“A good character is the best tombstone… Carve your name on hearts, not marble.”
– Charles Spurgeon
I don’t know a single person who would describe themselves as lacking integrity. Even if others describe us as ‘morally ambiguous’, and even if we’ve done some legit shady things in our lives, we still see ourselves as having integrity.
I’m trying to think of the last time I read or heard someone say the word ‘integrity’. (Maybe in a company mission statement.)
It’s really not talked about very much, and that’s weird to me. The assumption that we’ve all got it on lock, combined with a blackout of conversation around the topic, is dangerous. Without this quality we cease to trust each other, one of the foundations of all human interaction. We can’t do business, we can’t have healthy pair bond partnerships, and we can’t trust our own decision-making.
If integrity is defined as moral uprightness, and if it’s described in practical terms as not doing shady things, why are we so quick to claim this virtue? By what measurement can we know if we are a person of integrity? Most importantly, in cases where it’s lacking, can it be developed?
WHY INTEGRITY IS IMPORTANT
Without integrity the world turns into a mushroom cloud. You can see the effects of too little integrity all over.
People literally die from a lack of it in business. Stolen pensions and medical insurance shorten the lives of the elderly when they’re screwed over by Big Business. Small villages in third world countries feel the effects when businesses capitalize on minimal environmental regulations to dump waste in their rivers and backyards.
People also literally die when governance is out of integrity. The ideological start and then the save-face extension of the Vietnam war expresses how devastating it is when a government is out of integrity.
The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 800,000 to 3.1 million. Some 200,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–200,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, with a further 1,626 missing in action.
Those casualties don’t include the resulting PTSD, suicides and shortened lives experienced by the veterans, nor does it take into account the lives of civilians who lost loved ones.
And people figuratively have their lives destroyed when a person lacking integrity pulls them into their drama. Spousal and child abuse, addiction to substance, and/or just generally being a shitty person can feel as devastating to those who surround them.
By contrast, examples of integrity help us have faith once more in humanity.
Leading civil rights movements, creating diplomatic solutions for international tensions, maintaining loyalty to employees and customers – these produce sighs of relief. For even a moment we think, “Yeah, humanity, we’ve got this.”
Integrity is a candle (and sometimes a stadium light) in dark places. It forces us to know who we are and to stay in alignment with our values. It acts as both an instrument and calibration when making decisions. We ‘become the change we want to see in the world’.
It appears that we all define integrity a little differently, which is probably why we all claim it. Are we talking about honesty? Morality? Consistency? Sticking to our guns? What exactly qualifies as ‘integrity’?
As social creatures we create spoken laws and unspoken contracts to help guide our behavior. But integrity doesn’t rely upon those contracts. It’s “doing the right thing even when no one is looking,” and “doing the right thing even when it hurts.”
So, while the result of an individual’s integrity may change from person to person, what qualifies as integrity remains the same: internal consistency, a framework of principles, honesty with oneself, and behavior adhering to these principles.
These principles are not environment dependent. They’re overarching axioms you carry with you regardless of context. If you apply a principle to a situation and you feel like you’re out of alignment, then you might want to reevaluate the principle itself. It’s okay to be flexible. The goal is to listen to your inner wisdom, not ‘obey’ a rule.
OBSTACLES TO INTEGRITY
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel (one of the most important books of our time in my opinion) popularized what statisticians call the “Anna Karenina Principle.”
In inferential statistics, “there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.”
In layman’s terms, and applying this principle to the subject at hand, there are lots of ways to abandon integrity and only one way of maintaining it.
The long game
Integrity is a long game. The rewards are better relationships, extended life, and a happier existence. But a lack of integrity pays off now.
This is the biggest obstacle to being internally consistent: short-sightedness. It kind of makes sense. At one point in our history expedience was how we survived because survival was a short game. And for some on this planet it still is. But if you have an internet connection and a device you’re using to read this article, you’re probably in a better situation than that. If you’re still playing a short-sighted game you may want to reevaluate your strategy.
Humans have gotten really good at rationalizing truly shitty behavior. It gives us the illusion of being in integrity with ourselves. The better you are at talking other people into (and out of) stuff, the better you probably are talking yourself into (and out of) stuff.
Rationalization relies heavily on excuses and context. But remember, our framework of principles isn’t context dependent. It’s our inner wisdom we’re ultimately listening to, not simply reacting to a situation.
We can use explaining away behavior as a red flag for being out of alignment.
The word evolved from the Latin adjective ‘integer’, meaning ‘whole’ or ‘complete’.
If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of a lot of voices inside of you all with their own agendas, that doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you human. We are an amalgamation of different strategies for dealing with life, and each of those strategies will have a voice.
Wholeness means recognizing that you are all of those voices. They’re all stratified aspects of your ego, personality, identity… whatever you’d like to call it.
Some of these aspects of your identity may have been developed during trauma or abuse, and they become above all else self-protective. Awareness is certainly a handy trait in life, but when a strategy emerges during pain or extremely unsafe conditions it usually generates an unhealthy version of self-preservation.
