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The Ultimate Guide to Intentional Living

Wandering Aimfully Through Intentional Living

The Ultimate Guide to Intentional Living

This guide contains every bit of experience we've gathered on how to design a fulfilling life that matches your values.
Caroline ZookCaroline Zook Caroline ZookCaroline Zook

Written by

Caroline Zook

Imagine waking up to a life that energizes you in every possible way. Imagine carefully crafting every aspect of your life (relationships, work, routines, health) in a way that is uniquely designed to make you feel more alive and more fulfilled. That is intentional living.

We like to refer to intentional living as living your brightest life. Your brightest life is the one that allows your innermost, truest, most vibrant self to be expressed.

Your brightest life is the one that allows your innermost, truest, most vibrant self to be expressed.

Your brightest life is the one where you feel free and filled with a sense of joy. The one where you get to the end of each year, looking back on how you spent the majority of your days, and you are filled with a sense of deep contentment and happiness.

It’s one where you no longer dread going to a job that drains you, one where you don’t feel stuck or static any longer, one where you shed every facet of your life that dims your inner light or weighs you down.

Does intentional living sound too good to be true?

We get it. It sounds like some kind of fantasyland, right? But it’s not. This kind of life DOES in fact exist. It just takes intention and work to get there.

I know because I myself got there through a LOT of trial and error (which I continue to experience and learn from because your brightest life is an ever-evolving target.)

But this is the kind of hard work that is worth doing because it leads you to a life you can wake up and be excited about.

Your brightest life doesn’t land in your lap, though; you have to go out and get it.

How do you do that? Well, you’re doing it! It starts right here, right now, through intention. We’ll be talking a lot about that word throughout this guide because intention is the secret to controlling the outcomes in your life.

Using the steps outlined in this guide, you will begin to view your life as a craft—a way of sculpting your future thoughtfully and creatively through mindfulness, introspection, experimentation and vulnerability.

You likely landed here because you’re craving more out of your life.

You know this is your ONE shot on this earth, and you’re open to a more intentional way of living.

Great! You are exactly who I wrote this (massive) in-depth guide for. I want to share with you every single lesson I’ve learned over the years in my own journey to a more vibrant, satisfying life.

I’ll offer you stories, nuggets of wisdom, and thought-provoking questions and challenges so you can start uncovering the pieces to your own brightest life—beginning today.



What The Heck Is Intentional Living Anyway?

Intentional living is making conscious choices everyday to bring about the outcomes and feelings you desire in your life.

Simply put, it’s living a good life on purpose.

Intentional living asks that you recognize only have this ONE precious life, and it matters how you spend each and every moment.

The notion of intention just means with thoughtfulness and purpose, so let me ask you:

Are you thoughtful about how you spend your time and your life? Do you understand the deeper WHY behind the decisions you make and the things you bring into your life?

Practically speaking, for Jason and me, intentional living means constantly checking in with ourselves to see who we are at our most essential core level, what we value most, and how we can design every facet of our lives with those things in mind.

But, before you can truly experience the benefits of living your life more intentionally, there’s one major prerequisite we have to talk about. I call it ownership.

Section one:

Taking Complete Ownership Of Your Own Life Helps You Live Intentionally

1.1   Ownership is the key to the life you want

What’s the difference between someone who is able to buckle down and turn their dreams into their reality vs. someone who falls just short, never able to fully realize their potential?

That’s what we all really want to know, right? What is this elusive secret to succeeding in your quest to live the life you actually want?

Well, here’s the important point we have to agree on before we go any further:

The secret is YOU. You are the linchpin variable.

There are apps promising to help you stay focused on your work. Blog posts detailing how to start a business. Books to help you be more positive. And those things can be helpful but…

An app is useless unless you own the fact that only you can find the will power within to use it.

A blog post is useless unless you own the fact that your fear is holding you back from actually doing the work.

A book is useless unless you own the fact that you are the source of your negative self-talk.

There’s nothing I can say in this guide, no resources Jason and I can create here on Wandering Aimfully, no catchy phrase I can share on Instagram, that can lead you to the life you want without your commitment to turning those insights into action.

This is where ownership comes in.

Ownership is claiming responsibility for the choices (and outcomes) in your own life.

To me, ownership is the idea that while we are not always responsible for the circumstances that life throws at us or the cards we are dealt, we ARE responsible for how we react to those circumstances in any given moment.

