Can Our Values Ever Change?

By Laura Crandall

Yes. Especially if we want to grow.

There is a certain rigor that we seem to lean toward when discussing our values. It’s a sense they should be absolute, perfected, and unyielding. While values like integrity and kindness often reverberate throughout our lives, other values such as ambition or temperance may shift in over the course of a lifetime.

We all have and use aspects of every value – honesty, joyfulness, tenacity, fortitude, curiosity, and so on. They are part of the human condition. But they each have different meanings and weight at different times in our lives. Circumstance or desire might bring them into sharper focus or make them more necessary during changing phases of development and experience.

As an example of how our understanding of values develops over time, think about how you learned about fairness. If you learned about fairness associated only with strength, power, and discipline, a restrictive or rule-bound concept might have been formed. If, in addition to those values, fairness was also joined with curiosity, hopefulness, and compassion, you may have a very different experience of what the value of fairness looks like in action.

When and How?

How might this relate to how our values can shift or change over time? Let’s use a pal of mine: a kind and well-educated white male in his 60s. His values include tradition, accuracy, and discipline. He is open minded and politically liberal, but this year’s civil unrest and necessary focus on racism in our country had him flummoxed and sounding like he might start yelling, “Hey, you kids! Get off of my lawn!” His perception of how things are “supposed to be” in relationship to his values were colliding with the news and the dawning realization that his perception was incomplete.

That discord within himself was remedied when he attuned to the depth of his other values: curiosity, grace, compassion, and connection. He values justice and learning. Those values are more influential than tradition and discipline. Compassion has emerged as a center point – for others as well as himself – as he develops his own understanding about the experiences of people of color. His value of accuracy is more strongly paired with curiosity to evaluate whether his old views are beneficial for the current time.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

-W. Edwards Deming

His values haven’t not “changed,” but how he makes use of them has. His understanding has changed and evolved to meet this time and to help him continue to become a person he is proud of. That is no easy task. Change requires tenacity and perseverance and willingness. It can be very uncomfortable. But growth rarely happens without effort. And this is maybe the trickiest part of how we develop character. Our culture has had a pretty simplistic view of “having values.” They are discussed as something to possess like a car or a college degree.

But that’s not the point of values. They are not something bequeathed or inherited or possessed just to leave on a shelf. Values are to be lived with and used. Our job as people is to reflect on our values regularly and evaluate when and whether they are helpful and beneficial throughout our lives.

Knowing your values and how they relate to you and the person you want to become takes consistent effort. It can sometimes feel like a drag: the never-ending slog of reflection and adjustment about everything you do, every day, in context of your values, forever… But the experience and the result is deep self-knowledge and pride in your actions and thoughts.

We each get to use all of our values throughout our lives to change and grow. We each get to decide what we want our character to become.



this post originally appeared on on September 6, 2020

photo by Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash


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