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Questioning Your Core Value

don't put all y our values eggs in one basket drawing

❝The tippy top of our value hierarchy becomes the lens through which we interpret all other values.❞ -Mark Manson

Everyone has that friend who sees the world through money. Money is the most important thing to this person. Money is the lens through which everything is judged, including where people work, how much they make, what vacations they take, why people do or don't like you, or where to go for lunch. To this person, money is their core value, and all other values are attached to money. Family is valued only to the extent this person can provide for their family. Friends are valued only to the extent that this person can rub shoulders with important people. Nature is valued only insofar as this person can go on exotic trips.

We all know somebody who places family above all else. To this person, family is the most important thing. Family is the lens through which everything is judged, including how much time is spent with family, how big the family is, how holidays are spent, how close people live to their family, or how many extracurricular activities get attended. To this person, family is their core value and all other values are attached to family. Vocation is only valued as a means to provide for family. Friends are only valued as a way to socialize their children. Nature is only valued as a means of giving their children something to do.

It's easy to imagine people who have a core value that serves as the lens through which all their other values are measured. Other examples include beauty, fun, status, or travel.

There's nothing wrong with having a core value in and of itself. The problem is a matter of risk. Having one core value is like having an undiversified portfolio of investments. You got all your eggs in one basket and, in fact, only have one egg in your basket.

What happens if you are unable to express your core value anymore?


In her book, Meaningful Living, Logotherapy expert Elisabeth Lukas wrote that value systems tend to come into groups. The first group is those who hold onto one core value. This is called having a pyramidal value system. The second group is those who have several equally strong values in their lives. This is called a parallel value system.

With a parallel value system, many values carry the same weight. You have many values from which you can orient your life. Being able to express one value, like family, work, nature, health, or friends, doesn't rely on your ability to express any other value.

parallel value systems are all equal drawing

This doesn't mean that all values are prioritized equally in every situation. You still have to prioritize values depending on what's going on. However, you have many values from which to choose, and they all add about the same amount of value to your life.

parallel value system example


With a pyramidal value system, you have one significant value at the top – your core value. Any other value that you may hold rates far below and is colored by the lens of your core value. Author Mark Mason calls this your God-value because it is the value that you worship. It's the only value that matters to you.

pyramid value system with core value drawing

If somebody has a core value of money, that person views all other things like family, love, friendships, and so on through the lens of money. For example, they believe their family and friends will only like them if they have money. Their partners will love them only because they have money. They think they'll only be respected if they have money. Everything going wrong in life is related to money. Everything boils down to money.

It's not always extrinsic values that can become somebody's core value. Somebody may have a core value of family. In this case, all other values, like friendships, work, health, and so on, are viewed through the lens of family. For example, they go to work strictly as a means to provide for family. Their spare time is spent only on, say, raising their kids. They separate from family members who move too far away or don't put as much emphasis on family time. Everything boils down to family.

Other core values could be work, love, yourself, someone else, or any other value. This isn't necessarily wrong; it's just risky.

pyramid value system examples

The Value Compass is designed to help you gain insight into your own values and how they guide your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can be used to explore your personal goals and motivations, as well as to gain a better understanding of others' values and how they may differ from your own.


When you have all of your values tied up into one undiversified value, you are at risk of not being able to express or experience that value. As Lukas says, "If the chief value in a pyramidal value system topples, the whole life concept is in shambles." In other words, if something happens to your core value, no other values are left to take over.

undiversified values with pyramid value system drawing

If somebody whose core value is money comes into a situation where they no longer have money, their life loses meaning to them. They will judge themselves as being unworthy of love, friendships, or pleasure. Since money was used as the lens through which everyone was judged, self-judgment kicks in when this person no longer has money.

If somebody's core value was family and had their entire identity wrapped up in raising children, their life will lose meaning when their children grow up and move out. They will judge themselves as having no purpose in life because their sole purpose disappeared when their children left. Family was the lens through which everyone was judged, and thus self-judgment kicks in when this person no longer has a family to take care of.

If somebody had a core value of work or vocation and something happens that prevents this person from working (even something generally viewed as a good thing like retirement), then they will become bored and sick with nothing to do because they've lost their identity which was wrapped up in their work.

undiversified values with pyramid value system example


With a parallel value system, there are options available if you lose the ability to experience or express any other value. If somebody has a strong value of family and also has other strong values like friendships, then when this person becomes an empty-nester, there is now more time to cultivate friendships. If somebody values the work they do and has other values like hobbies, retirement becomes a way to spend more time pursuing hobbies.

While it's true that you still have to prioritize values even in a parallel system, we can take solace in the fact that that's precisely the point. If something prevents us from expressing one value, we have many other values to choose from.

if you lose a value in a parallel value system drawing

Diversifying your personal values can be seen as a risk management strategy. Moving from a pyramidal value system to a parallel value system gives you flexibility and options. It helps keep you from despair if and when one of your values can't be expressed anymore.

Which of these two systems feels closer to how you experience your values? How can you diversify your values?

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related MeaningfulMoney Reading
References and Influences

Frankl, Viktor: The Will to Meaning

Lukas, Elisabeth & Bianca Hirsch: Meaningful Living

Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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