Life is a series of unpredictable questions, but ownership is about accepting that we get a say in how we answer them.

The first time I made this realization, it occurred to me just how many excuses I was making in my life:

Those things may or may not be true, but one thing is sure:

I was using these excuses to opt myself out of things I really wanted.

It took me a while to see my self-limiting thoughts were actually my way of choosing the easier route in my life. Yes, I said easier. I know, I know…if you’ve ever found yourself in a spiral of self-doubt, it certainly doesn’t FEEL easy, does it?

If we accept our perceived limitations, we never have to push ourselves beyond what’s comfortable.

But the truth is, if we accept our perceived limitations, we never have to push ourselves beyond what’s comfortable, and that IS the easier choice. It’s a more comfortable choice. It means we never have to rise to the challenge of overcoming those limitations. Of pushing past what we think is possible. Of OWNING the fullness of the life we’re capable of creating for ourselves.

With ownership comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes FEAR—fear of failure and carrying the burden of potentially disappointing ourselves. (We’ll get into fear in depth later on in this guide.)

So we try to share the load by convincing ourselves that other people share the responsibility for our shortcomings (or, on the other end of the spectrum, our successes.)

And yes, all those things might be true.

But when we divvy up the responsibility of our choices to other people, we give away our full power to create the life we dream of.

“When we divvy up the responsibility of our choices to other people, we give away our full power to create the life we dream of.”

Every great change I’ve made in my life has come from the realization that I’m responsible for the way I live each day. I’m responsible for how hard I work, for how badly I want something.

Only YOU have the power to own your strengths and use them. Only YOU have the power to acknowledge your weaknesses and work on them.

There is nothing more powerful or hopeful than finally taking ownership of your life.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t been able to finally make your vision come to life, it’s possible that you’re placing ownership in someone else’s hands. Waiting for someone to choose you. Waiting for the right tip or trick to come along. Waiting for that switch to flip. Waiting for someone ELSE to change first.

Not anymore.

There is nothing more powerful or hopeful than finally taking ownership of your life.

Are you ready to take full responsibility for your choices so you can start living more intentionally?

If so, then keep reading. Now the real work begins.

Intentional Living Challenge

*Psssst! I have these little challenge boxes peppered throughout this guide! Look for them if you want to actually apply what you’re learning! Your ownership challenge:

  1. Make a list of five excuses you’ve made in the past for not living the way you truly want to.
  2. Next to each one, write down who you’re giving away ownership or responsibility to instead of taking it on yourself.
  3. Then, rewrite a rebuttal to your excuse by taking ownership back into your hands.


  1. Excuse = “I can’t pick up and move to Paris like I’ve always dreamed of.”
  2. Responsibility = “I’m giving away ownership to friends who say I’m crazy for having this dream. I’m giving away ownership to my family who begs me to stay in my hometown. I’m giving away ownership to my possessions and things which make me feel like I can’t pull up roots and move.”
  3. Rebuttal = “I can take ownership of my own life by recognizing that ultimately it doesn’t matter what my friends think because it’s not their life or their decision. My parents want me to stay close out of the love they have for me, but if they truly love me, they’ll support me pursuing my happiest, brightest life. I do have the power to minimize my possessions or change my lifestyle for the next x amount of time to prepare for this move to Paris. I am responsible for making this plan and making my dreams come true!”

Section Two:

Start Intentionally Live By Uncovering Your Core Self

Once you begin reclaiming your power and start owning your responsibility for creating the life you want, the next natural question then becomes:

Well, what IS the life that you want?

You may already have the answer right now. Deep down you may see the future you want for yourself and you’re looking for ways to break through and go get it. OR…you may reading this right now with no idea what you want, you just know there has to be something better than this.

Whichever camp you’re in, one thing is certain: there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for a happy life.

There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for a happy life.

The answer to what brings happiness and fulfillment is different for every person and even different for the same person at different times in their life.

That’s why the foundation of living your brightest life begins with understanding who you are at the deepest level.

This is what I call uncovering your “core self.”

2.1   What is your “core self?”

In my TEDx talk (embedded below), I speak about this metaphor I have in my head that I like to picture sometimes. I envision every person arriving as a spirit to this world as a unique “color”—a completely one-of-a-kind hue that encompasses the truest mix of our human potential. It represents our unique combination of gifts, talents, personality, likes, and predispositions.

