What would you do if nobody was watching? Scratch that, what would you do if EVERYONE was watching?

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. Y
ou’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.


  1. People are self serving. We have so many biases, and so many roundabout ways to make ourselves believe that we are good people and we’ve done the right thing. It’s a protective mechanism, a way to keep ourselves feeling fulfilled. Although I do think it can lead to foolishness, hardiness, and selfishness.

    A good example of this was a case study in which researchers asked participants who they thought was the most likely to go to heaven. Looking at the results, up near the top there were people like Oprah, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. In second place was Mother Teresa. But do you who scored first place? Themselves. People thought themselves—over everyone else in the world—were going to heaven.

    You should google the list of cognitive biases, there’s a good wiki article on that. You’ll learn a lot about humans by the end of the article. And especially, you’ll learn a lot about yourself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

    In the meantime, I encourage you to discover how selfish you really are. Don’t hold back. You’ll learn and grow a lot when you let go of that pride. Option C, in my opinion, is a beautiful place to be.

    On another note, you voiced in here, perfectly, one of the reasons that I blog that I could never find the words for: to hold myself accountable to growing. Beautiful.

    1. my faves from the wiki list—-the fundamental attribution error, actor-observer bias, and self-serving bias.

  2. I hasten to comment on a flaw in your approach to the quote, Emily. Not to nit-pick, but to highlight a fatal error which seems to have led to some moral discomfort on your part. The quote says to ask those closest to you… and you were asking only yourself. Everyone knows just how often you demand some very harsh things of yourself, and how unforgiving you can be if you fall short of your high expectations. You, my love, are too harsh a critic of yourself for your answer to truly and honestly count. The quote itself doesn’t allow for shades of grey, and so I offer this to you as something of a compass and reassurance: I personally see you as moving between A and B. We can’t be purely adherent to just one of these categories, it’s impossible… but I see no shame in that. You score very high in integrity Emily, so I wouldn’t fret too much. X

  3. I don’t pretend to not be a judgemental person – I’m probably one of the most judgemental people I know, but I’m not super obvious about it. I would much rather talk about people – human behaviour fascinates me – than ideas, and if that makes me small-minded, then that’s what I am. In private, T and I often discuss our friends and it’s not always flattering – we have amazing mates but many of them are currently making what everyone except themselves, us included, considers ridiculous choices in life. They probably wouldn’t be surprised as such to overhear our conversations, but it wouldn’t exactly be comfortable.

    But in terms of credibility – I always deliver on what I say I’ll get done, and I’ll always go the extra mile for those close to me. I’ve been through a lot in the past few years and am finally getting better at moving on, rather than moping and brooding, and having the grace to accept what has been and cannot be changed. I would love to spend more time with friends, my guitar, and exercising, but there are only so many hours in the day and ultimately I can only do my best while getting enough sleep and taking care of myself first.

  4. Hi Emily,

    I was thinking of writing this article for some time. But I have always put it off because I did not have enough meaningful things to say about it without belaboring what I felt was obvious. Your quote by Aristotle sums it up nicely, “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

    Personally, I believe that it also helps to bother less about what other people think. When I am less concerned about winning approval, I act more consistently. Apart from that, I do not believe in acting differently with people than when I am alone because this creates inconsistency in my character. It means that I have to exert effort to act in a particular way that is not my true nature. When something is not in line with my nature the effort makes it hard for me to sustain and soon cracks in my acting will show. I rather act as I always do alone or with others and this makes me more natural in my actions.

    Integrity is not inflexibility though. There are times when circumstances compel us to act accordingly.

    “The way of inferior people is in ascent; the way of superior people is one the decline. But the superior people do not allow themselves to be turned from their principles. If the possibility of exerting influence is closed to them, they nevertheless remain faithful to their principles and withdraw into seclusion.”

    When we are surrounded by unreasonable or petty people for example, it is prudent to go with the flow and then to make a hasty exit as soon as possible. As far as possible, we should stick to our principles without compromising our safety. In such cases it helps to see the other person’s point of view even if we do not agree with it. I suppose there is no standardized approach to life. Anyway, this is just my two cents.

    Thank you for sharing on this complicated topic. 🙂

    Irving the Vizier

    1. It is a very complicated topic, isn’t it? I do love that Aristotle quote – it can really apply to anything you want it to, not just “excellence”. If you put enough time, effort and energy into the right thing, it will eventually become as natural as breathing – all it takes is the decision to start, and a little determination.