When understanding the ‘wholeness’ of who we are, being honest with ourselves includes acknowledging the unhealthy parts and watching as they try to wrest control of the wheel. To ensure that the healthiest parts of you win out, follow the advice of the Parable of the Two Wolves.
An old man was teaching his grandson about life…
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”
The grandfather simply replied,
“The one you feed.”
With the exception of people who tragically have antisocial personality disorders, most acts of violence, oppression, and dishonesty are not signs of integrity with oneself. They’re signs of a disjointed relationship with the self, ignoring the ‘wolf that is good’ while unconsciously feeding the ‘wolf that is bad’.
Underlying all of the complexities that humans have socially and psychologically evolved is the desire for a sustained life. Being a raging asshole to other people may feel like we’re temporarily getting the drop on them but it creates a dynamic that does not serve sustained living. Eventually we’re going to need other people, as we realized hundreds of thousands of years ago.
That’s why we call playing nice with each other ‘healthy’. Health is our word for ‘sustained life’, and behaviors associated with the ‘good wolf’ give us a better shot at having a longer life. Our stress decreases because we’re not metaphorically looking over our shoulder in expectation of revenge. People give us value in reciprocity for the value we give them.
If we develop enough sensitivity to these dynamics, our bodies tell us when we’re out of alignment with ourselves. Stress is the canary in the coalmine.
A SKILL, NOT A TALENT
As with all things, integrity emerges out of an entire system running. The system includes components like introspection, a desire for congruence, self-awareness, honesty, emotional health and self-discipline.
The great thing about this system is – unlike other systems in our lives – we have the ability to control almost every aspect of it. Even if we’re not ‘naturals’ there are disciplines to beef up every node.
Eckhart Tolle’s presence work helps build introspection. We observe our thoughts instead of attaching to them. With more psychological discipline there’s an ability to assess whether or not they’re the thoughts we want. (I reference a technique of Tolle’s in the article How to Develop an Empowering Mindset.)
A good place to start building congruence with oneself is understanding your personality type and type dynamics. The cognitive function model (or what we call the Car Model) explains how your mind is naturally wired. Often we fall out of congruence with ourselves from pressure to mirror others who are wired differently from us. Just knowing your type and Car Model function stack encourages reflections on how you’ve been operating out of congruence with yourself.
While introspection allows you to get to know your inner terrain, self-awareness encourages you to be honest during your exploration. You’re not just observing, you’re acknowledging and accepting what you see, making peace with ‘What Is’, and getting a better handle on the Ego’s desire for immediate gratification.
Meditation, journaling, therapy and conversations with honest friends are all go-to tools for increasing self-awareness.
My favorite discipline for increasing honesty is Brad Blanton’s Radical Honesty. Some people find it a bit ‘too much’, and your impressions may vary. For my money, it’s a great guide to eradicating the ‘polite’ lies which shackle us to a social identity out of alignment with our inner wisdom.
Most of us contend with emotional trauma that was out of our control. That said, how emotionally healthy you become is entirely in your control and there are countless resources available to guide you through your journey.
For those dealing with big traumas, therapy can be a lifesaver. For more manageable traumatic experiences, the internet may be your best friend. Simply search “developing emotional health” in any search engine and you’ll come up with a treasure trove. I particularly enjoyed this article. It seems to cover all the bases from how we treat our bodies to how we engage with others.
And of course you have to do the work, not just read about it!
Remember when we defined integrity as “doing the right thing even when no one is looking?” Most of us use social pressure to encourage us to do things we don’t want to do. But integrity is having none of that. It requires willpower on our part to follow through.
Self-discipline is gained over time, so feel free to start small. Track a single activity – say, running – and engage in that activity for 5 minutes. Continue doing 5 minutes until it’s a habit, and then increase it to 10 minutes. And so on and so forth.
Once you’ve gained some traction, one of the best ways to develop self-discipline on a larger scale is giving yourself no other option. My mentor Eben Pagan calls it “throwing your hat over the fence.” You’re all-in and totally accountable to your endgame. Another way of phrasing it is ‘forced accountability’.
I knew someone who wrote a $100 check to a white supremacist group, handed it to a trusted friend and said, “If I don’t have my project done by this time, mail it.”
Now, that’s a scary thing. If your friend is a true accountability partner and you don’t get your project in on time you’ve just funded something you might find truly reprehensible. (A slightly less controversial and/or terrifying check to write might be your opposing political party.)
Starting small and then scaling up by throwing your hat over the fence are two strategies among many for developing self-discipline.
Integrity is the core component in becoming the change you want to see in the world. It’s emotionally, psychologically and physically healthy. It makes you a generally happier person, increases your odds of living longer and helps you rest at night.
It takes courage, and that’s something we need to see more of in the world.
As Jerry Garcia said, “If we had any nerve at all, if we had any real balls as a society, or whatever you need, whatever quality you need, real character, we would make an effort to really address the wrongs in this society, righteously.”
Build integrity. Have balls. Make an effort to address the wrongs. Righteously.
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