Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Value Of A Good Reputation

Why we should care about how others perceive us

A reputation is an animal designed by committee: you give birth to it, but the way it develops depends on the actions of others. Your reputation lives a very real existence apart from you, representing the collective mental construct everyone but you shares about you, a construct based partially on your own actions but also on the perceptions others have about others' perceptions of your actions. We only ever have influence over our reputation—never control—as is the case with all things external to us, but it remains one of our most precious assets (far more important than any one job, house, car, or even, some would argue, money). Just why it's so important and how to positively influence it is the subject of this post.

INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL VALUE

Our reputation represents the way others look at us and as such is at once critically important and utterly trivial. Utterly trivial because if we have a healthy self-esteem we won't need others to think well of us (though many of course do struggle with this and often find their sense of value vulnerable to the opinions of others—especially their perception of the collective opinions of others). Critically important, however, because even those of us with resilient self-esteem live in a great social network and need a good reputation for practical purposes—friendship and income chief among them. It's hard to have friends if people think you're mean-spirited and hard to make a living in any capacity if people think you're lazy, unreliable, or dishonest.

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Our reputation is a tool, then—not, hopefully, for creating or maintaining our self-esteem but for practical navigation through daily life, a good one smoothing out the journey somewhat, a bad one causing doors to slam in our face and testing our confidence in ourselves.

HOW TO BUILD A GOOD REPUTATION

In all things, it's harder to build than to destroy. Building a good reputation requires effort, patience, and time. Destroying a good reputation only requires a single moment's misstep. The secret to building a good reputation? Become a person who deserves one. Take consistent action that embodies the characteristics you want others to associate with you. Don't just mouth the platitudes of hard work, attention to detail, loyalty, and drive—live them. In fact, don't mouth them at all. Let others discover them in you.

A reputation is a fragile thing. It requires constant feeding. Consistency is crucial. If you live up to your reputation 99% of the time but fail to do so 1% of the time, you risk disproportionate damage if the person you let down is highly influential in your network. A good reputation shouldn't be an end in itself but rather a natural outgrowth of your striving to be the person you most want to be.

THE BENEFITS OF A GOOD REPUTATION

  1. You can't stop others from maligning you, but a good reputation can come to your rescue when other members of your network rise to your defense without your even knowing it. We are, in fact, all caretakers of one another's reputations. In a society in which simply being accused is enough to render a conviction in the court of public opinion, we would all do well to presume not only innocence but goodness until facts prove otherwise. We all need to be kinder to and gentler with one another.
  2. A good reputation provides you a target at which to keep aiming. Sometimes you may not feel like you deserve your reputation, that's it's better than you are. Rather than lament your weaknesses, let your good reputation serve as motivation for you to try to improve yourself.
  3. A good reputation represents a great marketing strategy. When I find a service provider of any kind whose performance outshines their competition, they become like gold to me. I use them repeatedly, recommend them enthusiastically to others, and don't begrudge paying them what they're worth.
  4. A good reputation inspires others. We all need positive role models, even the best and brightest among us.

Some may think reputation doesn't matter or shouldn't matter, that we should all focus on doing our best, on being our best, and let others think what they may. Certainly, I agree we should never seek to manipulate what others think about us (it never works in the long run anyway), but to ignore the practical importance of a good reputation cheats us of many opportunities we might otherwise enjoy. Caring about our reputation doesn't mean we need others to like us. It means recognizing that as human beings we often can't help judging a book by its cover and that as long as the book itself is good there's nothing wrong with caring about having an attractive cover around it.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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