Where do your core values come from?  Like most things, they start with your parents.  You parents passed along plenty of genetic practical jokes:  a receding hair line, a pear shape, a desire for chocolate and/or bacon, and those cowlicks no hair dresser can tame.  They also passed along blueprints for your brain.

Even as a baby, you were genetically predisposed to think in a certain way:  maybe you were born with an eye for color, or a mental calculator, or so few mirror neurons that when you see someone crying you wonder what’s wrong with their eyes (mirror neurons give us our ability to interpret the emotions of others.)

Then, as you grew, your parents rewarded you for things:  crawling, cooing, smiling, and sticking your tongue out at strangers.   They also punished you for things: biting, hitting, punching, and sticking your tongue out at strangers.

And they set an example with their own behavior, which you happily mirrored. (Wonder why you sound like your mother, 20 years later?  Now you know. )

Then you went out into the world, made friends, played outside, went to church, went to school, and learned your first bad word (from your Dad of course, but you blamed a friend or maybe TV).

Eventually you started hearing a voice in your head—the voice of the Other.  That voice told you that good kids pay attention in school, are better seen than heard, and that Big Macs taste great.   The culture you grew up in began to shape you in its image as you learned the rules of the road:  stand up straight, don’t talk with your mouth full, yell at other drivers when they cut you off, cuss the Yankees, and that nice ladies cross their legs when they sit down and never ever tell someone off, unless it’s Dad.

These experiences formed the foundations for your core values.  Your brain, eager to make sense of the world, starting building scaffolding that matched your experiences.   As you experienced more things, your scaffolding grew.  Eventually you came to believe certain things about the world, even as your brain became hardwired with those beliefs.

When you grew up, you began to experience more of the world, and more things were added to your mental scaffolding:  be a patriot, get a job and keep your head down.  More things were added: rock the boat at your peril, get married, make babies, get a pension, and maybe retire to Florida.   The institutions you joined shaped you as well—college, military, church, jail—as did the neighborhood you moved into: keep your grass mowed to 2.5 inches, and don’t you dare add a pink flamingo.

Pretty soon, you had a well defined set of right and wrong, a set of beliefs so strong you are barely aware of them, that guide your decisions, your behavior, your relationships, and how you feel.  Those are your core values.  And they are more deeply wired into your brain that any fact, figure, or commercial jingle.




Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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