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.

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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.

  • Steve

    Hi Matt,
    I’m currently trying to choose between two jobs. My current job is a entry level position within the public sector (human services) the other is a position with a private investment group that has a strong philanthropic focus. My current job is slow paced, career progression would be slow and I feel constrained in what I am allowed to contribute. But it is secure. The job I have been offered has many unknowns as it is a newly created position. The purpose of both organisations align with my core values, although my day to day tasks are/would be a distance away from their outcomes, and mundane at times (small cog in a big machine).

    Any advice?


    • Matt Perman


      Those are good questions. First, it’s important to hear that the purpose of both organizations align with your core values. So it sounds like there’s a match there, in which case you need to make the decision on other grounds.

      One relevant question might be whether one organization aligns _more fully_ with your core values or not, though I don’t know how strongly you would feel about that.

      Given that the core values are in place, I would evaluation this decision from the perspective of where you want to go with your career. There are two factors to consider there. First, it is important to consider the specific _activities_ of the job you have and would be doing in the new job. Marcus Buckingham points out from their research that an employee can be totally on board with the mission of an organization, but if the specific activities of their work are too far out of sync with their strengths, eventually they will burn out. So give that you are on board with the mission in both cases, give strong consideration to the specific activities of each job. Which activities are more fulfilling and strengthening to you? Which activities are you better at?

      Second, it is important to give explicit consideration to your career progression. Even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t stay in an entry level position long-term. So if you stayed in your current role, what would be the job you would likely be promoted into out of that one down the road? I’d suggest comparing _that one_ to the other one currently being offered, rather than just your current role to the other one being offered.

      In relation to the security of you current role: since you are in an entry level position, I’m going to assume that you are relatively young. Maybe not, but I’ll assume that. The thing to keep in mind is that security matters much more when you are older. When you have a larger family, and the kids are a bit older (if you have kids or end up having kids), security is a much more important consideration (though still never ultimate). When you are younger, take advantage of that opportunity to try things that may be less secure. This will enable you to learn more about your preferences and strengths. Further, the positions with more unknowns often (though not always) end up being the most fun and enjoyable, because they are usually on the front edge and involve lots of latitude and need for self-definition.

      The last factor to consider, of course, is your intuition. What does your gut say? That’s an important part of any decision. Think hard about that, especially in light of the above factors.

      Those are a few of the main factors I’d consider. I hope this helps a bit.