  5. I talk like I don’t care much, so I don’t think I’d care.

    Honestly, I don’t curse much or talk about other people much. I usually talk about bunnies.

  6. Excellent post, provacative post title. I see the loss of integrity as pervasive throughout our society. Few are immune. And it has become so commonplace that we readily accept (or at least make excuses for) unacceptable behavior. Bringing this down to a personal level, your line “Make a conscious decision in every passing moment to act in accordance with my values, and not the fleeting emotional temptations of the moment” is an example of a powerful way to live: “Live from your vision, not from your circumstances.” The world would be a better place, indeed, if we all lived this way.

    1. Is the paraphrased version a quote from somewhere? If not, you just coined one of my new favourites. “It has become so commonplace that we readily accept (or at least make excuses for) unacceptable behavior” – true, and very scary. 😦

  7. Really fascinating question and discussion. I consider myself to have integrity, but at the same time there are things that I would discuss with or say to some people that I wouldn’t say to others. I guess there’s a line somewhere between being honest and being hurtful. Some things that are true, I just wouldn’t say to one person that I would say to another. Does that make sense? I feel like I need a whole lot more than a blog comment to fully respond to this post, heh!

  8. I think it’s hard to be 100% perfect and have integrity on a daily basis, so I don’t think you’re failing for marking C on that question. In fact, you’re probably above the norm of people who want to answer A, so they do. No questions asked. I mean, it’s just a self-quiz, right? That’s what they’ll say.

    I believe taking yourself seriously is what bumps you up a level. Being honest with yourself first before you can be honest with anyone else. It’s hard work. I don’t think I’m an A. I said I was a B but now you’ve got me wondering.

  9. Round of applause to you. I always lecture my students about having integrity, but I’m beginning to realize that my own actions are probably more of a lesson to them. Still working on it!

  10. This is a great thing to seek out in your life: integrity! The way I see it, a lack of integrity comes from a people-pleasing heart (yes, I’ll do it! yes, I agree!), but the follow-through is weak and leaves people wondering. It’s hard to say no, or “I disagree with you”, but those are the people I have the most respect for, because you can trust them and they’re accountable. I married a man like that, and love that quality about him.

  11. Interesting debate here! I can be a very judgmental person and I can’t count how many conversations my mom and I have about people (esp. family) or how many conversations my best friend and I have about those we work with. I think it’s just part of human nature. I’m not two-faced about it and people know if I don’t like them (which isn’t very many people, to be honest). But it does make one think about how their actions are affecting their integrity.

    I wouldn’t think anyone could have integrity all the time, especially as it relates to our thoughts. But I do think it’s something we should be striving for and concerned about.

    Another amazing post from you, Emily. 🙂

  12. Interesting subject, Emily. Do you think reality TV has played a role in integrity nowadays? There are fewer and fewer boundaries in what we view and I think what people do with cameras on them. I can see it both ways. What would you do if everyone was watching vs. What would you do if TV cameras were watching? I bet you’d still see different behavior from a lot of individuals. I feel like this question is just like the “how many licks does it take to get to the center of tootsie pop?” The world may never know. ha.

    1. Now that you mention it, I can see it both ways as well. I originally had people being on better behaviour in front of an audience in mind, but reality TV seems to encourage quite the opposite, and those who break the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour are rewarded with fame and attention. Psychologically, it’s fascinating, but it doesn’t make it good…

  13. I like this post for its challenging nature, but I also have to say, we will NEVER reach a place of perfection. And once we think we do, well…we’re probably the most at risk of being selfish, without realizing it. People who answer A without a pause are probably people who are unaware of who they’ve hurt and how they affect others.

    I agree with Jon above, in that it’s better to be aware of our ever-present need for improvement.

    I like to think I mean what I say and say what I mean. But to truly know is to ask others around you how you’ve affected them. Thinking about other people before ourselves…I think we’re all trying to get there.

    1. Your comment reminds me of a writing exercise I did once – it was to describe yourself as one of your friends would describe you, not how you see yourself. And doing so actually made me cry… it’s a fascinating exercise if you ever get the chance. And now that I’ve thought about the topic of integrity, I’m not sure how the discrepancy makes me feel…

  14. Great post. I’m not sure how I come across to others, or how I would want to come across. I think it’s unavoidable that we act out a part most of the time – I guess it’s the reasons we might do it that really count.