But, as we grow older, the expectations placed on us from other people—society, friends, family, media, etc.—can often dim that technicolor potential. Things like fear and stress and the endless quest for validation start muddying that bright color of ours.

It’s our job to find our way back to that pure, original state: our brightest, most vibrant state of being.

THAT is what your core self represents: the purest, brightest expression of your spirit.

It’s the deepest, truest expression of who you are, separate from what anyone else thinks of you.

Your core self is the part of you that yearns to be free. Deep down it’s begging you to make choices that will allow it to be fully expressed. It’s that feeling in your gut. Your intuition. Your truth. That deeper knowing.

If you learn to listen to it, it WILL lead you to your brightest life. 

But learning to listen to your core self is a skill—one that must be practiced.

I like to think of your core self as a super-charged magnet. There are certain things that it will pull in closer to you, and there are things it will repel away from you. Your job is to learn how to pay attention to those gravitational forces so you can better understand what your core self desires.

Let’s talk about some ways you can begin to uncover who you are on a core level.

2.2   Mining your childhood for clues to your core self

Going back to your early years can be a great way to look for clues about your core self. In many ways, our childhood selves represent the purest version of who we are. If the goal is to find your truest sense of self, one approach is to go back to a time before the world began influencing your identity.

Or, as Danielle LaPorte once said:

“Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?”

For me personally, I was always drawn to creative pursuits as a kid. I used to spend hours upon hours doing arts and crafts projects at our house. I’d take over the kitchen table, or spread newspaper out across our garage so I could paint this thing or try out new art supplies or bring an idea to life. With the freedom of exploration and play I carried as a child, I can see that creating was so clearly what I always wanted to do.

And yet, it took years for me to return to this knowing. I almost abandoned this core part of myself.

Listening to what teachers and other adults were telling me, I grew up thinking that my high performance in school is what made me special. One look at my high GPA and adults would often assure me I was no doubt going to be “successful.” That I would “make a great doctor or lawyer someday.”

Even from a young age, the message was clear: art is just a hobby, not something you should aspire to or cultivate.

Thank goodness the inner kid inside me spoke up when I felt myself headed down a road that wasn’t resonating in my heart. It was pretty early on in my journey down the “traditional career path” when I realized the big wig advertising job I had aspired to was a poor fit for me (more on that later). Thank goodness that inner kid said, “Stop chasing whatever you think being ‘successful’ is. Do what brings you joy instead.”

It took many more of these nagging-voice moments to start unlearning who I thought I should be, but remembering that little girl covered in marker and elated with experimental art projects was the first step to remembering a big part of who I was deep down.

Intentional Living Challenge

Write down your answers to these questions:

  1. How did you spend your time as a kid?
  2. What were your hobbies?
  3. When you weren’t playing with your friends or doing your homework, what did you gravitate towards that made you lose track of time?
  4. How did you spend your time as a kid?
  5. What did you want to be one day?
  6. And more importantly, WHY did you want to be that?


2.3   What makes you feel the most YOU

There’s no rocket science to this one. A great way to figure out who you truly are is simply to ask yourself. Many people struggle to take the time to quiet their minds and go inward and ask: When do I feel the most ME?

Think of the parts of yourself that heavily influence how you show up in the world, the people you surround yourself with, and what you spend your time doing.

For me, creativity is one part of the equation. I find myself drawn to activities where I can express myself, make things and experiment. I love people who are creative and doing something new and interesting. And, if given an empty block of free time, my choice is almost always to use it to create.

Caroline Zook in her creative element

But that’s just one part of me. Over the years I’ve peeled back layer upon layer to understand so many facets of what’s at the heart of me. I’m deeply empathetic and sensitive. I’m goofy and light-hearted. I’m endlessly curious. I can be stubborn and defiant.

Each one of these traits is something I’ve uncovered about myself through a multitude of ways: therapy, journaling, travel experiences, reading books, having a creative practice, etc. I’m constantly looking for new opportunities to spend time with myself and get to know myself better.

Which is perhaps one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give you about intentional living and starting to craft a happier life:

Always stay curious about yourself.

In my book, Your Brightest Life Journal, I begin with a chapter on self-awareness that starts with this quote:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever endeavor to study is yourself.”

Never stop learning about yourself. Never stop asking yourself WHY you do the thing you do or WHY you feel pulled to certain things. These are breadcrumbs that will lead you to your truest core self.

