My friend recently turned down what many would consider a ‘massive’ opportunity. He was invited onto a show followed by millions. This would’ve tripled his exposure and income. But it challenged his principles and values, and rather than compromise, he declined.

That’s integrity.

The mirror turned onto myself—would I have made the same decision? I thought about what it means to be a person of integrity, and how this virtue is easily forgotten in our dog-eat-dog world. When the spotlight is on statistics, sales, and the bottom-line, virtues are quickly left behind.

We celebrate skills that advance the corporate ladder over those that advance the road to character. There’s a dangerous admiration for the way Steve Jobs stepped on toes; and we glorified the ruthlessness and colluding of The Wolf of Wall Street.

When the PewResearch Center asked a national sample to select 10 skills they believed were the most important for children to get ahead in the world today, the top results were: communication, reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic. When IBM last surveyed over 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries and asked them to name the most crucial factor for success, “creativity” came out on top—beating out rigor, management discipline, vision, and integrity.

The problem is that external achievement and success is not dependent on integrity; it doesn’t appear on your profit and loss statement, your accountant doesn’t calculate integrity on your balance sheet. But ignoring this inner virtue is costly nonetheless, as David Brooks noted in his New York Times column,

If you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

A “self-satisfied moral mediocrity” is certainly not a road I’d like to be on. And closing that gap between your actual self and your desired self is the very definition of integrity—from the Latin integer, meaning whole or complete. As I considered how to build a life of integrity, I came across these valuable insights:

Integrity in desires and volition

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains integrity as being fully self-integrated, free from inner-conflict and disagreement; harmonizing what you want and what you do.

The first step is to identify and categorize your desires and volitional acts. Frankfurt uses a hierarchy, listing your desires from most important to least. So, if your “first-order desire” is to spend more time with your family, your “first-order volition” needs to be coming home from work earlier. However, if your first order volition is to take on more projects at work, that’s a mismatch and violation of your integrity.

The major stumbling block is that you’re prone to acting in the moment, viscerally, based on your strongest emotional desire. Writing out a hierarchy of your desires allows you to reason, deliberate, and discriminate between more or less worthwhile desires. Having clarity gives you the ability to “endorse” certain desires and to “outlaw” others.

It seems elementary and commonsense, but basic truths are often overlooked. If you’re experiencing inconsistency in your life, try this hierarchic model and rank your desires from most important to least. Beside them, write the corresponding actions. And keep in mind that your interests change over time; first-order desires can move to second, or third. Maintaining your integrity requires holding that ‘agreement’ between your desires and volition, even as you shift and evolve.

Integrity in identity

Maintaining integrity in your identity is to possess a sense of authenticity; to act in ways that preserve your deepest beliefs and commitments rather than conform and cave into other’s expectations.

Finding the balance between your “vertical identity” and your “horizontal identity” is crucial. Outlined by Andrew Solomon in his book, Far From the Tree: your vertical identity is made up of the attributes and values you inherited from your parents—your ethnicity, religion, language, nationality, and the behavioral norms these entail. Your horizontal identity is made up of traits foreign from your parents, and acquired from a peer group.

Solomon notes,

Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.

Integrity starts with deciding which traits to accept and identify with, being free from ambivalence and self-deception. There needs to be an internal agreement between your vertical identity and horizontal identity—absolutely independent of your family and peer groups. Maintaining integrity means navigating through the challenges and clashes that arise, both from family and alternative peer groups, and holding to the vertical and horizontal convictions that you’ve adopted as your own.

Integrity as a social virtue

You’ve heard the adage “no man is an island.” Indeed, life is not lived in a vacuum; your acts of integrity should be validated and affirmed by others. Otherwise, integrity solely as a personal virtue can be absent of morals and ethics—you may act without inner-conflict, yet your commitments, desires, and volition can all be nefarious in nature.

On the dangers of isolated views of integrity, professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, Cheshire Calhoun gives a great example:

The artist who alters his work of genius, making it sale-able to a tasteless public, lacks integrity because he does not regard his best aesthetic judgment as important to anyone but himself.

The individual notion of “good” is a shared one. Connecting your ideals of integrity with a community gives you the corporate accountability of checks and balances. Your own reasoning can easily manipulate and justify your hypocrisy. A person who practices integrity as a social virtue considers the impact and outcome of their actions on others.

In a world bent toward instant gratification and “getting ahead,” it’s easy to forgo the commitment to act with integrity. But choosing to hold to your values and principles will bring you double-reward, adding the layer of meaning and inner-fulfillment to your external achievements.


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