statements to determine the real values behind companies or organizations I want to buy from or work with. When I’m church shopping I always hunt out mission statements to see what churches are focusing on (evangelism? social justice? discipleship?). Mission statements help organizations zero in on their core identity and goals. Once a mission statement is written, everyone in the organization is immediately on the same page and no one has to wonder if they should be working on X, when clearly Y is the thing that is important to the group.
Second of all, I vastly under-estimated my own need for direction. There are so many values that we are called to cultivate as Christians and they are often so huge and unwieldy (love?! community?! peace?!) that I get overwhelmed easily and am not sure where to start. But a personal motto gave me something to hold onto. I think a good bit about identity and figuring out where I belong in the grand scheme of things of the world. Having these three words in the front of my mind helps me feel grounded in a way I could never have predicted and did not expect. Sometimes it can be hard to commit to the things I value, but the more “official” they are the easier it is for me to commit. And if I want to align my spending with my values, then it is important for me to be intentional about identifying those values.
While Alex and I settled pretty quickly on a set of shared personal values, we come at these values with different motivations and perspectives...
I value generosity because it challenges me.
This is by far the hardest value for me. I really value the idea of generosity, but not so much the action. And it’s not all kinds of generosity. Do you want me to give you some money? Done. Do you want me to make a newsletter for a thing? Done. Do you want me to rake your leaves? Done. Do you want me to spend two hours chatting in a coffeeshop with you? Ehhh, I think I need to go rake some leaves…
But focusing on generosity reminds me on a daily basis that there are so many ways (big and small) that I can be generous to Alex, our housemates, my co-workers, my family, and my friends. Generosity helps me to look outside myself. I also know how much I appreciate it when others are generous with me. How your fresh baked goods makes me feel welcome. How your friendly text message brightens my day. How the extra time you took to help me understand this weird technical blog question made such a difference. I want to offer that generosity to others.
Generosity is not a natural attitude for me, but the more I tell myself that generosity is something I value (positive self talk is important!) the more often I recognize opportunities to be generous to my community and the more often I take those opportunities. I want creative and thoughtful generosity to become a habit in my life, and setting it up as a personal value helps me remember that.
Generosity is probably my most strongly held value, but it also isn’t always that instinctive for me. I have always felt that everyone should be as kind to each other as possible, to the extent it doesn’t greatly inconvenience the person being kind. Unnecessary rudeness or meanness is bad for everyone involved. But generosity goes beyond kindness - it implies giving beyond what is expected or normal or easy.
I have two types of emotional reactions to opportunities for generosity. If someone asks me for something, I usually feel quite guarded - what am I losing if I give up that money/time/object? On the other hand, if someone I care about expresses pain or a need, my gut reaction is to do everything I can to fix it. So sometimes generosity is easy for me, and sometimes it is hard. But I know that generosity is important, so when I have a minute to think things through I usually can bring myself to do the generous action. Sometimes, however, I miss my opportunity: once while traveling I saw someone steal a bag and take off running. If I had reacted instantly I probably could have stopped the fellow, but my instinctive reaction was to protect myself and I first looked around to see who was involved, and by then I missed my chance to help. This may be a bit of an extreme example but I do want generosity to become instinctual rather than deliberated.
Also, I think generosity has the power to change the world. If we as God’s people habitually stepped in to help whenever we saw a need, there would be a lot less pain and suffering in this world. I want to play my part in that vision.
I value simplicity because it is empowering.
I have a “projects-brain.” I think in projects. I’m knitting a winter sweater, I’m writing blog posts, I’m already working on Christmas presents, I am reading two books, I’m planning small group, I’m de-cluttering, I’ve got a T-shirt quilt going, I’m trying to grow a pineapple plant, I want to start studying Chinese again, and I really need to fix the basket on my bike. When I’m biking I’m planning knitting projects in my head. When I’m taking a shower I’m thinking about how to re-organize the closet. I am very excited about projects. When I’m not careful, I get easily overwhelmed. I’ve tried not having so many projects, but my brain just likes to think about projects. So, lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to better manage this personality characteristic and found that it helps to identify what I really care about, focus on that, and try to streamline everything else (hey, kind of like this blog!). We’d rather walk T-dog and write blog posts than cook dinner every night so we (mostly Alex) make big batches of food and eat on it all week. We’d rather come home to a super tidy house than have to move things around to get to the couch, so we are aggressively de-cluttering our possessions to have a less distracting environment.
When I think about simplicity, I think about creating the space in my life to do my projects, to focus on generosity, to breathe, and to connect with my community. Simplicity empowers me to identify and get rid of inefficiencies in my life that prevent me from doing what I truly care about.
For me, simplicity is mostly a mental health issue. There are many things in my life that could potentially create needless stress and mental burdens. The simpler my life is, the more I can focus on what matters. For example: we shop at Aldi because there are 1 or 2 options for each food type rather than 10; we’re getting rid of unnecessary belongings so there is more physical space in our house; I want to live near enough to work so I don’t have the stress of commuter traffic; I eat the same thing for breakfast every day so I don’t need to worry about what to eat in the morning; and I try to be honest about what I think and feel instead of trying to tell people what they want to hear. These choices aren’t necessarily better than other ways of doing things, but they make my life simpler. And my brain has enough to think about already, so I try hard to save my mental and emotional energy for what I truly care about.
I value curiosity because it helps me feel alive and connected to the world.
No matter how much I wish this were not true - I am a frequent victim of inertia. I appreciate a good TV binge-watching session, I get stuck in Facebook land, and when I miss a couple days of being active (yoga video, extremely slow jogging) it’s REALLY hard to get started again. I need a challenge to be jolted awake. For me, learning or experiencing something new helps combat inertia.
