At 24-years-old and entering my third year as a high school teacher, I have a rhythm and routine: Wake up early. Work out. Eat. Teach. Coach. Repeat. I’ve grown from my past mistakes and look proudly at the growth I’ve experienced both professionally and emotionally.
Despite these feelings of personal development, this past October was when I hit what teachers call “the wall.” This month is notoriously known in the teaching world as the point of peak exhaustion and burnout after a busy first few months. I thought my self-care routine and the skills I had developed would make me immune to it this year. However, my burnout did not come from physical exhaustion or endless grading, but from a spiritual sense of lacking: Where was I finding meaning during my scheduled, busy days?
Outside of going to Mass or practicing guided meditation, I realized I rarely set aside quiet, intentional time to consider the values by which I am willing to guide my life. One night, I was confiding in a friend that I missed the person I was in college. The classes I took, the talks on campus I attended, even the people I surrounded myself with felt driven by my own internal interests and passions. Now, due to adult responsibilities and a demanding job, I tend to make decisions based on external factors: income, location, convenience, time, money, or my energy level. I’d become a slave to my to-do list. Instead of going to a new art installation downtown I had my eye on for months or working on a writing piece that had been sitting dormant for a while, I said “yes” to a school event that needed volunteers, or going to the brewery to be social, or spending the afternoon grading. Though obviously parts of my job require me to fulfill tasks, I began to wonder how I could more intentionally make decisions or do activities with my own values as my guide.
I had hit my stride in a professional sense: I could maintain adult responsibilities while also balancing lesson plans, grading, and coaching. I had a social life and exercised regularly, whereas in my first two years I felt so overwhelmed that my health suffered. Yet, this was only surface level fulfillment. Though the stress of juggling life after college in a practical sense began to dwindle, a new stress formed. I began to ask myself the tough questions: Was I living a fulfilled life? Was this profession enough for me to feel good about my day? How can I make my days less defined by activities and to-do lists, and make them more about values I care about- beyond my profession? Finally: what even were my own values?
I decided to start my deep dive into values work with a Google search for “examples of values.” From there, I used a worksheet I found online that listed hundreds of values: authenticity, warmth, focus, compassion – this list goes on. Then, I grabbed my journal and set aside an hour to get down to answer the question that had been on my mind: which of these values were most important to me?
I first circled around 25 values that resonated with me, then categorized them into similar groups. For instance, I found that compassion, authenticity, vulnerability, and presence were common essential values for me, and placed those under a “Relationships” group. I continued this process until I had the following groups: Spirituality, Personal Growth/Career, Fun/Exploration, Community, and Relationships. I eventually chose one value for each group. In the end, my top five were: vulnerability, gratitude, ambition, wonder, and belonging.
The hard part came next. This is when I tried to think of tangible action items that would help me incorporate this value into my daily life. For instance, next to “gratitude,” I wrote down that I would log in my journal one thing I was thankful for each day. Next to wonder, I decided I would try to make it a point to walk around my neighborhood without my phone. The point of this exercise was to find achievable ways, however small, to incorporate my values into my routine or how I could work up to bigger goals in the future. In this way, my to-do list became less about getting things done, but making time for things that matter to me. I now even label my to-do list using the values as my header.
Before I found a way to identify what mattered to me, I found myself stretched too thin, doing activities that emptied my cup instead of filling it. Now, taking time to reflect on which values I want to guide my life has allowed me the freedom to make choices that reflect what is most important to me. I’ve found this especially to be true for aligning my life with my faith. I’ve even encouraged my partner and family members to try it out for themselves and share what they learned so I can better support them in the things they care about, not only my own.
I’m curious to see how my values might shift with new seasons of life. I know that ambition and wonder might be essential to me at age 24, but perhaps not at age 65. I’m open to the trial and error of discovering which values help me to be my best self at each chapter. Whatever time in life this finds you, and if you are wondering how to live a more fulfilling life, I hope you might consider using some of these tactics to live a life based on what’s important to you.