Much like Justice Stewart's now famous comment about pornography—I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it—integrity too is something that we may not easily define but we know it when we see it. People either have it or they don’t, it seems, and we generally associate the word to those who seem to have a strong moral compass, clear and consistent principles, a bold honesty about themselves and to others. It is part of their character.
But integrity is actually bit more complex; there’s another layer that often gets misunderstood or glossed over. The word integrity is derived from the Latin word integritas which means whole, complete; it is also related to integrate, bringing together. This is the aspect that I’m most intrigued by: Integrity as a psychological process, an integration of your outer life and inner life; two sides coming together, creating a whole, consistent you. In our society such integration can be hard to come by. Many of us, I believe, are disconnected from our true inner core, while others of us rarely reveal it. Instead we slap on a social persona to carry us through our day, and over time this becomes more and more who we begin to believe we are.
Can we create this integration, develop this integrity? Can we reshape our lives to become like those people we admire and respect who seem so authentic and honest? I believe we can.
Here are some suggestions on how to begin:
Step 1: Discover your inner life
If integrity is about having your outer world truly reflect your inner world, the first step is taking the time and thought to drill down and explore and discover… who you are: What is your unique inner being, what are the gifts that you alone possess that you can contribute to the world and those around you? There are several steps to the discovery:
Find and define your sense of purpose
I vividly remember a lecture given by a Buddhist monk who said that while most people associate Buddhism with a deeply contemplative, meditative life, the reality couldn’t be more different. Because Buddhists believe in reincarnation, being a human being, said the monk, is the greatest opportunity you could have. Other forms of life—other animals, plants—don’t have what you have, namely, the ability to control their lives, to make choices, to set their destiny; only humans do. Being human, said the monk, is a gift, one that we need to appreciate and grasp. Take advantage of this time and opportunity in the cycle of life; act and act boldly.
He was talking about action but also implying purpose: With this unique ability to choose and control, what do you truly want to do with the opportunity and time that you have? While some of us know our callings and passions early on, for many more of us that discovery only comes through a process of exploration, of traveling down one road only to back up and take another. That's fine. What doesn't work is sitting on a couch and expecting to somehow just figure it all at.
But even the couch-sitting isn't where many of us can get stuck. The bigger problem is that we never take the time or have the courage to ask such questions at all. Instead we prematurely settle; we set our expectations of ourselves and life too low; we push such issues to the back burner of our lives; we get too busy running our lives rather than living our lives.
So the starting point to creating a life of integrity is to ask these questions about purpose and opportunity, and keep them always simmering on the front burner of your life. Be willing to acknowledge and then explore your passions, callings, motivations. Intentionally sort through and set priorities; sit down with yourself and decide on the meaning of work and relationships for you rather than taking what you get.
Sort out shoulds vs. wants
Asking these big questions sets the discovery process in motion, but now other psychological and emotional challenges may rear their heads. You can get confused and befuddled and overwhelmed by the choices; you may have trouble identifying what it is you truly feel; guilt and self-criticism can rise up; you are struggling to sort out the contradictory rules and expectations that come from parents and society. You are too inside your head.
Instead of your gut, your heart. This is where passion and sense of purpose come from—your wants and desires and bursts of excitement—rather than the staid shoulds that wag their fingers and scold. As I’ve mentioned in several other essays, this move from shoulds to wants is a matter of literally rewiring your brain, changing where your information about you comes from. It requires that you keep your ear close to your heart, and then, as the monk said, taking action.
Each time you do listen to and act upon these gut and heart impulses, however faint, this source of information about you becomes ever-stronger in your brain and your life. But this once again requires courage—that essential ingredient of integrity—to step away from the crowd and listen to your own inner voice.
Define your values & visions
Purpose and gut and heart. But this is not enough. This combination can lead too easily to a narcissistic, greedy, or impulsive-driven life, rather than one of integrity. The final step in this discovery process is to filter all this information through your own values, your own vision of a “good” life and a "good" person, ones that you can be proud of. The key here is your values, not the mere copying of those of others. Like purpose, values too are to be discovered and evolve, but also like purpose, they require that you put them on the front burner, intentionally decide what it is you want those values and visions to be.
The challenge here is shaping blunt values into clear behavioral principles: Saying, for example, that family is important to you may be a value, but it is too slack, it doesn’t go far enough in giving you a clear path: What does it mean to you to truly value family? Where does family fit into the other priorities of your life? What does valuing family mean in terms of how you treat them, how you relate to them in the everyday?
Once again the answers can come only after you have asked yourself such difficult questions. What you think about becomes who you are. Be intentional in what you think about.
By taking the time and having the courage to travel through the landscape of your inner self, you now face your second task in the process: the challenge of carrying it forward into your everyday outer life:
Step 2: Have your outer life represent your inner life
In some ways all the psychological heavy lifting is done. Now it is about translation and application: How do I have my inner life reflect me?
Make clear decisions
Think of your inner life as the foundation on which you build your outer life. Build is the operative word here because it is about being intentional. Through the filter of your values, your sense of purpose, your gut instincts and desires you want to make clear decisions. That does not mean that the decisions are necessarily easy: Do you take a less-stressful job so you have more time to spend with your kids, or do you take a more stressful job but one that pays more and allows you to provide more opportunities for your kids like a college education? Tough.
Again, sort through your priorities and vision. Take your time.
What you don’t want to do is drift; not be intentional, let life and circumstance carry you along. Integrity requires that you avoid automatically falling into the easy or popular path.
Stay committed to what you believe
This is about being aware and diligent, about checking in with yourself and asking “Am I living my life?” Am I proud of my life so far measured by my goals and expectations?" This is also about having the “courage of your convictions” that folks often talk about, the willingness to step up and speak. Though difficult at first, this process too gets easier with practice and as you find that what you were afraid would happen rarely does.
Stay open to change
Keep your ear close to those inner voices, and when your inner-life changes, as it probably will, take the time again to sort and sift and see what to keep and what to let go of. But then integrate, be bold, and bring this redefined version of you into your daily life. Acknowledging and adapting to changes is what keeps your inner and outer lives in alignment.
Creating integrity is not a forced march through life, a grin-and-bear-it toughness, and certainly not about not being better trying harder, and following yet another should. It’s about self-honesty and having the courage to hear and accept what your heart and life are telling you so you can more fully become who you already are.
It’s about connecting you to you.