Values Should be the Ultimate Criteria for What Career You Pursue

How do you choose a career path? You shouldn’t decide it first based on what you are good at. You should decide based on what matches your values (assuming, of course, that your values are in line with correct principles). Sometimes, you may find yourself doing something you are good at but which doesn’t fit with your values. In that case, get off that path.

Peter Drucker nails this, with an excellent example, in his classic article “Managing Oneself“:

What one does well — even very well and successfully — may not fit with one’s value system. In that case, the work may not appear to be worth devoting one’s life to (or even a substantial portion thereof).

If I may, allow me to interject a personal note. Many years ago, I too had to decide between my values and what I was doing successfully. I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930’s, and the work clearly fit my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery.

I had no money and no other job prospects.

Despite the continuing Depression, I quit–and it was the right thing to do. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.

And, note this as well on how knowing your values (and having them right) can be even more fundamental to success than hard work:

Successful careers are not planned.

They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person — hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre — into an outstanding performer.

April 24, 2014 | Filed Under Career | 4 Comments 


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  • Nate

    Great post. This is making me rethink how my profession fits in with my values.

  • Heath

    Hi Matt,

    I went into a career based on values. I am an elementary teacher. However, I don’t enjoy it. This is my sixth year, and I am planning on resigning at the end of the year. Any advice on what I should do next?

    • Matt Perman

      The first thing I’d do is ask you two questions:

      1. Which values led you to pursue this career, and are you passionate about them?

      2. What is it about your work that you do not enjoy?

      Answering those two questions can help identify if there is something that can be fixed about your job so you don’t leave prematurely, or conversely help identify what happened so you can refine the way you navigate your next steps.