I get a lot of joy out of learning about things I don’t know about. For many years as a graduate student, I believed that I should try to become an expert in my field. I was told that depth of knowledge was important. But in the deepest parts of my heart I am a dabbler (see “projects-brain” above), and I find joy in learning a little bit about a lot of things. A couple weekends ago I went to a free tour at the National Gallery of Art. I am a hopeless art appreciator - I need to be told exactly what I am looking at and why it is important. But when I get that input...IT’S AWESOME. That tour has been sparking in my soul for weeks now. I recently started reading a book about animal cognition. It’s blowing my mind! My housemate is going to teach me to fix a lamp soon - super excited!
For me, embracing the value of curiosity is life-giving and enriching. I can be my best self when I feel awake and full, and embracing curiosity helps me feel that way. Yet, I still have to constantly keep nurturing curiosity on a daily basis to fight inertia. Setting it as a core value helps me keep it in the front of my mind.
Curiosity to me is very similar to being thoughtful. If I accept the way I (or my friends, or society at large) does something without question, I can lose many opportunities for improvement. I need to stay open to new ideas, habits, viewpoints, and lifestyles, or I will stop improving myself and my life. Sometimes staying curious results in relatively trivial benefits such as finding a new food I love (well, some foods are so shockingly good this isn’t actually always a trivial matter), but sometimes it results in big changes, such as discovering my interest in personal finance and setting out to help Christians around the world be more thoughtful about their lives through this blog.
Values that Didn’t Make the Cut
Just because we chose these three words as our personal core values doesn’t mean that we think other values are less important or other people shouldn’t have other values. We just want to focus on these three values in particular because they are either aspirational or ingrained in our beliefs and the way we view the world. They help direct and frame our lives in ways that other values may not at this point in our lives. We’re also very grateful to have a lot of values that are already in place and define our lives. We’ve been blessed to come from stable families and supportive communities, so while we value stability immensely, it is something that helps create our life, not something that we need to work toward.
Our original list actually included both Generosity and Hospitality (no Curiosity), but we eventually realized that those were pretty similar. We felt that generosity was a broader term that could encompass hospitality, as well as time and money. Hospitality is still a great virtue, but we don’t have a large and spacious home in which to welcome as many people as we would like, so that doesn’t feel like a core value to us right now.
There were also a number of other values that didn’t make the cut...
Truth. Beauty. Excellence. Friendliness. Faith. Strength. Joy. Celebration. Encouragement. Gratitude. Adventurous. Consistency. Discipline. Grace. Health. Openness. Thoughtfulness.
Community - We both super value family and believe in nurturing and building those relationships. We also highly value our friendships, our small group, and attending a church regularly. We share our house with two other people. We are totally into community. But it still didn’t make the cut. For me, I find community to be a little too much of a buzzword. It doesn’t grip me or spark my imagination. It is also highly ingrained in our lives and is not something that we necessarily want to work towards.
Efficiency - We both quite appreciate efficiency. But we can’t really justify it as a core value. Alex likes to get better results without spending more money, time, or effort, and I believe that Efficiency is next to Godliness (or was that cleanliness…). But it is more important that we are going the right direction than that we get there as fast as possible. When push comes to shove, it is more important that we are generous to others, keep stress low through simplicity, and stay curious than be efficient. (It was still hard for me to let this go…)
Comfort/Convenience - Alex says: This one probably seems obvious, but I have to remind myself all the time that this isn’t one of our key values. I have to remind myself when I want to drive somewhere instead of biking, when I want to buy food instead of making it, when I want to tell guests to make their own bed instead of me making it for them, and when I contemplate buying a new bed/car/phone/bicycle/computer instead of continuing to use my current one. Although all those things are nice for me, I have to remember they aren’t important.
How to Choose Your Core Values
There is no real set of rules for what is or is not a core value for someone. It has a lot to do with the way you frame the world, your personal experiences, and your own thought processes. Core values are extremely personal and contextual. They can also easily change over time. Our lives go through seasons and each season may call for different core values. These values are dynamic and active, not concrete and passive.
It’s difficult to say that one value may be more important to you than another. But when I tried to reverse engineer our core values I realized that we roughly followed three points:
Aspirational - something that was challenging enough we’d have to work on it. For years.
Gut-punching - something that really convicted us and elicited a strong emotional reaction.
Encompassing - something broad enough to touch all or most aspects of our lives.
It doesn’t really matter how many core values you have (within reason). We chose three values because...well, I don’t know why actually. Three is always a good number for decorating and life (triangles, the Trinity). But maybe you want just one value because it is easier to concentrate on one thing at a time. Maybe you want five or six values because you see a lot of connection between ideas. You might want to make a sentence.
You might not want to make a “personal motto” or find a set of “core values” at all. But I have found that having three core values has been pretty invaluable (see what I did there?) as we’re trying to figure out what to spend our money on, the trajectory of our careers, our long-term goals, and other general life choices. It helps to have a guide to our choices. We increasingly try to run our choices through the list to see if the choice truly embodies our values. These core values also help me find my direction in life. I often feel lost in the everyday-ness of life and get distracted and disheartened by minor inconveniences and tasks. Having articulated our core values gives me a sort of lifeline to grab on to when I need a reminder that my life is a lot bigger than this pile of dishes. I can’t control or predict all the ups and downs of my life - but I know that I will continue to prioritize my core values of generosity, simplicity, and curiosity.
What are your core values? What values drive your actions? Do you think it’s useful to identify a few core values or should we be striving for every value?