How to Make Integrity a Practical Virtue

How to Make Integrity a Practical Virtue
Photo by Paulina Milde-Jachowska / Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about values and morals of late, but not in a highfalutin (or idealistic) sense but a more hands-on, practical sense. One such value I’ve been unraveling is ‘integrity’. It’s kind of abstract, but one angle that struck me was quite simple, and profound. 

Integrity is doing what you say you’ll do. Now, of course, this is contextual, and only takes one aspect of this whole multifaceted value, but it covers an important portion of the meaning of integrity. I picked integrity because, of late, I’ve been observing a trend. 

A trend wherein there’s an inverse correlation between ‘what people say they do’ and ‘what they actually do’. It’s funny but I would hypothesize that if you say you’ll do X, there’s a 75% chance you won’t do X. In contrast, if you really plan on doing X, you’ll just do it, without you pamphleteering (or broadcasting it). For instance, we’ve all met someone who says they’d “send an article” they’ve read that’s super profound, but that article never comes through. Or when someone says “Yes, I need to lose weight”, but they never take a step toward it. Or even when someone says “I’ll get back to you”, and they never do. But most likely, when you “plan on hanging out”, but neither you nor they take the ‘extra initiative’, and plans end up as just that — plans. 

These scenarios, again, are not to pass normative judgments on others, but rather to locate traces of these traits within us. And once you’ve located them, it’s ideal to work on them. I posit, although based on anecdotal evidence, that most people have some elements of these traits (I do). And that’s okay, so long as you’re completely aware of them. What’s problematic is the delusion that sets in if you’re not completely aware. For instance, let’s say you don’t actually want to hang out with person ‘A’. Perhaps a polite way to decline or delay an invitation is to say “Yes, let’s plan”, and then, neither of you plans anything. But if you truly want to hang out with this person, it’s best to be specific, take the initiative, and ‘seal it’ right then. 

I’ve also been noticing that for things that are pleasurable-but-harmful, we tend to do them immediately. But for things that are fulfilling-but-later, we tend to plan for them. And it’s precisely when you’re in the planning phase that you know that this ‘fulfilling’ thing is probably never going to happen. (We’ve all had that idealistic planned trip we never take.) So, the distinction between ‘what you say you’ll do’ and ‘what you actually do’ also reveals a lot about our own personalities, inclinations, and motivations.

Perhaps you don’t really want to lose weight or read books. But at the same time, you want to believe in the idea that you’re en-route to losing weight and reading books. And this belief is not only calming, it’s existentially helpful. It makes you feel better, very subtly, in the moment when someone’s testing you. But the minute you’re out of that “tense” situation, you forget all about it. 

This mismatch between ‘what you say you’ll do’ and ‘what you actually do’ also happens because of short(er) memory spans and information overload. Chances are you don’t have answers to these questions in under 5 seconds:

  • What did you do this morning? 
  • How many videos on YouTube have you watched today? 
  • What was your goal for this week? 

We’re all well aware of information overload, but I’d posit that we don’t do much about it. At the same time that we realize how our brains are fundamentally incapable of context-switching or multitasking effectively and efficiently, we continue to do just that, thinking that we have some (hidden) superpower. And in this drive to do more, we peter out what’s subtle, soft, important. 

Perhaps the thing you say you plan on doing is actually the most-important thing for you. I would even say, it is. Going a bit voodoo here, I do think there is some merit in a random signal pushing you to doing something that you don’t plan on doing. Things like fitness, reading, managing relationships, setting goals, working at your goals, and more. 

Ultimately, I think the litmus test is this: When you don’t actually intend on doing something, you’ll say you’ll do that thing, because saying it out loud relieves you of the burden of doing it. 

But when you actually intend on doing something, you’ll do that thing first (or at least make meaningful progress toward it), and then say it out loud to others (if necessary). Here, too, when you say it out loud to others, you (probably) have an intention behind doing so: You want help, clarity, advice, or more. 

I’ll end with something I’ve started practicing. The best indicator of integrity is not what you say, not what you plan on doing, and not your to-do list; it’s your calendar. Where you allocate your time is the best, most-impartial, and most-accurate indicator of your intentions and actions. It’s ideal if there isn’t a mismatch between the two. 

Until next time,