career planning, spirituality and work



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Nicholas W. Weiler, in collaboration with Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D.

"Filled with practical, researched advice that is simultaneously both spiritual and profoundly down to earth." -M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of The Road Less Traveled

Excerpts from YOUR SOUL AT WORK, by Nicholas W. Weiler in collaboration Stephen C. Schoonover, M.D., copyright © 2001 by Nicholas W. Weiler and Stephen C. Schoonover. Used with permission of Paulist Press.


Determining Your True Life Values

Personal Criteria for Success

Before making career and life planning decisions it's important to do some homework and define your own very personal criteria for success. These criteria should be clearly established in your mind and regularly updated based on changing circumstances and lessons learned over time. Otherwise having to make a quick decision on an unexpected promotion, downsizing, career or location change opportunity might send you off in directions you really don't want to go. There are two types of criteria you need to determine for yourself.

The first are personal life value priorities - Determining your most important current values (e.g., money, location, service to others, time with family), rank-ordering them and deciding which you will trade off if faced with a contradiction (e.g., the job you want not being available in the location you want). As we said earlier, many people keep themselves in a state of continual agitation by refusing to make focused value decisions.

The second are personal job-content objectives - Identifying what specific combination of skills or competencies (e.g., intellectual, technical, interpersonal, physical, artistic, mathematical, etc.) you want to develop and exercise in your future on-the-job activities. These objectives become your criteria for judging the content of potential future jobs. If a potential opening involves doing a lot of financial or technical analysis by yourself with no opportunity for interacting with others - and interacting with others is important to you - you will avoid that job even if it is a promotion. You can't assess potential future career paths effectively until you have some standard or criteria for judging whether or not what you find is for you.

The following chapters and the workbook at the end of this book outline an organized process with proven instruments and tools to help you establish both these sets of criteria. In this chapter we'll discuss life values.

Life Values

It's important to know what personal values we want to achieve in life, on and off the job. Then we can make career choices that help us meet the most possible of these values. Making an initial list of our values is usually the easy part. Most of us can come up with a long list. The real challenge - the tough part of determining values - comes in the choices we have to make in setting our priorities, in deciding which values we will give up or trade off when we face inevitable contradictions.

I don't know about you, but I want everything. I don't want any contradictions or forced choices. I want the freedom and flexibility of a single life and all the rewards of a loving spouse and children. I want to live in a small, intimate, low pressure, academic town and have all the challenges, money, and status of a job that may only be available in places like New York or Chicago. I want Santa Claus to come along and let me have it all. And I don't think I'm unusual in this. I think most people, reasonable or not, want just about everything.

If I let myself think about it, however - if I face the unpleasant reality that there are contradictions and I can't have everything - I'll probably discover I do have some preferences. Each of us wants some things more than others. Precisely what we want and in what rank order is distinctively different for each individual. Accepting someone else's -- organization's, peer's, or teacher's -- rank order is not a very adult decision. Accepting someone else's rank order for me is laziness, unwillingness to do my own tough thinking, or excessively conforming behavior.

If I wait for Santa Claus to give me everything, Santa will not come. Someone or something else (e.g. an unexpected opportunity for a location move) will make the trade-offs for me. Both are really non-decision options, and both are dangerous. Letting chance or someone else make the trade-offs for me will rob me of many things I want most and substitute things I don't want nearly as much.

Deciding Our Own Values

We help people start identifying their most important personal values by asking them to prioritize 20 typical career-related life values. We do this by giving them a set of 20 cards each of which defines one of the values. Then we have them practice identifying contradictions and making trade-offs by giving up the cards two at a time until they get down to the top five they would be least willing to trade off. Most find this a tough but enlightening process. Of course, most will achieve more than five of the values, but forcing themselves to focus down on only five introduces a valuable discipline.

The process of looking carefully at your life values and establishing clear priorities may force you to make some conscious tradeoffs you've been avoiding, particularly when you compare what your top value priorities are with the values you are actually spending most of your time pursuing today.

Figure 3 shows 20 typical life values people want to pursue. Some will realize more than others. It's unlikely anyone will realize them all, however, because several are likely to contradict each other. This is not because the establishment or system is plotting mean things. This is simply because that's the way the world is. You can complain that this is not fair, get angry, and refuse to accept the fact that you have to trade off anything. It's easier and much more productive to become your own Santa Claus by making choices, ending the impasse and moving on.


