When I start working with a coaching client, one of the first things I do is to help the client to draw up a list of their core values. Every one of us has a set of values that represents the things that are fundamentally important to us. Core values, therefore, are an expression of who we are. The more we are able to express those core values, the more fulfilled we will be and the more comfortable we will be with ourselves. It is suggested in the coaching literature that our core values are established by the time we are about 7 years old. However, the relative importance of those values varies according to our circumstances. For example, consider someone who values security. If they own their own house and have a secure job with a comfortable income, security may come fairly low in importance relative to their other core values. But if they lose their home and job then the importance that they attach to security will increase.

A list of your core values can be a powerful affirmation. Reading through the list gives you a strong sense of, and confidence in, your own true identity. It can also be a valuable tool for decision making. For example, imagine you are thinking of changing your job. You may have several options such as staying in your current job, moving within your current organisation, moving to another organisation, or setting up on your own. You will want to look at practical issues such as finance, but you will also want to consider what each choice will contribute to your sense of job satisfaction and fulfilment. To assess this, consider the extent to which each option will enable you to express your core values. If freedom and independence are core values you may be better setting up on your own. If creativity is a core value you will blossom in a job that enables you to express that creativity. If honesty and integrity are core values you won’t feel comfortable working in sales for a company whose products you don’t believe in.

Core values are always intrinsic values. Money, for example, is rarely a core value because its value is instrumental, i.e. we value it for its ability to procure other things. It may give us security, or freedom of choice, or the ability to create a nurturing or inspiring environment, or to care for our family.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the core values expressed by my clients over the last year or so, to see which values come up most frequently. There were so many very different values expressed by all the wonderful people that I have coached. But the values that keep coming up, in order of frequency, are as follows:

  • Creativity
  • Spirituality
  • Belonging
  • Independence
  • Laughter
  • Love
  • Music
  • Peace
  • Security

I can imagine the fulfilment that must come from a life that allows you to fully express all of those values.

On Saturday I spent the day in conversation while enjoying a gentle stroll around the landscape at Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast. This “walking conversation” was organised by the artists Liz McGowan and Jane Frost as part of their Salt Trails project. It was one of a series of conversations between walkers about the land, and also between the walkers and the land. The idea of conversing with the land, and with nature, has also been proposed by Stephen Talbott. Conversation is a way of engaging with things that recognises that they are always changing. Talbott suggests that both nature and humans exist “only through continual self-transformation”, and that a “satisfying conversation is neither rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total surprise we look for a creative tension, a progressive and mutual deepening of insight, a sense that were are getting somewhere worthwhile”. Unfortunately, humans love stability. We feel more secure if we believe that things will not change. Our scientific and managerial processes are based on the assumption that there are clear ‘facts’, simple cause and effect relationships, and a ‘best’ way to do everything. And much of our behaviour towards nature is more like a proclamation than a conversation – we stride into the landscape, declare our viewpoint, our desires and our expectations, and then leave again without pausing to discover the effect on our listeners.

By contrast, an ecological conversation, like many conversations with people that we do not know well, starts with a few cautious questions. Talbott suggests that every “experimental gardening technique, every new industrial process, every different kind of bird feeder is a question put to nature”. I have, for example, already described my ‘conversation’ with my garden. Due to our ignorance, our question may cause trouble, but it is this ignorance that we are trying to remedy through our conversation. More sensitive questions emerge through our deepening understanding of the ‘person’ with whom we converse. As a result, our conversation is creative, inventive, producing new possibilities for interaction that did not exist before. Talbott also notes that conversation always takes place between individuals, not abstractions or stereotypes. We cannot converse with an abstract ‘industrialist’ or ‘environmentalist’ but only with a specific individual who will not conform precisely to any label. Similarly, we cannot converse with a ‘wetland’ or a ‘threatened species’ but only with the very particular locality or individual animal or plant with which we engage. This is why movements such as Transition Towns and Slow Food must be grassroots movements. They can only develop successfully by engaging in ecological conversations with the immediate, and unique, locality within which they are embedded.

The life coaching process is also a conversation. It is a conversation between two unique individuals through which we both deepen our knowledge and produce creative insights that move us both forward. The client moves towards a more creative, more fulfilled and more sustainable life, while the coach progressively develops a more effective and more insightful coaching process.

