I’ve been thinking about this question ever since having a discussion with a colleague last week, who was telling a story about how he’d had his girlfriend over one night, and somehow her phone had dialled her dad, who’d become inadvertently privy to everything they’d been discussing. When they realised what had happened, initially they panicked – but my co-worker said that the question (and reaction) had been rolling around his head ever since. People always talk about the measure of a good, honest person as lying in the actions they take when nobody is watching. But what about the flipside? What if you knew that someone you cared about, or wanted to impress were watching? What if everybody was watching? Would you modify your behaviour? And if the answer is yes, does that mean you’re not a person of integrity?
This may not be a comfortable question to ask yourself. I’ve been asking myself for the last few days, and I must admit, the process has left me feeling somewhat uneasy. As I’m sure is the case for most people, we all like to think we’re people of our word. But integrity isn’t simply not lying; it’s the unity of our thoughts, words and actions regardless of company or circumstance. Integrity is when what we think lines up with what we say and what we do no matter whose presence we may be in. There is nothing to hide, no divided loyalty, no masks adorned or games played. There is no difference between what we appear to be to a stranger, and who we are inside, or who our closest family knows us to be. Yet if we all think we’re people of integrity, how come we all know someone who can talk the talk but not walk the walk? Something doesn’t add up. I can easily list a dozen people who claim to value health, yet choose to be a smoker. More who’d claim never to steal anything, yet regularly download movies and music illegally. I can think of people who’ll say they value their spouse, their children, their job and their own wellbeing, in that order. But when you take a look at their bank account or their Google calendar, it’s full of trivial expenses on ephemeral feelings of joy – rounds of golf, or wings and beer with friends, and an arrival home at 11 PM to the wife claimed to be at the top of the list of priorities.
Unfortunately, I think integrity is losing its value. The majority of people spend so much time focusing on reputation and how other people see us that there’s no reserve left over to focus on being the most authentic and genuine person we can be. In today’s society, image is a greater priority than integrity, and it may seem unnatural to focus energy on the reverse. So if all anybody cares about is how other people see them, by prioritising in the same way, each of us contributes to a superficial society – one in which our time and energy is spent on creating the best personas we can to impress different people, rather than on building a unity of thought, words and actions. When I first started blogging seriously, I had a couple of goals: one, to have an outlet in which to pour my hopes, dreams and struggles honestly, to hold myself accountable to growing, and not to hold back; two, to one day reach some of those dreams, maybe overcome a couple of those hurdles, and in the process, hopefully inspire someone somewhere else and make them feel they could do the same. But being able to have a good influence on someone requires them to put their confidence in you, and nobody will put their confidence in someone who’s not credible, and the only way you build credibility… is by having integrity.
The thing that made me uncomfortable in asking myself if I genuinely do have integrity wasn’t the anecdote of having a partner’s parents on the other end of an unintended phone call, or visualising a neighbour outside my open window while I happened to be in a wild fit of over over-emotion and stubbornness. The thing that made me feel uneasy came in the form of a question from a fantastic book I’m currently reading, a chapter of which ended thusly:
The people closest to you know you the best, and are therefore in the best position to discern your consistency as an employer, leader, spouse, parent or child. If you asked the various people in your life how you are doing in the area of integrity, how do you think they would respond?
A. You live by the highest standards, and you do what you say and say what you do.
B. You’re consistent most of the time and easily engender trust.
C. You could stand to become more consistent in words and deeds.
D. You’re a mystery – people rarely know what you believe and how you’ll act.
As I read, something sunk somewhere in the region of the pit of my stomach. I desperately wanted to answer with A, but I knew it wasn’t entirely true. I’m not to proud to admit that I’m full of words and declarations of focusing on the big picture, on what’s ultimately most important in life… yet am all too often quick to voice my frustration or others’ wrongdoings. I tell other people to practice forgiveness and focus on creating a better future, yet bring up things in the past that cannot be changed by my harping on about them. I say one thing yet often practice entirely another. I moved on to B. I could settle for second place, right? I think I’m consistent most of the time, and I like to think I engender trust from others. But I’m not the one who decides whether or not that’s true. C. I could stand to become more consistent in words and deeds. On reflection, this is the only one so far that I can agree with wholeheartedly. At least I didn’t get a D – I am certain I wear my heart on my sleeve, and am not afraid to open up my life like a book for anyone to peruse. I’m positive I’m anything but a mystery. But a C doesn’t sit well in this over-achiever’s heart.
So I revert back to how I dealt with everything else I wanted to change over the last year, and decide to just make the choice to go with what I want to be rather than what I am. Make a conscious decision in every passing moment to act in accordance with my values, and not the fleeting emotional temptations of the moment. It’s tough, but it’s not impossible. And, as Aristotle once said, we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. And with enough practice and dedication, we can all become precisely what we want to be: people of utmost integrity.