When your Core Values Flash Before your Very Eyes

A few weeks ago, my 18-year-old daughter, Maddie, was driving home around midnight. There were train tracks ahead, but the barrier arms were raised, and no lights were flashing. So, she drove across the tracks…


…and saw a blinding headlight attached to a looming locomotive a few yards to her left.


Don’t worry, the train was parked and completely still.


But that glorious realization didn’t reach her brain until after the flood of adrenaline and the excited utterances.


Scared, relieved, and a little lightheaded, Maddie called my husband (the night owl) to share this “life flashing before her very eyes” experience. As she laughed nervously, she told her father how much she loved him and valued our family.


I recently participated in a mindful self-compassion course. I have been practicing meditation for a couple of years now, and I always want to learn more about mindfulness.


In one of the classes, we discussed the difference between values and goals.


Here are some of the distinctions:

  • Goals are set. Values are discovered.
  • Goals are destinations. Values are the compass.
  • Goals can be completed. Values persist.


I love goals. I blog about goal setting a lot. My book, Set Goals…even if you’re not convinced you’ll achieve them, sells better than all of the other books in the Crazy Productive series put together.


Goals energize and direct behavior. I set, track, and achieve most of my goals. I help my clients do the same.


I haven’t paid enough attention to writing about values, though. When I was in therapy a couple of years ago, the psychologist asked me to list my core values during a session. I’m sure I looked like a deer frozen in headlights. I felt totally caught off guard.


I knew what’s important to me, or at least I thought I did, but to articulate it “on the spot” was uncomfortable. I felt unprepared and my mind went blank.


Maybe I needed to drive across some railroad tracks and come face-to-face with an oncoming train, or preferably, one that was parked.


Since there were no midnight locomotives available in the session, my therapist gave me a worksheet to help clarify my values.


NOTE:  If you’re curious, the values worksheet she gave me is on pages 23 – 24 of this PDF. I’ll tell you my six if you tell me yours!


It obvious why my therapist wanted me to go through this exercise. Our values should guide our goals. Part of being happy with our lives results from acting in accordance with our values. Even our calendars should mirror our values.


Knowledge of core values = good.


Finishing the values worksheets and discussing it with my therapist was not a “train tracks” moment for me. However, it was comforting to realize that I do know myself reasonably well and have built a life and career that reflects who I am.



Are you living your values?


Kurt Lewin’s model of change involves three steps: unfreeze, change, and refreeze. Change is characterized by a state of fluidity.



Values are relatively stable once you reach adulthood, but I recommend revisiting them when you feel fluid.


Fluidity can come when you lose a job, experience changes in a relationship, hire a productivity coach (cough, cough), or enter therapy.


In other words, assess and unpack your core values before you refreeze into a shape that doesn’t “fit.”


In one of the reviews of my book Seraphina Does Everything, the writer remarked that Seraphina reminds us that we are human BEings, not just human DOings.


The same is true of our values and goals. Setting goals can help us do the right things. That is important. Living our values helps us be the people we want to be.


That is essential.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at getproductive@melissagratias.com or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Seana Turner

    Wow, what a scary experience. I can only imagine how fast her heart was beating! I think this time of “stay at home” has led to some revisiting the whole values question. Some things were thought were necessary have turned out not to be, and some things we rarely did are now woven into our daily fabric. Definitely good to be mindful and ponder these things.

    • Jamie Steele

      Great post! I too would have looked like a deer in headlights if I was asked to articulate my values. I won’t be trying to dodge any trains to figure them out, but will definitely check out your PDF to aid my discovery.

      • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

        I highly recommend the safe PDF version of value articulation rather than the midnight train to Georgia version. Although, that is a *great* song…

  2. Julie Bestry

    As a mom, this story must put your heart in your throat, but this is what makes you a great productivity coach — that you are so authentic in your understanding and in your compassionate guidance.

    Whenever this issue comes up, I am at a loss for defining my values beyond “justice.” So I’ve looked for the V(ery) items in your list, and I’m happy to find that so many of my values align with with justice: acceptance, compassion, equality. However, there are other things that are hugely important to me from this list that don’t strike me as values at all: humor and friendliness are not things I value, but things that just are innately part of my makeup. I could not shed them if (or even when) I try.

    Values, to me, seem like things to which we aspire, and things that require our effort (at least at some basic level to maintain). The next time we chat, this will make for a very compelling conversation. Thank you for sharing all of this!

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      Knowing you, Julie, I completely see how friendliness and humor are part of your core values. Those values guide you. They are part of you. When you have the choice to zig or zag, you choose the path most in line with friendliness and humor. I suppose I am operating from a model that values are who we are, not the lofty goals to which we aspire. I’m looking forward to our next conversation!

  3. Geovanny Ragsdale

    I loved this post. I currently underwent a transition that made we look again at my core values. My life mission has been to Live a purposeful life with God where I can create value and make a difference in the lives of those I come in contact with daily. As a family we have a set of shared values that we established a few years ago so I’m sharing.
    1. Try New Things.
    2. Be Faithful and Loyal.
    3. Have Fun.
    4. Be Mindful and Spiritual.
    5. Serve Others.
    If what we embark on doesn’t jive with one of those values we stop, assess, and regroup. This has been a blessing for me to know that I and the family have values we seek to ensure are a part of our day-to-day living.

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      That is amazing and inspirational, Geovanny. Thank you for including your shared family values.

  4. Paul Maggioni

    The even deeper question is, are those values moral and just?

    Had the same thing with the train engine happen to me about 4-5 months ago on Wheaton Street at about 6 in the morning. That will wake you up.

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      Good point, Paul. Just because we have a core value doesn’t mean it is moral and just. World events right now are bringing your question to the forefront. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Jen Dangelo

    Love the insight on this one! Excellent job as always!


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