    Sometimes we do it to shelter somebody from a truth. It’s not always to paint the best version of ourselves.

  15. You should check out the documentary “We live in public”. It’s all about a guy who basically experimented with turning his apartment into the big brother house. He also created an underground “apartment” of sorts with the same idea. Everything they did was filmed and streamed onto the internet. It was very interesting to see how the people changed & acted differently & how it affected his relationships. Crazy stuff. He couldn’t hide anything.

  16. Last night I had a co-worker do something not so great to me. I was walking around the house just ANGRY and complaining about her. My mom finally told me to call her back, tell her I was mad (and why) and get it off my chest rather than walking around complaining about her.

    So I did. I felt tons better and I was able to unwind after that and let go. Plus I don’t feel like a jerk for complaining about someone behind their back instead of just telling them how I feel.

    Of course you need to also make sure to not be a total jerk to their face. But still.

    1. Very true – and it reminds me of one of the simplest but most effective things I TRY to live by – “if you don’t like something, change it!” People (myself included) so easily revert to wasting time whining about things – time they could be using to build bridges or actually be productive. I’m glad it made you feel better – now I think I have a situation in which this course of action just might do the world of good…

  17. Really great post. I like the story at the beginning about your coworker- I know that if anyone were eavesdropping on a personal conversation I’d immediately feel uncomfortable, wondering what they overheard. I think we all have those hidden conversations that no one else should listen to, but I’d like to think that overall I’m a really honest person. Most people know how I feel about them because I tell them so. And I don’t know but for some reason a lot of my friends don’t have their mothers on Facebook and mine proactively comments on my stuff all the time! I just don’t really have anything to hide… But I imagine that every once in a while I still slip up!! Integrity is a very important quality, it’s great that you took the time to write about it 🙂

  18. I honestly that it’s human nature to be a little bit “different” with every person you meet. That doesn’t mean you don’t have integrity, but you play different roles, wear different hats.
    I don’t think that is a bad thing. As fantastic as it sounds to be full of integrity and totally transparent with every single person in our lives, I do believe that it’s impossible, and not necessarily healthy.

    1. The psychology of it fascinates me, and to be honest, I don’t know if it would necessarily be healthy or not – but I think it’s good to have something to aim for, even if deep down we’ll never be able to achieve it – because how different would the world be if everyone were just well-intentioned and honest with each other, without creating a multitude of personae and having to keep up appearances with each separate audience in each facet of life…

  19. that is such a good question to ask ourselves, i think i need to think about this one a little more! i def behave in ways that i wouldn’t want some people seeing sometimes!! that includes being cranky with mark which is normal but still..

  20. Hello Emily,
    This time, I have to disagree. I think that we confuse integrity with perfection. A smoker who claims to value health may very well be someone who values health but has not yet learned how to conquer their addiction.
    I am a hard-core environmentalist as in I understand that consuming the way that we do, and driving everywhere is destroying the planet… but, I am not a perfect environmentalist, I eat meat and take-out, and sometimes buy things I don’t need.
    Does this mean I lack integrity? No! I simply have more growing to do, and if I didn’t, it would probably mean that I’m dead.
    I do act differently with my friends than I do at my job because I would get fired if I didn’t. That doesn’t mean that what I do with my friends is wrong, it is just that there is a time and place for everything.
    Excellence is a broad sweeping term that could mean anything. Mostly in our world it is about money, being the best, competing. I don’t believe any of these things are completely positive.
    I think that the whole idea of excellence is exactly the same as perfection, and should not be what we are striving for.
    Doing better today than yesterday is a great way to go, but first the costs to the planet, it’s people and yourself have to be considered and when it works for the benefit of all, do your best, and call it good enough.

  21. Your posts always make me think, Emily…I think I’m consistent as an employee and as a spouse, but not as consistent as I could be as a parent! Thanks for making me remember that!


  22. I think for the majority of us, the only way we can correctly answer that question is C. No one is perfect and there is always room for improvement. I should hope the people closest to me would give me a B, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, I couldn’t agree with you more, excellence really is a habit. This is something I have been doing with my own life lately, recognizing my priorities and aiming to adjust my life in accordance with those priorities. I am going to spend the second half of 2011 really reaching for my goals and being accountable. Hopefully I rise a bit closer to excellence in the process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s