Ask Colin: Value Systems

Dear Colin,

I am at a point in my life where many of my friends are getting married, having kids, settling in to a career. I am very much the opposite (or at the least, different): I am an artist, I travel a great deal, and I don’t really have deep roots anywhere.

Something I have been thinking a lot about lately is how to find value in myself.

If I judge myself based on the value systems that are the norm in my fairly conservative city, and might I argue much of the western world in general—being in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, having a 9-5 job, wanting/having kids—I fail spectacularly.

I intuitively believe that I am a worthwhile person, but it’s hard to explain how. I get caught up in these other systems and it’s discouraging.

How do I find value in myself and my work when many of the people and societal norms I encounter are blind to, or even against what I do?



Dear Stila-

There are two main perspectives from which I think it’s valuable to look at this question.

The first is the internal perspective, which in this case means being able to find value in your own interior world, your own priorities, your own metrics of success and wants and needs and the things you find fulfilling, for their own sake.

If you can develop this internal world, refine it over time, allow yourself to recognize that it is worthwhile because it serves you, makes you happy, challenges you and helps you grow: that’s a victory unto itself.

For a lot of reasons we’re not often encouraged to do this, especially when our sense of what success looks like bucks dominant social trends, so getting to the point where you can say “I’m enjoying this, I think this is great, I like this path I’m walking” is a psychological goal worth pursuing.

If you can clearly identify the variables that allow you to feel successful and happy, and orient your life around them, you’ll be a lot more likely to feel independently satisfied with your life and choices.

But the sense of unease about external judgements of your internal life can make it difficult to be fueled by it; to fully benefit from the motive power you can provide for yourself by being wholeheartedly, unabashedly you. Those criticisms and judgements from your loved ones, peers, and even strangers aren’t nothing.

So the second valuable perspective, here, is that of society. A group of people who view you from the outside and look at what you do, how you live, and at the consequences of your actions. They then ascribe value to you and your choices based on incomplete information about your utterly complex internal life.

Although it’s beneficial to know thyself, to understand your own actions and motivations intuitively, it’s important not to lose sight of the outward, public-facing manifestations of your actions and behaviors.

It’s possible, for instance, to be completely fulfilled internally, but to hurt those around you through your actions. You might also communicate things you don’t mean to communicate about your beliefs or priorities as a result of flawed or insufficient communication.

In practice, this can be avoided by learning what living well looks like according to your standards, allowing that knowledge to inform how you live, while also taking the time to understand how your lifestyle interfaces with the lives, priorities, and expectations of others.

This doesn’t mean that you necessarily allow their expectations and standards to influence your own. It does mean, though, being aware of how your approach to life and you tendency to break with common social conventions, appears to others. This allows you to figure out where it makes sense to bend, where it makes sense to give up some aspect of what you want for better interpersonal outcomes, and where it makes sense to consciously ignore their disapproval.

In some cases, people will want you to toe the line because, in their minds, the status quo protects us from danger.

By going against that status quo, you’re giving them cause to worry about you, and some of the pushback nonconformists experience is actually a well-meaning projection of fear, with the conscious or subconscious aim of getting you back on a well-tread path with more familiar threats and opportunities.

The dual-front approach of internal exploration and external communication, then, can help make it more likely that you’ll move in the proper direction for your priorities, while also more clearly elucidating the why’s and wherefore’s of how you see the world for those who see it differently.

As a byproduct, you might even illuminate some paths these people in your life hadn’t allowed themselves to see, or even discover something new about yourself in the process of figuring out how to explain your thinking and actions to someone else.

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