2.4 You are full of contradictions and that’s beautiful

It’s important to note here that the code to our core self is usually a mixed bag, often contain seemingly contradicting elements.

For example, at my core, I feel I’m equal parts intuitive AND logical. These opposing forces play out in different ways in my life in business. I may enjoy putting on my bosslady, make-it-happen, practical business hat, but I also enjoy trading it in for my intuitive, sometimes idealistic, touchy-feely artist hat. Both elements feel like true parts of me.

One moment I’ll find myself watching a GaryVee video, lighting a fire in me to tackle my goals with gusto and approach my work with strategy and logic. Then, later that same day I’ll read a post from Liz Gilbert reminding me to return to my truth and to create wholeheartedly, without worrying about what’s necessary “practical” or what will make me money.

Caroline and Jason Zook being silly

Both people inspire me. Both messages speak to me. I find myself benefiting from both perspectives at different moments in time.

Instead of just embracing this complex mixture within my identity, here’s what sometimes happens instead…

I find myself swinging wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other, convinced that one of these sides is the “right” side of the fence to be on. Then, inevitably I feel like I’m somehow cheating on the part of myself that’s still clinging to the other side.

“I need to embrace that I’m running a business here and not view my work so idealistically!”

“NO! I need to return to the purity of making and not put so much pressure on my work to be financially fruitful.”

“NO this is right.”

“NO that is right.”

And before long my brain and my heart feel like they’re literally engaged in some epic version of tug of war. It’s exhausting.

Then, after a couple of deep breaths, I take a step back and ask myself:

What if it’s actually just somewhere in the middle?

We are all complex humans with the capacity to hold all sorts of opposing forces within us at the same time.

We can be creators AND business owners. We can carry both masculine AND feminine facets. We can believe in striving forward toward goals AND taking gratitude for what we have now.

The struggle only arises in our attempt to create false dichotomies where they need not exist.

Our identities are not either/or; they are YES, AND.

I’m a little bit of Garyvee AND a little bit of Liz Gilbert. I’m deep and light-hearted. I thrive on a mix of still satisfaction and fiery forward-motion. My truth is somewhere in the middle of all that.

And I’m betting yours is too.

The distress and exhaustion of our “struggle” don’t actually come from traveling back and forth between the two ends of our polarities. The distress comes from fighting the urge to travel between the two or judging ourselves for not being more easily categorized. That uncertain feeling comes from pretending that either one is a static solution rather than a dynamic flow.

We have to learn to see this pendulum swing from one end of a spectrum to the other not as a struggle or tug of war, but instead as a dance—a waltz where the passage is fluid and purposeful and graceful.

As you begin to uncover the truth of who you are at your core, be willing to accept the multi-faceted nature of your humanity.

Recognize that your uniqueness actually lies in the combination of your opposing forces. These contradictions are what make you unexpected, singular and, yes, beautiful.

Intentional Living Challenge

Write down a list of 5 “opposing forces” within you that you often waffle back and forth between. Then think about (or write about) how you’re able to possess both opposing forces within you and give yourself permission to embody BOTH.


2.5 Letting go of stories that don’t serve you

Whenever you start doing the work of getting to know yourself better, you inevitably will find yourself getting acquainted with the parts of yourself that you historically are NOT comfortable with. You’ll recognize your brain playing familiar tapes of self-criticism and doubt. You’ll hear stories emerge that you’ve told yourself about your identity for years. Stories like:

“I’m not a creative person.”
“I don’t deserve to pursue a more fulfilling life.”
“I’m not disciplined enough to change my life.”

But here’s the thing. These are in fact just that: stories. They are not written in stone. They can be examined, dismantled and rebuilt into something more positive. Something TRUER.

In my pursuit to uncover my core self, one story I kept slamming up against was this notion that I am weak or fragile. I was such a sensitive, emotional kid and society’s traditional message to those personality traits is vulnerability equals weakness. I didn’t realize just how much this story was affecting different aspects of my life and how I was seeing myself.

As it turns out, sensitivity and emotion IS a part of my core self. But I get to rewrite the story of what that means. It means I’m compassionate. It means I’m open-hearted. It means I’m unguarded. It does NOT mean I am weak.

Once I was able to let go of that story, I was able to fully embody that part of myself that I was afraid to embrace as a result of that story.

What about you?

