Living Your Life with Full Integrity

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When I’m staring into space trying to think of something to write about– as I am now– often ideas come across my mind that strike me as so obvious and commonplace that they aren’t worth discussing. When I first started writing I had twenty-something years of built up stories, adventures, and lessons to share, but now things are more real-time, so I sometimes write about these obvious topics anyway. I submit the post and then the next morning I brace myself for the “yeah… obviously…” comments that never come. Through this process I’ve come to believe that some of the best things to share are those which are so ingrained into one’s identity that they seem as though they must be obvious to everyone else.

So today I want to write about full integrity, something that has been ingrained into me by my parents and, maybe ironically, the gambling community, but that doesn’t seem to have much of a grip on the general population.

Full integrity, as I define it, is doing the right thing when you have no personal motivation, other than honor, to do so. Usually doing the right thing comes at a personal cost.

Last winter I went on a ski trip and left my RV parked in San Francisco. I asked Todd if he’d be in the city while I was gone, and when he replied that he would be, I asked if he’d do me the favor of moving the RV before street cleaning. He agreed.

When I returned from my trip I momentarily believed my RV to be stolen, since it wasn’t where he said he would park it. Then, thinking things through, I walked back to where I had left it, and it was sitting there with a ticket on it. When Todd realized that he had forgotten to move the RV, he insisted over my objections to paying the ticket. He could have easily avoided doing so, since I told him that I would never want to obligate him for doing me a favor. I then suggested that we split the ticket, which he dismissed as being ridiculous.

I would have done the same thing. It’s important to pay your debts, whether they’re explicit or implicit, financial or otherwise.

I don’t want to share too many of my own stories that have resulted from this habit of integrity, since sharing them can give the appearance that they were done for recognition rather than because it was the right thing to do, but I’ll tell one story that highlights someone else’s goodness more than it does mine:

When I was in eight grade, video games were just coming into their own. My parents (rightfully) believed that video games were a waste of time, so we were prohibited from buying any consoles. If I wanted to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo, I’d have to pedal my Huffy bike down the block and play it at a friend’s house. When I was that age, all I wanted was a Sega Game Gear, the portable video game system. I guess I’ve always been a bit obsessed with portable gadgets. I saved up enough money to buy it, but my parents still wouldn’t allow it.

There was one portable video game system even better than the Game Gear, called the Turbo Express. It never became a commercial success because it was so expensive that few people could justify it. These days it might be the equivalent of an eighth grader having a fully loaded MacBook Pro, although I get the impression that might be a bit more common. Anyway, the one kid in my school who had one was a friend of mine named Max. Near the end of the school year he let me borrow it. Long nights were spent playing Bonk’s Adventure on the tiny two-inch screen.

The loan was extended and extended until it was all but forgotten about and I was about to move to Texas with my family. I called up Max.

“Max, I still have your Turbo Express. Should I mail it to you? Bring it to your house?”

“Just keep it. Consider it a long term loan.”

To this day I’m struck by his generosity. I know that when I was that age I was so selfish that I probably wouldn’t have loaned it to anyone, let alone given it to them. I didn’t have the money or– most likely– the decency to pay him back properly. So I didn’t. Having gone our separate ways, I didn’t stay in touch with Max, but thought about him whenever I played the Turbo Express.

Many years later I bought the Treo 650 smartphone, which was a pretty cool thing back then. It was one of the first color smartphones. It was capable of playing games, too. In fact, it had a Turbo Express emulator available for it. So I bought an extra Treo, bought the emulator, downloaded all of the games, and sent it all loaded up to Max. Unlike Max’s original act of kindness, mine was just showing a bit of integrity– paying back a forgotten debt.

I first experienced this sort of integrity on a large scale during my gambling days. Back then we would all loan each other money. There was no interest, no contract, no phone call, and no terms. The amounts of money varied, but at any given time I could easily borrow $50k+ from a number of people with no questions asked, and was just as likely to loan out similarly large amounts of money. With only one exception (and I believe the defaulter probably believes that he is in the right), the money was paid back. Usually the loanee would throw in an extra hundred or two as a small thank you.

In the real world, such integrity is much harder to come across. I can think of thousands and thousands of dollars in loans that have never been paid back to me. I could cite examples of loaning something to someone, it it coming back broken, and them not insisting on paying for it. A friend once rented my house for a year, but stopped paying the rent after two months. I came back to the house and it was trashed. These days, this sort of behavior seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The sad part about it is that the harm inflicted by such seemingly-selfish behavior is far greater than the temporary gain received. A reputation can be ruined over twenty dollars. So can friendships. Maybe worst, when you act in a way that you know isn’t right, it eats you up inside by dissolving your self-esteem. How can you like yourself when you know you’re not doing the right thing? I can’t imagine it.

On the other hand, it’s easy to build a healthy addiction to acting with integrity. There’s a lot of short term AND long term satisfaction to be gained by doing the right thing. Each action serves as a small confirmation that you have values and live by them. Meanwhile, a more external benefit of such conduct is that others will hold you in higher esteem. People trust you and loan you things because they know that doing so comes at no liability to them.

I’ve been told that part of the process of going through a twelve-step program is making a list of everyone you’ve wronged and paying them back. On the surface this seems to be unrelated to addiction, but I can imagine direct connection. Many addictions are probably caused or compounded by self esteem issues, and it’s hard to build self esteem on a conscience that lacks integrity. The good news is that, as these programs teach, is never too late. I paid back the Turbo Express at least five years after it was given to me. You can start now and decide to live with full integrity now, and go back and make up for previous lapses. I know I have one of my own which I will pay back when I visit Haiti this month: last time I went to Haiti I borrowed $15 from one of my hosts because my wallet had been lost on the bus ride over. I fully intended on paying her back, but in the confusion of an early morning bus trip with no ticket (it was in the wallet), it slipped. Payback time.

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The picture is me as a kid. I couldn’t find any pictures I’ve taken that apply to this post and I’ve been looking for a good reason to use this one.

Heading to Seattle today on the first leg of my JetBlue All-You-Can-Jet trip… haven’t been there in about 8 years!

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