Why taking action grounded in values is the right thing until it’s not

Have you ever seen the Facebook posts that start, ‘I was this old when …’ that go on to share some well-known hack the person was oblivious about until they reached an age well past when they should have known?

I have my own ‘I was this old when story …’. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a well-known hack and significantly impacted my well-being.

Many people in my professional network are purpose-driven individuals whose core beliefs and values are in some way aligned with making a positive difference and contributing to society.

They also work in some of the most complex, challenging environments where making a change in one part of the system, albeit well-intentioned, can lead to a negative perverse consequence in another part of the system. 

Enormous effort goes into convincing people who hold the purse strings why they should approve an investment and what they can expect in return, knowing those results cannot be controlled.

Continually probing and sensing the next right thing to do is par for the course.

When I was inside ‘the system,’ I kept pushing to the next milestone because the actions being taken were aligned with deeply held core beliefs and values.

Over at least 15 years, I pushed to the brink of major burnout. For example, my values drove me to find ways to create quality clinical training capacity so the tsunami of new medical graduates could be registered and possibly still be around when my children were adults and had their own children.

It was a never-ending roller coaster ride of achievement highs and incredibly long, hard slogs. Of keenly watching for signs about whether the change you’re trying to influence is heading in the right or wrong direction and then rapidly adapting, all whilst trying to manage a diverse array of stakeholder expectations.

And because you keep getting to that high point, the number of roller coaster carriages you’re pushing up that hill keeps multiplying.

You keep pushing because you think you are doing the right thing. 

When you finally burn out, the sting in the tail is that you were no longer doing the right thing

Numerous milestone birthdays passed before I realised that actions grounded in and aligned with my values were not always the best course of action.

Not when doing so means you drive yourself into the ground. That doesn’t serve you or those close to you at home or work.

You start casting shadows when you’re under significant, continued pressure without a break. You start losing in the moment awareness and, in retrospect, realise you didn’t have the capacity to be your best self.

If you’re in this boat, I invite you to remove those rose-coloured glasses that make you believe it will be okay after you get up this next hill.

Please put them on the table and stand back.  

Take a deep breath, ground yourself in the moment, not your values, and look objectively at what is happening

How big is your shadow?

If it’s bigger than it should be, it’s time to apply the workability test. I’m forever grateful to the wonderful Rachel Collis for introducing me to this concept.

Are your values workable in this specific context?

If the answer is no, show yourself the same kindness you would a friend and find a way to step back and loosen your hold on being driven by values-aligned action.

Hand over the reins to someone else for a while and take the time to rest, recover and regain your perspective.

And when you’re ready to step back into the fray, reframe how you look at the situation

Imagine your values are in a VIP area protected by a velvet rope (again, thank you Rachel). Before you let anything past that velvet rope, decide if it’s worthy of coming into your VIP area, given that area has limited capacity.

Make the choice to invest your values in what’s most important in this present moment and let go of what does not serve the here and now.

If you’re finding that hard, listen to Dr. Kelly G. Wilson, one of the co-founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), who said:

Learning to sit with ambiguity can be a very important start at a life liberated from anxiety—and the way to do it is to resist the urge to chase answers to questions that may actually be unanswerable.”

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