What stories are you ready to let go of so you can embrace who you actually are?

What negative stories are holding you back from fully embodying your core self? It could be a story about who you are, or who you think you are as a result of things that have happened to you in your life.

Now is the time to do the rewriting. Don’t let doubt or pain or fear define you or claim your identity.

2.6 Practical ways to get to know yourself better so you can live intentionally

This section has been all about discovering your core self. I’ve given you questions and challenges that will help lead you to who you are at the deepest level.

But, as I mentioned, self-awareness is a lifelong pursuit that takes practice. You have to seek out experiences and situations where you can learn about yourself and then you have to carve out the time, space, and mindfulness to actually listen. Here are some of the ways I recommend you do just that.


I love the app Headspace for doing guided meditations. I find that carving out 15 minutes a day to quiet your mind allows you to more clearly hear the call of your core self when it’s speaking to you.


I’m a huge proponent of therapy whether you think you “need it” or not. Having an outside party ask questions and uncover insights with you is so valuable. Even when I felt I knew myself through and through, therapy led me to new, deeper insights that helped me see ways I could thrive even more in my life. (Not to mention it has done wonders for taking control of my anxiety and living with more peace in general!)


Writing is a great way to let your subconscious speak to you. Even just committing to a few minutes each morning to get your thoughts out of your head can help you uncover desires and core parts of you that you weren’t aware of. Try asking yourself these questions about who you are and see what answers pop up.

A creative practice

This may not be the case with everyone, but when I’m painting or drawing or even doodling, I’m able to go inward and visit with myself in a way that no other activity allows for. These sessions are often the times when I check in with myself about what I’m feeling and that leads me to a better understanding about what that “core self magnet” is being drawn to or repelled by.


I find that new places and experiences also teach me a great deal about myself. Travel doesn’t have to mean expensive European vacations. It can mean camping for the weekend or renting an Airbnb in a city nearby. Anything that gets you out of your normal routines and daily commitments can help you start to ask yourself those deeper questions.

Section Three:

Intentionally Living Requires That You Define Your Core Values

The happiness and satisfaction we’re all searching for is attainable, but only once we’re able to design a life based on our unique core values. 

You won’t find sustained happiness through buying what society tells you to buy.
You won’t find sustained happiness by gaining admiration or notoriety.
You won’t find sustained happiness by doing what you think others want you to do.

You will only find lasting satisfaction and contentment when you craft a life that allows your core self to be fully expressed.

As you now know, your core self represents the deepest essence of who you are. Your core values, however, represent what your core self needs to fully thrive.

This doesn’t just mean the big things like family, health, and friendship that nearly all of us want in our lives. These core values also refer to the more nuanced things that vary between each of us.

Our little Zook family

For example, one of my core values is flexibility. My core self is sensitive and creative, and over time I’ve come to realize that I feel most at peace when I have the ability to mold my environment, my schedule, my daily routine to however I’m feeling and whenever inspiration hits me. My core self loves the spontaneity and novelty this brings, whereas someone else might crave more structure and predictability.

Unfortunately, I can’t just give you one definitive blueprint to uncover your values. It’s a highly personal pursuit. It requires time to go inward and develop a deep self-awareness as I talked about in Section Two.

But again, I think it helps to try to think of your core self as a magnet. Notice what that magnet is drawn to and what it’s repelled by. Pay attention to what feels energizing to you and what feels draining. These are clues about what you’re underlying values are. These are indications about what your core self needs to thrive.

Intentional Living Challenge

Here are some guiding questions that might be able to point you in the right direction:

  1. When do you feel free and at peace?
  2. When do you feel stifled and confined?
  3. Where do your thoughts drift?


3.1 Seeking alignment: When your actions match your values and core desires

Now that you have an idea of what core values are, you’re ready for the big key to living your brightest life.

Your brightest life is the one where you are able to live out your core values on a daily basis.

If you can do that, you will find the satisfying life you’re in search of. But, this requires you to make a big shift in how you measure your own “success.”

Intentional living asks you to shift your definition of success from one based on achievement to one based on alignment.

Achievement (the way society typically measures success) is about looking outside yourself for validation.

Achievement says: If I can just do this thing, reach this goal, acquire this whatever, arrive at this arbitrary benchmark, gain this approval…THEN I will be worthy and feel happy.

It’s extrinsically motivated, meaning it relies on validation from other people.