Life can be exciting, stimulating, fast-moving – and stressful. When we start to slow down, something magical happens. We suddenly discover riches – treasures that were there all the time, but we were too busy or too pre-occupied to notice them. A simpler, slower-paced life provides time and space for creativity, for community, for participation, for quality, and for the awareness and enjoyment of the natural world. When we simplify our lives we actually have more, not less. But the riches we discover are subtler, and ultimately more satisfying, than the noisy, vibrant and multi-coloured riches that predominate in modern life.

George Moore wrote that “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it”. Modern life is like travelling away from ourselves, seeking meaning in the commodities and entertainments that are provided for us by commerce. Simplifying life is like coming home to ourselves and knowing, for the first time, that we already have everything that we need, here and now.

The latest issue of Resurgence carries two responses to the current economic recession, one from Nick Robins, co-editor of Sustainable investing: The art of long term performance, and the other from Tony Juniper, formerly Director of Friends of the Earth and currently a Green Party candidate. Robins believes that this is “a period of great excitement” that could lead to “the prize of a sustainable economy”, although Juniper worries that “governments around the world seem fixated on keeping the failed system on life support rather than on giving birth to a system more fit for the times we live in”. Both writers urge us to identify new economic priorities, and point to the limitations of the main government indicators such as GDP. Gross Domestic Product is the total income generated by economic activity within a country within one year. It is widely used as an indicator of economic welfare, but this assumes that all expenditure is good and, conversely, that not spending is a reflection of poor welfare. These assumptions are false. For example, I can improve my work-life balance by working fewer hours and taking more time for activities that contribute to my well-being. Such activities might include spending more time with my friends and family, going for long walks in the countryside, singing in a choir, and many other activities that cost very little. If many of us did this, our welfare would improve considerably but we would be contributing less to GDP, which would fall as a result. Similarly, shopping locally in small privately run shops rather than large and more distant supermarkets enhances our welfare but contributes less to GDP. Conversely, if the country experienced a disastrous event such as a hurricane or an earthquake, our welfare would suffer but GDP would increase as a result of the cost of repairing the damage.

GDP also ignores trading activity using Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS). These are grass roots schemes that use a local currency that is issued by the scheme organisers, not by the banks. George Monbiot explains that in a recession “everything grinds to a halt for want of money”, but that money doesn’t have to be sterling or dollars. In A better way to make money he describes a number of schemes using local currencies that have successfully kick-started economies, saved local businesses and even whole towns, solved major social problems and generated employment. Almost all of these schemes “were closed down as the central banks panicked about losing their monopoly over the control of money”. Monbiot believes that it is time that we gave serious consideration to such alternatives.

I’ve been thinking about what makes slow so valuable, and I think it’s because it leaves time for the interactive processes of learning and of building relationships. For example, I recently commissioned a design for my garden. Probably not a very ‘slow’ thing to do, but as someone who’s tended to give my gardens the wildflower meadow treatment, I felt I needed help! The design is great and gives me a real vision of what the garden could be like. But what I haven’t done is hire anyone to implement the design. Physical changes definitely need the slow treatment. So I make small changes, one at a time. Each new change alters my experience of the garden, and this experience contributes to my understanding of the design and to my process of building a relationship with the garden. The space is evolving into something that will have been co-created by me, by the designer, and by the garden itself. It is like the difference between viewing a photograph of an unknown family and the experience of nurturing and being nurtured within your own family.

In the Simpleology course, The Simple Science of Money, Mark Joyner presents a model of business that has three inputs – money, time and energy – and one output – money. This is a very narrow view of business. Money has instrumental value, i.e. it has value because we can use it to acquire other things that we value. If the work that we do produces no other benefit than money, then our work also has only instrumental value. But in a creative and fulfilling life, work is much more than this. It has intrinsic value. In other words, it has value in and of itself. It has non-financial benefits that are specific to the individual but might include working with inspiring people, expressing ourselves, indulging our passions, developing our talents and confirming our place in the world. To achieve such work I believe we need three additional inputs – passion, inspiration and creativity.

The Slow Coach

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Robert Ashton on The Slow Coach

"Every week I meet people setting out to offer life coaching. Only once have I encountered a life coach with the intellectual agility, insight and strength of character to impress me."