Friendship To work with people I respect and to be respected by them
Location To be able to live where I want to live.
Enjoyment To enjoy my work. To have fun doing it.
Loyalty To be committed to the goals of a group of people who share my beliefs, values and ethical principles.
Family To have time with my family.
Leadership To motivate and energize other people. To feel responsible for identifying and accomplishing needed group tasks.
Personal Development To learn and to do challenging work that will help me grow, that will allow me to utilize my best talents and mature as a human being.
Security To have a steady income that fully meets my family's basic needs.
Wisdom To grow in understanding of myself, my personal calling and life's real purpose. To grow in knowledge and practice my religious beliefs. To discern and do the will of God and find lasting meaning in what I do.
Community To be deeply involved with a group that has a larger purpose beyond one's self. To perform in effective and caring teamwork.
Wealth To earn a great deal of money (i.e., well beyond my family's basic needs). To be financially independent.
Expertness To become a known and respected authority in what I do.
Service To contribute to the well being and satisfaction of others. To help people who need help and improve society.
Personal Accomplishment To achieve significant goals. To be involved in undertakings I believe personally are significant - whether or not they bring me recognition from others.
Prestige To be seen by others as successful. To become well known. To obtain recognition and status in my chosen field.
Power To have the authority to approve or disapprove proposed courses of action. To make assignments and control allocation of people and resources.
Independence To have freedom of thought and action. To be able to act in terms of my own time schedules and priorities.
Integrity To live and work in compliance with my personal moral standards. To be honest and acknowledge/stand up for my personal beliefs.
Health To be physically and mentally fit.
Creativity To be innovative. To create new and better ways of doing things.
?? Add value definitions of your choice


Parents, Mentors, Organizations, and Others

When people prioritize their life values we suggest they sort out any voices they might carry in their heads from other people telling them what they should value. There are four categories of voices each of us should particularly monitor. These are the voices of our parents, mentors, organizations, and others.

Many values come from our parents. Most are probably very worthwhile. We share and want to retain them. It's important to look at values transmitted from our parents. However, we must make certain we are not unduly influenced by those we may not share. We might be putting an inflated emphasis on wealth as the answer to all our problems, for instance, if our parents faced economic deprivations we don't face, and more money had an urgency for them it needn't have for us (or if our parents were very wealthy and prized that). Wanting something different from our parents doesn't mean they were wrong. It just means we're different and probably living in different circumstances.

Most professionals have one or more significant mentors during their 20's and 30's. Mentors are usually people 8 to 15 years older than we are - teachers, bosses, or experienced co-workers who take us under their wings and teach us the tricks of the trade in our occupational specialties. They help us establish ourselves as members of our trades or professions. A mentor serves in a role similar to that of master in the old master-apprentice system.

To become masters themselves, however, apprentices must finally break from masters, become their own persons, and steer their own courses. This often happens when people are between the ages of 35-40 and realize they have been too subject to influence by those who have authority over them. They then stand on their mentor's shoulders, build in new directions from that firm foundation, and extend their capabilities beyond their mentor's.

Identify and think about your mentors. Sort out what they have said you should and should not value. Decide where you do and do not agree today. You may still be associated with a mentor or you may be carrying some strong value messages from mentors you haven't worked with for years. If so, assess them and pursue only those you still agree with.

Many companies are attempting to better align individual employee behavior with the organization's vision and mission. They often do this by communicating various organization values employees are expected to acknowledge and commit themselves to. This is basically a good trend. If you know what you organization's values are you can better understand what's expected of you. And you can better decide if your personal values are compatible. This doesn't have to be an all or nothing decision. It's better to look at each specific organizational value, articulated or implied, and decide whether or not it conflicts with what is important to you. You will probably find it's easy to agree with the majority (e.g., quality or customer service). There may be some, however, like "working whatever after hours or weekend time it takes to get the job done" in a significantly downsized and overloaded operation - or "always exceeding the previous quarter's sales figures" - that you need to put into better perspective or even resist.

Another potential contaminating influence on our choice of values can often be found in relationships with our 'others' - in our own competitive instincts and need to be one-up on our friends, siblings, or peers. Their values are probably and legitimately very different from mine. They may be paying a high price in some dimension (e.g., time with family) that is more important than power or money to me. Both of us may be sacrificing important values in a race neither even wants to be in. What a way to waste time and lose spirit.

Where does it end? It ends when I call a halt for me. The others must determine how it will end for them. Think about who your others are. What price might you be paying for the competition? Do you really want to race? If not, plan what you will do differently in the future to avoid these useless competitions.

Staying anchored in life values that bring personal meaning to you

If you don't know who you are you will probably become for other people (e.g., superiors, peers or society) what they need or want you to be. There will be no self. Doing what others expect (including suggested career or location moves) may bring high recognition and material rewards, but if there is no self in your decisions there will probably be little true meaning. You life will drift away from you unanchored and in directions you don't really want to go.

Even when we believe our life values reflect our own inner preferences it's important to test this assumption regularly. Life values are frequently influenced - often unconsciously - by our evolving life environments (e.g., faddish cultural, peer or organizational norms). It's important to identify these influences periodically, make certain they are conscious and test how they are supporting or impairing pursuit of our important life and spiritual goals.