Alignment, however, is completely intrinsically motivated.

Alignment is about matching up your actions with your values.

Alignment says: As long as I’m living my truth and walking out my values on a daily basis, I have already won.

No permission from others, no approval, no validation from anyone other than yourself.

This is why values are so crucial for you to define. It gives you freedom from the rat race of “success.” You can stop chasing all the things that lead you farther away from yourself and instead focus on what will fill up the tank of your core self.

Define your own success and happiness

3.2 Defending the essential and protecting your core values

Once you define your values, it becomes much clearer to see what things you want to let into your life and which things you don’t.

There’s a book Jason and I both love called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

The guiding principle of the book can be boiled down to this one phrase: less, but better.

Essentialism book by Greg McKeown

Less, but better is the acknowledgment that eliminating non-essential elements and focusing on a few key things will allow us to more effectively allocate our limited resources (time, money, energy, thought, etc.) to the things that matter most.

As Greg writes:

“…When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people — our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families — will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.” — Greg McKeown, Essentialism

What he’s saying is that if we don’t get intentional about our values and what is essential to us, we can easily allow the whims of other people and less important pursuits dictate our time and energy. This will inevitably lead to trade-offs we would never make of our own choosing.

For example, let’s say two of your core values are creativity and impact so you set a goal of writing your very first book. You want to complete this goal in the next three months, but you neglect to take a look at your life and define what’s essential in the context of this new goal. Some non-essential time commitments (dinners with friends, favors you said yes to, the monotony of chores, catching up on the latest Netflix shows, etc.) quickly suck up your time and energy, and at the end of three months, you wonder why you’ve barely written any words.

By not defining (and defending) what is essential, your goal is never turned into a reality and your values are never turned into action.

Over time, without the needs of your core self being met, you’ll start to feel the dissatisfaction rise.

When you’re not living in alignment with your core self, you’re not able to step into your brightest life.

It’s not enough to know what your values are; you have to create boundaries in order to protect them.

Defending the essential in your life requires you to say no to many things—things you may even like—so you can say yes to something better.

Intentional Living Challenge

Define what’s essential in your life: What are the things you’re simply not willing to sacrifice as a trade-off?

  1. Is it your health?
  2. The pursuit of your creativity?
  3. Is it that hour of silence you require in the morning to start your day right?
  4. Is it doing work that gives you that fiery stir in the pit of your stomach?

Whatever it is, write it down. Once you do that, I’d also encourage you to write down some of the trade-offs you might have to make in order to protect those things. What boundaries do you need to create?


Section four:

Building An Intentional Life Based On Your Unique Values

Now it’s time to evaluate your current life through the lens of your newly-defined core values.

Think of your core values as your ingredients to living your brightest life. They’re your building blocks, but they still need to be combined to form a tasty recipe that’s delicious and satisfying.

To start shifting your life in the direction of your core self desires, you will likely have to let go of the way you’re used to doing things now. You’ll need to:

Letting go of what you “should” do

Living a life of alignment is great in theory, but it’s a little bit messier in practice.

Embracing alignment as your new goal means letting go of what you think you should do with your life based on the opinions of other people, and that’s not always easy.

Staying mindful of this one little word—should—is one way to decipher whether your motivations are fueled by alignment or achievement.

When you recognize your mind or your words including “should,” it’s time to take a look at whether you’re reaching for external validation or actually living from a place of your core values.

Let me illustrate this to you with a story.

Caroline Zook in College

And you’re welcome for the throwback photo from college!

It was the summer of 2009 (my last summer before graduating college), and I had landed an advertising internship at one of the most prestigious and recognizable advertising agencies in the world, deep in the heart of Manhattan.

After months of preparation and dedication, I had been accepted as one of six students in the entire country to partake in a highly coveted program. When I got the news, I remember feeling like my dreams were coming true.

In my college advertising program, there was a well-defined path that was universally regarded as the launching pad to a “successful” career in the ad industry. The singular goal was to claim a spot at a big name agency in New York City, working on national and international brands. This would be a clear sign you were on the accelerated path up the corporate ladder. That was the dream, and everyone in my ad program knew it.

Being the overachiever that I was growing up, that dream is what I set my sights on. I pictured myself in my Manhattan apartment, riding the subway to work, learning from the most creative minds in advertising with the biggest budgets on Earth. It seemed like a pretty good dream to me.

