In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the idea of ‘Value.’ In Part 2, I expanded on that by showing why it is important to make sure the values you pursue are objective, meaning they are actually furthering your life.
Remember, in the beginning we were discussing the overwhelming number of responsibilities and desires that each of us must deal with in our lives. The first step in dealing with all of this is to discover through reason what truly is valuable to your life, but knowing this does not in and of itself address the problem. That knowledge does ensure that whatever you pursue will be good for your life and it eliminates many, many activities that would harm you. However, there are still way too many legitimate choices available to be pursued. In order to get a handle on all of this, you need a method for prioritizing the objective values in your life. In other words, you need to create a ‘Hierarchy of Values.’
Hierarchy – an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness
In order to begin prioritizing your values, the first thing to understand is the time horizon of each value. Is the value short-term, such as going out for pizza, or long-term, such as deciding what city you are going to live in? We live on average over 70 years, so in order to maximize our lives, the most important values to us have to be the longer term ones because they will be the ones we are pursuing throughout much of that time.
Using my lifetime of experience as filtered through Objectivist philosophy, I realize now that I implicitly understood much of this as I was reaching adulthood. I suspect many of you did too. At that time I realized how important it was to be able to support myself and to find someone to share my life with. These became the most important values to me and they remain so some 40 years later. But at the same time, I also discovered sports, and in particular tennis. These provided me with on-going feelings of accomplishment and competence that I needed in my life if I was going to enjoy it as much as I possibly could. I now know explicitly that the most critical and therefore top-ranking values to determine in your ‘Hierarchy of Values’ must be the long-term ones, the ones that will sustain your life and provide the most enjoyment to you throughout your life.
And here is the way to go about determining that hierarchy. Since we must produce the values needed to survive and working is the way we produce those values, your career will have to be among your top values, if not your top value. But after that, your value-ranking can very much be optional. For me it was finding a wife, playing tennis, and then later in my life finding, learning and ultimately understanding a philosophy. All of these things have been ever-present in my thinking and in my activities virtually every day since I was a teen. Values don’t get any more important than that. But you may not value a life-partner as much as I do, may hate sports and may be uninterested in trying to understand the nature of everything (i.e. philosophy). This does not absolve you, however, from developing substitutes that will mean as much to you as my hierarchy means to me- not if you want to get the most out of your life as you can. In order to achieve the best life possible, it is absolutely critical to determine the long-term values that are most important to you and make them the top ranking values that overarch everything you do.
After the long-term values, the mid-term and short-term values usually fall into line pretty easily. These are entirely optional, but usually will support the longer-term values in some fashion or another, though they don’t have to. For example, because of injuries I can no longer play tennis, so as a substitute I have taken up golf. And though I am not nearly as good at golf as I was at tennis, succeeding at golf provides almost as much joy to me as playing tennis well ever did, so playing golf a reasonable number of times is a short-term desire that truly supports my long-term value of succeeding in sports. But a mid-term value doesn’t necessarily have to support the long term ones other than generally. I enjoy traveling but not nearly as much as some people do. It is not one of my top values but it can involve a considerable expense so we often plan one or two trips each year just for the enjoyment of it; i.e. it is a mid-term value which is lower in my hierarchy than things like my career and wife, but higher than going out to dinner or mowing the lawn.
Finally, don’t think it is necessary to make this hierarchy explicit down to the last detail and then make all of your decisions every day based solely on this hierarchy, i.e. washing the car today is trumped by walking the dog because my written hierarchy explicitly says loving pets is more important than maintaining cars. Doing so can turn living your life into a ‘duty’ where you are slavishly doing everything because it is on ‘your list.’ This is not enjoyment, but drudgery. It is not a worthless exercise to put your hierarchy of values down on paper, but once again you must employ reason to think about all of these values in context as you live your life from day to day. The most important thing in this process is to always make sure what you are doing is achieving NOT sacrificing your values. Then from time to time you should plan on taking stock of whether your actions are actually allowing you to achieve your ‘Hierarchy of Values’ to the best of your ability.
Now that we have figured out our ‘Hierarchy of Values,’ we next have to learn how to make this hierarchy work best within the limited amount of time available to each of us.