We need to know and stay anchored in who we are, in what we personally value and stand for. Our actions probably won't always reflect our deepest beliefs. There will be gaps between our values and our behaviors. Filling those gaps is a constant struggle for everyone. If we don't notice the gaps - if we don't strive continually to fill the gaps by better matching our values and behaviors - chances are we will find sparse meaning in what we do no matter how great the external rewards.

Brief reflection

The following brief reflection will help you make a quick assessment of what your value priorities are today. Later, you can take a more in depth look when you do the exercises in the workbook. Before you do the meditation sit quietly a moment and get in touch with your own thought process. Monitor any voices you carry around in your head from other people (e.g., society, the media, peers, former teachers, your organization) telling you what it is popular to value. Put them aside and get in touch with what you want. Listen to your inner voice. Hear what it tells you about what values you really want and need to pursue if you are to put more meaning in your life and career for both yourself and your family.

Brief Reflection

Look at the twenty Life Values in the table above. Then take an erasable pencil and make a few notes following the instructions below. Don't take a lot of time to do this. Just record what comes to your mind quickly. See what initial response comes to mind first. (You can do a much more thorough Life Values exercise later, when you complete the workbook.)

Bottom 3
List your bottom 3 values (i.e., those you would be most willing to give up)

Top 3
List your top 3 (i.e., those you would be least willing to give up)

Least Important Value
Review your bottom 3 values and circle the "B" after the single value you would be most willing to give up (i.e., the value that has the lowest priority for you personally)

Most Important Value
Review your top 3 values and circle the "T" after the single value you would be least willing to give up (i.e., the value that has top priority for you personally)

Compare your top values with those you spend most time pursuing today.


When you compare your value priorities with what values are actually taking your time these days, are there any discrepancies or gaps? You are very unusual, or untruthful, if you see no discrepancies. Are there a few imbalances that have, for all practical purposes, become unacknowledged false gods that are leading you off course? If so, what will you do about that?

It's up to each of us to make our own tough values choices. Recognizing this can be scary for even the bravest of us. But there is good news to go with that. We can empower ourselves and get back on course. The hardest part is tracking the many times we drift off course, admitting what's happening, and taking corrective action.

Because this is a book about career planning, we have presented a list of career or vocation-related values. It is not a list of moral principles. We can't make a complete list of those in a book like this. You've probably already learned much of what you need to know about those from a long list of spiritual writers and leaders who are much wiser than we. What we show in Figure 3 is merely a list of fairly typical day-to-day value concerns (only some of which involve moral principles in themselves) that most of us need to track and assess continually throughout our life journeys.

Principle-based decisions vs. evasive value clarifications

When we prioritize our life values it is important, however, that we make what Stephen Covey and many of our modern behavioral experts call principle-based value decisions. That requires a lot more than the typically evasive value clarification exercises that are so popular in today's value avoiding society.

Unfortunately, many contemporary values clarification exercises tend to foster not tough decision making, but a currently popular form of easy-out escapism. They provide a way to pretend we are making meaningful choices while avoiding any hard decisions. They give us a tool to play what Peter Kreeft describes as "moral ping pong." He tells us that questions addressed by facilitators in many modern values clarification exercises are:

…never about the roots or grounds of values, about principles. Instead, they are about feelings and reasoning, calculations.

They never ask questions about virtues and vices, about character, but ask only about what you would do or rather what you would 'feel comfortable' doing.

The one moral absolute in (typical) values clarification is that there are no moral absolutes, and the only thing forbidden is for the facilitator to suggest that...there is objective truth in the realm of values, for that would mean some of the students are wrong, and that would be 'judgmental', the only sin. In fact the very procedure itself teaches a nearly irresistible lesson: values are all up for grabs, are matters of individual or social taste; no one has the right to teach another here; values are "my" values or "your" values", never simply true values; values, in short, are not facts but feelings.1

This approach to deciding and living our values is obviously ridiculous - at least when someone like Kreeft takes an objective look and tells it like it is in non-evasive language. If you are like me somewhere deep down you have always known it was ridiculous. But if you're like me you've also not always been as courageous as Kreeft in owing up to it - or expressing it.

While we do have to choose our own values, we shouldn't do that in a moral vacuum. Clearly there are some objective moral principles we have to consider. I don't believe values, especially moral and spiritual values, are all relative. But I haven't always been willing to be clear about - and consistently practice - what I really do believe. That kind of behavior might challenge people. In much of modern society it's not considered politically correct and I don't want to be unpopular. I want to be sophisticated, urbane, and well liked even by people I know are behaving in direct contradiction to what I believe - even when they are subtly pressuring me to behave the same way. What a way to waste a life! I don't have to get on a soapbox and convert the world. However, I do have to be certain I at least really know where I stand and that my behavior and language are always consistent with that.

