Small Daily Choices Are Where Our Integrity Is Revealed
Twenty-five or so years ago, sitting on a remote North Carolina beach, I got the idea that I wanted to live my life in a manner that was principled and decent. The idea had occurred to me before, in an adolescent way. What was different this time is that I realized that if living principled is what I wanted, it’s the sort of thing I could practice.
I read the self-improvement books that were popular at the time (like Principle-Centered Leadership, and How to Win Friends and Influence People). I didn’t sign up for any of the books’ specific philosophies; I just tried to absorb and assimilate the bits and pieces that seemed natural to me.
What resulted was an early sense of what would be required for me to be as sure as I could be that I’m remembered as a good man when I’m gone. At least, I developed a clear enough to get going.
So I started to practice. What emerged for me were simple techniques that I refined and built upon over time, techniques I employ better than ever today. Specifically, I have a short list of pretty simple questions that I ask myself anytime I’m faced with a choice.
The choice might be minor, like whether or not to unload the dishwasher even though it doesn’t seem like my turn. Or it could be consequential, like how to respond to a pivotal career choice. The questions are:
What choice would be consistent with what I espouse? I have a strong aversion to hypocrisy, so I the first thing I do is make sure I don’t stumble into being hypocritical. I ask myself if the choice I’m about to make would in any way be at conflict with things I commonly say or things I reliably do.
For instance, if I’ve told a colleague that I want her candid feedback on a piece of work, I can’t be hurt if the feedback is negative. If I’m tempted to razz my spouse for clutter on the bathroom counter, I first need to clean up my clutter on the bedside table. Multiple times a day, thanks to this question, I opt to override my first instinct and instead stay constructive. Or even better, stay quiet.
What is my root motivation? This question prompts me to look inward before I act, and it’s a fantastic tool for making sure I make choices with emotional awareness. For instance, if I argue a point in a meeting and it’s disregarded, sometimes my temptation is to dig in. But when I examine my root motivation, I often discover that I don’t really care that much about the topic at hand.
What’s more at play is a basic need to feel heard. Or maybe my fear that that my colleagues suddenly think I’m less wise. Those may be painful realizations in their own right. But the self-awareness enables much greater selectivity among life’s little battles.
What choice would be most honest? People tend to think of honesty as black or white, but I think it’s more of a sliding scale. So in life’s situations, I ask how I might be most honest for that moment.
A few years ago, the company I worked for found itself with a vacancy at chief marketing officer. The CEO asked me to take over the role’s weighty responsibilities, an idea about which I had genuine reservations. I listed nine competencies I believed necessary for success in the job and graded myself on each. On the first competency, I gave myself an A-minus. The self-grades went precipitously downward from there.
I shared my candid assessment with the CEO, replete with the Ds and the F, certain it would dissuade him. It had the opposite effect. My candor only increased his resolve (not that he had a lot of options at the time). So I reluctantly agreed to proceed, comfortable only because I had been brutally honest in what the reality might be.
I’m not advocating for raw honesty, the sometimes-hurtful kind. My commitment is to the most honesty I can bring to any given moment. I want my desire to be transparent and truthful to be obvious to anyone watching.
Is that my chest tightening again? This is my most recently developed question. For much of my life, my sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for fight-or-flight, was hair-trigger sensitive. When I began mindfulness meditation three years ago, accompanied by a short bout of talk therapy, I learned that for my entire life, I had spent much of my days on high alert, ready to take action. Or worse, ready to fight.
I discovered that the surest sign my sympathetic nervous system is starting to fire is a tightening in my chest. So I began to watch for it anytime I face a choice under pressure. Now, when a neighbor says something off-putting, or I fear I’ve missed the mark on a work assignment, or I’ve forgotten my keys again, the first thing I do is turn my attention to my core.
If I feel my chest tightening, which it so often does, I breathe and focus on relaxing those muscles. I do that before I say or do anything else. The result is that I’m less prone to speak or act out of defensiveness or act in a manner that is agitated. The benefit for the people in my life is that the instances in which they deal with abrupt, defensive comments from me are fewer and farther between.
Since that day on the beach in my 20s when I made up my mind to put integrity into daily practice, there has been trial, error, and periods of no progress. But on the whole, today I’m more confident than ever that my inner compass needle is well-calibrated. I have confidence that, no matter the challenge, the course of action I choose will likely be true to my all-important sense of integrity.
Life is short. Integrity is worth practicing as though every little moment counts, and as though the only piece of evidence that matters is the last one.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.