Narrowing The Gap Between Our Ideal And Our Real Values

“The whole idea of knowing who you are and what you stand for is so simple, yet also so profound and sophisticated. It’s difficult to pull off, but without it there’s no chance to institutionalize the vision and make it long-term and lasting.”
-Bob Boylan

Positive change usually happens after people have: 1) examined and understood their values; 2) articulated a shared vision after identifying their common values; and 3) strategically leveraged their own strengths toward achieving their common goals.

One big barrier to change is the fact that most people don’t spend a great deal of time analyzing their values. Your values are your principles, your personal standards of behavior. They tell people what you believe is important in life; and they indicate to others what you have in common at the deepest human level.

Examining your values is important because they become clear over time. They are not static; they change as you grow personally, establish relationships, and life experience. As you consider your values, it becomes apparent that some feel more personal than others. These might be called realized, or real values. The ones that seem like they have less to do with you personally are ideal values. They are things like freedom, democracy, and fairness.  You know that you should value them, and you don’t spend much time thinking that other people might have wildly different understanding of what they mean.

Despite these differing interpretations, ideal values are considered absolute. They are written into law. Real values help to resolve the contradictions between ideal values and people’s everyday behavior.

The Gap, the Contradictions, and the Conflicts

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”
-Abraham Lincoln

If you asked any 100 people in your community if any children in your town should be going to bed hungry, I would guess (and hope) that they would all express that having no undernourished children is a community value. If everyone shares that value, why are children going to bed without enough to eat? It probably isn’t a disagreement about the definition of hunger or malnutrition that is the barrier to coming up with the political will to do something to address the problem.

The gap between the ideal and real value isn’t simply the fault of individuals. Many people would act if they knew what actions they could take. This is where leadership comes in. Leaders can help individuals understand how their real values, things like justice, empathy, community, etc., can inform a strategy to solve the challenges of making sure that people have enough to eat.

Democracy is a commonly expressed ideal value. If we all believe in democracy, why is voter turnout not 100%? Is it just the IDEA of the ideal value that is important, or are people willing to act on their common values? The table below begins to illustrate why narrowing the gap is not an easy task. It shows how people might have opposing ideas about something perceived as an ideal.

The tables below are based on Frances Moore Lappe’s insightful book, Rediscovering America’s Values. In the book, Lappe explores the nuances of some ideal American values. Here are just a few of the competing ideas she presents relating to freedom.

freedom1freedom2freedom3Despite differing views on these values, how do we work to find common ground? What steps can people take to help narrow the gap between ideal and real values? Dr. Greg Waddell has some ideas that you look at in more detail here. He suggests four things in particular:

  1. Reward what you value.
  2. Measure what you value.
  3. Model what you value.
  4. Design life experiences of what you value.

Think about these four actions as they relate to a personal value. How do you consciously live your values? More on values to come.

Author: johnhamerlinck

I am a writer, and a reader, speaker, consultant, and trainer with a fascination about how social change happens. I live in Minnesota, USA. Medium -

4 thoughts on “Narrowing The Gap Between Our Ideal And Our Real Values”

  1. Take a look at the book Affirmative Advocacy by Strolovitch. She discusses how–unintentionally–groups advocating for the disadvantaged tend to favor the least disadvantaged over the most disadvantaged in their target groups with their choices in what to advocate for and how. She recommends “trickle up” rather than “trickle down” advocacy. Some of Dr. Waddell’s comments reminded me of her piece, as does the idea of true collaboration.


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