My friend recently turned down a “massive” opportunity. He was invited to be a guest on 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.
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 can get left behind.
PewResearch Center asked people to select ten skills they believed were the most important for children to get ahead in the world, the top results were: communication, reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic. When IBM 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 “rigor,” “management discipline,” “vision,” and “integrity.”
It’s understandable—integrity doesn’t appear on your profit and loss statement. But ignoring this virtue is costly. 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. . . . You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. . . . Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self.
Closing that gap between your actual self and your desired self is the virtue of integrity—from the Latin integer, meaning whole or complete. As I considered how to build a life of integrity, I came across these insights:
Aligning Your Desires and Actions
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt says integrity is being fully self-integrated. Free from inner-conflict and disagreement.
Frankfurt uses a hierarchy to match desires and actions. 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. If your actions and desires aren’t corresponding, you’re out of alignment.
It seems commonsense, but basic truths are often overlooked. If you’re experiencing inconsistency in your life, try this method of ranking your desires from most important to least. Beside them, write the actions you have or have not been taking. Making sure your actions align with your desires creates inner integrity.
Aligning Your Vertical and Horizontal Identity
Integrity in your identity = authenticity. It is not conforming to other’s expectations.
Finding the balance between your “vertical identity” and your “horizontal identity” is crucial. Andrew Solomon in his book, Far From the Tree says that your vertical identity is inherited from your parents—your ethnicity, religion, language, nationality. Your horizontal identity is made up of traits foreign from your parents, and acquired from a peer group.
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.
There needs to be an internal agreement between your vertical identity and horizontal identity which is independent from your family and peer groups. People may oppose your horizontal identities, but if you’re at peace with yourself, you will not be shaken.
Integrity is not a Lone Wolf
You’ve heard the adage “no man is an island.”
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.
Practicing integrity in a community gives you accountability and allows you to see the impact of your actions—good and bad—on others. People build integrity when they open themselves up for correction.