If we have a difference in values, I have to make certain my behaviors are not slipping into compliance with my audience's rather than my own moral beliefs. I don't have to berate or lecture everyone I disagree with. That would often be a waste of time anyway. However, I do have to make certain that my actions (i.e., everything I do) are consistent with what I really want (i.e., personal morality, integrity and self-respect) and not with what I can easily deceive myself into thinking I want (i.e., more recognition and personal popularity). And while I don't always have to say everything I believe, I do have to be very careful never to say anything I don't believe.

Some Very Available Road Signs

Steve and I are not theologians. It isn't our job in this book to teach the details of moral values. You don't need us to do that anyway. You already know them. They have been spelled out for you by much more learned and spiritually advanced people than we. They are as obvious as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount with its eight magnificent beatitudes. I don't think many of our readers will deny the validity of those two documents as roadmaps for a more fulfilling journey - not only through this life but far beyond to a much higher realm. If you do disagree with them, you are an unusual person.

Kreeft points out the simplicity and universal acceptance of the Sermon on the Mount when he says:

The greatest sermon ever preached takes only fifteen minutes to read and can be printed on a single page; yet it has changed the world more than any other speech ever made. Even Gandhi found nothing in his rich, six thousand-year-old Hindu tradition to equal it. Even atheists, agnostics, and humanists testify to its greatness. The whole world stares in ecumenical orgy of agreement at it; yet the whole world fails to follow it, exactly as the man in Jesus' parable at the end of the sermon (Matt. 7:24-27) who built his house on the sand of hearing instead of on the rock of heeding.2

Are we mapping our lives and energy-consuming vocational pursuits on the drifting sands of transient and cyclical contemporary fads? Or are we using the solid life anchors provided by this great sermon, by the commandments, and by the great spiritual writers of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other major religious traditions? Are we deafened by the noise of the media, or by organization and peer pressure? Or are we listening to centuries of eastern and western spiritual giants who have provided us with the time-tested, enduring, very public principles and values we've always had available to us as road signs for plotting and pursuing more fulfilling journeys?

Most of us are doing a little of each. The trick is to keep moving relentlessly towards firmer ground. It isn't easy, but it brings the only true satisfaction and the stakes are high. The real graduation prize, the only satisfying destination is not a short, if physically comfortable, retirement in the sun, not fifteen minutes of fame, but an eternity of much more fulfilling light in an infinitely higher realm. What is a practical person to do? A practical person will pay attention and make the effort to keep his or her value choices on track. One individual I know, for instance, prioritized his values and concluded he was unhappily and excessively pursuing both wealth and personal recognition. He left a career that provided high visibility and material rewards for a less lucrative vocation that gave him more opportunity to pursue important social service, family and spiritual values he'd been neglecting. He never regretted the decision.

Steve and I have each spent our share of time lost in the self-generated fog of value confusion and indecision. We know it's only human. But we have also discovered that it isn't necessary.

There are people who discipline themselves to penetrate the fog. They make the tough decision to take off their blinders and see the markers. Then they work hard at clearing the air whenever new mists inevitably form. This gives them a noticeable serenity despite a chaotic and unpredictable environment. It provides them with a calming surety of direction when many around them are circling blindly in a foggy refusal to make value decisions, or in failing to act when they discover their values and day-to-day activities are in conflict.

We've said that many of the values we define in Figure 3 are not moral principles in themselves. However, there is a morality implicit in how and to what extent we pursue any given value on the list. There is a proper balance. We know that intuitively even when we don't allow this clear knowledge into our consciousness. Some values are definitely more important than others in light of our journey's ultimate destination. And an excessive pursuit of several can easily lead to an imbalance that we know, if we clear the fog, is not moral. Paraphrasing Kreeft we know, but we do not always heed. And we are geniuses at not noticing we are not heeding.

Kept in appropriate perspective, none of the values on the list is right or wrong in itself. However, pursued out of balance, many can become debilitating and road-fogging false gods.

We tend to think of false gods as antique and currently non-existent phenomena. No one has worshipped Zeus or a golden calf for millennia. In truth, however, we have not eliminated false gods; we have renamed them. If you don't know the names our values list can give you several clues.

Personal growth and satisfaction

If we track our progress and stay on course, our values will evolve and mature. We will grow and the growth will be satisfying. Being clear on our values can keep us anchored when the situation around us is falling apart. It can keep us in touch with our authentic selves, with who we are and, most important of all, with who we want to become in our ongoing development as both human and spiritual beings

1. Peter Kreeft, Back To Virtue (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1992) p. 28-29
2. ibid. p. 79

Tracking Your Life Stage Progression