June 1st rolled around—Day 1 of my big career in advertising—and I touched down in NYC, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was ready to begin my ascent up the career ladder.

I sat in client meetings where we discussed budgets that blew my mind. There was an endless free supply of M&M’s and Pepsi at my fingertips whenever I pleased (two clients of the agency). I shared an elevator with the CEO of the entire worldwide operation. From the outside, my life was something to be envied.

But inside, it felt anything but glamorous.

Just a week or two into the summer, I started to experience this uncomfortable feeling in my gut (hello, core self trying to talk to me!). My days filled up with deadlines, client calls, and research assignments that were needed at the drop of a hat and in the blink of an eye. People seemed to be constantly scrambling with a sense of urgency that left me on edge.

There was a heaviness hanging in the air that I can’t quite explain—a mingling cloud of expectations, sacrifice, and stress—and it followed everyone around the office. It coated the entire experience in angst. Every day when I walked into that building, the feeling in my gut would sink deeper, and I knew that was my soul telling me this path would bring me farther away from myself, rather than closer to what I ultimately wanted.

I did manage to endure the summer, trying to soak up every ounce of knowledge I could, but I returned to school in the fall knowing the New York ad life wasn’t for me.

When class started back up, my friends asked about my internship with eager, expectant eyes. “How was it? Was it everything you hoped for?”

My first instinct was to lie. To maintain the illusion. Ultimately though, I chose to tell the truth, using a line like, “It just wasn’t for me” or “I guess it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”

Despite my nonchalance, I remember in those moments feeling painfully self-conscious of their judgment.

“I bet they think I can’t cut it.”
“They’re probably thinking I’ll never be successful.”
“I can’t believe they wasted such a high profile internship on me.”

The negative self-talk was never-ending. I cared so damn much what people thought about me. I didn’t realize back then just how much my self-worth was tied to the validation of other people.

As much as I knew I hated the feeling of working somewhere that didn’t align with my values, I was still clinging to that feeling of appearing at the top of my game. I mean, this was THE PATH. This was THE DREAM that everyone said I should want and it was within my grasp.

I should want to work with the biggest clients in the world. I should want to work at one of the most decorated agencies in the world. I should want to live in New York—the epicenter of the advertising industry.

But true happiness doesn’t come from following shoulds.

Happiness comes from knowing yourself and living a life that feels aligned with your values. What’s the point in living a life that looks good but doesn’t FEEL good?

The hardest part of shedding my “should life” wasn’t learning to pay attention to my gut; the hardest part was following through on what it was telling me.

The hardest part was letting go of the perception that I was “living the dream.”

Guess what, though? I’ve never regretted it for ONE SINGLE SECOND.

Listening to that voice inside and following it wherever it leads has continued to bring forth even brighter and more fulfilling seasons of life.

I don’t have a Manhattan apartment. I don’t manage million-dollar budgets. I don’t play pretend Mad Men every day.

Instead, I live near the ocean where the soothing smell of salt always laces the air. I make my own hours. I set my own deadlines. I go see movies in the middle of the day sometimes because it helps me unwind. I work alongside my cute pup and my husband/best friend.

This is the difference between living a should life and living a GOOD life.

This is the difference between living according to the values of society vs. your own core values.

4.2 Using your values as a compass guiding you back to yourself

Think of your core self as a wise journey guide that you carry within you all the time. Your core values are like the infallible compass that your journey guide holds. They are your tool for finding your way back to your brightest life in the moments that threaten to throw you off your course.

People often talk about this notion of intuition or your “gut.” We all have that deep knowing that tries to tell us when we’re making choices that are taking us farther away from ourselves, or doing things that aren’t authentic to who we are deep down.

That voice, that knowing, that intuition—THAT is your inner journey guide saying: “Excuse me, can we consult the core values compass, please, because we are getting way off course here!”

Intentional Living Guide

I encourage you to start listening to that voice. It speaks in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes it feels like an ache in your belly, a more obvious whack over hte head (thanks, Rafiki), a nagging feeling that won’t go away, a sense of unease, a tightened chest, or an unexplainable sensation that something is just “off.” In whatever way it chooses to speak to you, try to hear it. Stay mindful of those inner vibrations and get curious when you feel something is out of sync.

Then, turn back to your compass. Look at your list of values (hopefully you wrote those down by now) and ask yourself: Am I truly living out each of these in my life? Am I making decisions that align with these things?

