Astrid Baumgardner had grown accustomed to her morning routine. Her husband, a securities lawyer, woke up excited to head to the office; Baumgardner, however, felt more inclined to stay in bed. She should have loved her job as a partner at a law firm in New York that brought in a hefty salary. But she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm – the position didn’t fulfil her need to help people or give her a sense of purpose. So, in 2000, she left the legal profession after 25 years, swapping prestige for passion. After a series of different positions, she earned her certificate as a life coach in 2008 and started her own business.
Today, as a lecturer and coordinator of career strategies at the Yale University School of Music (a position she loves), Baumgardner helps students make decisions as tough as her own. Through her story and theirs, she’s discovered that people feel most fulfilled when they choose options that align with their most deeply held values. Here’s how to stay true to yours.
Know Your Values
If you hope to shape your life according to your ideals, you have to know what those ideals are. Baumgardner begins her sessions by having participants identify the concepts that are most important to them from a list: honesty, structure, family and so on. “Those qualities are influenced by your parents, your culture and society as a whole,” she says, “but you have to take ownership of your own decisions.”
Here’s the tricky part: almost all of these qualities are things most of us aspire to hold dear. “There are a lot of ‘shoulds’,” Baumgardner says.
We may feel like we should covet adventure, even when we spend our free time bingeing on Netflix. To determine which principles are more than just aspirational, she asks her clients to reflect on situations that resonate with them.
For one of Baumgardner’s students, creativity and lifelong learning were key. “He felt that being in an orchestra would stifle that desire – he wouldn’t have autonomy over what and how he played,” she says. After graduating, he launched a career as a soloist, and became the director of an ensemble that premieres works by contemporary composers.
Find the Best Time
Identifying your values will steer you in the right direction, but a few strategies can help you follow through. Before you make a big decision, do something that will put you in a good mood: exercise, socialise with friends, volunteer. Researchers theorise that such activities enhance our mood, which boosts dopamine levels in certain areas of the brain, improving our cognitive abilities and helping us weigh different options.
In one 2013 study, Ohio State University psychology professor Ellen Peters followed two groups: one that received small bags of treats and one that didn’t. The mild positive feelings inspired by the gift influenced subjects to make better choices and improved their working memory. “If you can make someone just a little happier, they may become a better decision maker,” says Peters.
But the toughest decisions often arrive at the most inconvenient times. When you’re under duress, Peters recommends consulting a family member, a friend or a professional. They can provide advice that’s not tinged by work deadlines, spousal drama or household repairs sapping your mental energy.
Balance All Options
Of course, people make decisions that contradict their ideals all the time, no matter how single-minded or happy they may be. “There are lots of values we hold dear, and they frequently come into conflict with one another,” says Peters. “It’s not so much that people don’t know what they want; it’s that there are many things we desire, and we don’t always know how to make the trade-off.” A retired couple, for example, might be torn between yearning to be actively involved in their grandchildren’s lives and using their free time to travel.
While a single decision can seem like a tug-of-war between competing impulses, broader life choices don’t need to be a definitive either/or. The retired couple might delay an overseas trip to explore locations closer to home, or commit to setting aside time for a holiday with their family every summer. An omnivore yearning to cut out animal products may find it easiest to make small-scale adjustments that support the principles that prompted his dietary shift. If he opposes factory farming, he could consider eating ethically raised meat.
Stay the Course
Students often stumble into Baumgardner’s office when they’re grappling with major decisions or life changes. Baumgardner typically starts by examining what led her client down a path, then brainstorming ways for them to reclaim that inspiration. A pianist might benefit from listening to the composer who sparked her interest in the instrument or from watching a heartfelt live performance. Following that, surrounding yourself with people who share your passion can also prevent you from faltering. “A group can remind you, ‘Hey, we’re doing this because we love it,’” she says.
If you’re still struggling, even after revisiting your inspirations or seeking out community support, there’s no shame in revising your core values. If you’re determined to pitch in at a homeless shelter meal programme but spend the evening with friends instead, it may be time to accept that camaraderie is more important to you than volunteering. Better yet, find opportunities to give back to the community with your friends.
You may also learn that what you believed was a core priority actually has much more to do with living up to the expectations of your parents, co-workers or culture. “If your values align with who you really are, no-one will have to ask you to make those choices,” Baumgardner says. “It’ll just feel right.”