If the answer is no, that’s okay. That’s when you know it’s time to make some changes to course-correct.

The thing about authenticity is that none of us typically knows what’s right or wrong for ourselves until we experience it. We don’t know a career path isn’t for us until we live it every day. We may not know a relationship is toxic until we have time and experience to compare it to. Authentic living is a full-contact, hands-on, roll-your-sleeves-up kind of sport, and you have to know that going into it.

If our only way of discovering the right path for us is feeling our way through it, then we’re bound to make some wrong turns every now and again.

In order to course-correct, we have to speak up and make some changes, which can lead to some hard conversations.

To get to the life that you want, you will no doubt have to power through some very hard conversations and decisions. It’s simply the price of entry to the promised land of authentic living.

You may have to let your boss know you’re quitting, or tell your loved ones you’re moving, or get terrifyingly honest with a toxic friend, or break-up with a boyfriend/girlfriend.

In those moments you might feel like you’re letting someone down, or like everyone is looking at you like you’re crazy.

But that’s when it’s important for you to remember that any life that doesn’t illuminate your spirit through and through is too small for you.

Any life that doesn’t illuminate your spirit through and through is too small for you.

When you take a step back, do you really think the fear of a hard conversation should have the power to rob you of a life that feels bright and true and full?

Is avoiding an awkward break-up or family argument or an uncomfortable conversation with a boss or colleague worth wondering what might have been?

In my opinion, the answer is no. But how do you actually power through those hard conversations? How do you let someone else know you’re course-correcting and risk disappointing someone?

Well, try starting with telling the truth. Remind yourself WHY it’s important that you make a change, and remember that you only have one, precious life—one opportunity to make the most of your days on this earth. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how someone else reacts to your truth; it’s yours. A hard conversation will be painful for just a tiny fraction of time compared to a lifetime of living as a shadow of yourself.


4.3 Living your values, even when it’s inconvenient

Sometimes listening to that voice and living out your values means making choices that will disappoint people or confuse them or even make people angry. This is when living out your values will feel highly…inconvenient.

It’s convenient to value truth and authenticity when you don’t have any hard truths to reveal.

It’s convenient to value collaboration and encouraging others when your business is doing well and you’re not feeling self-conscious and in a comparison tailspin.

It’s convenient to value slowness and rest when you’re not scrambling to pay off your credit card.

However, when living your values feels inconvenient, that’s when you need the guidance from those values the most.

“When living your values feels inconvenient, that’s when you need the guidance from those values the most.”

Let’s say one of your values is authenticity and transparency. This shows up most visibly in your business. You don’t like sales tactics that feel sleazy or misleading, regardless of their efficacy.

But what happens when your business isn’t growing or sales are down and you see a sales tactic working for someone else that feels less than authentic? Will you be tempted to sacrifice what you value to get what you want in the short-term? Will the inconvenience of sticking to your guns make you bury your head in the sand?

Or let’s say activism is one of your core values. When you see injustices in the world, the compassion within your core self craves taking action to right those wrongs.

But what happens when staying true to your activist heart means alienating friends or followers that might negatively impact your business? In those situations, will you have the courage to walk your own path, even if it means other people will have their opinions about it?

These are the scenarios you have to be prepared for when you’re carving out your brightest life. You WILL be tempted to ignore your own compass and stray off your path.

What you will realize though is that whatever gains you may receive from ignoring your core values, they will be short-lived.

A feeling of dissatisfaction is sure to follow when you acquire something in a way that goes against what your core self believes because it doesn’t come from a place of deep truth.

Our core values are easy to talk about, easy to write down on paper, easy to profess…but they’re often anything but easy to live out, especially when things aren’t going your way. It’s easier to hide from yourself. It’s easier to let the tide of your circumstances (and your ego) carry you away from yourself. That is until you finally look around and suddenly you don’t recognize where you are anymore.

Don’t let yourself become lost. Get back to the life you truly want to be living, even if it means making hard choices to get there.

The Ultimate Guide to Intentional Living

(Big Fat Takeaway)

Living an intentional life is absolutely possible but it won't happen to you, you have to make choices and overcome self-doubts to carve out the life YOU really want.


This article written by

Caroline Zook

She/Her | Artist, designer + writer passionate about helping soulful creatives grow into their brightest selves. Lover of bright colors + even brighter people! One half of the crazy duo running these parts!

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