Carl Sagan once said we (humans) have a talent for deceiving ourselves. The more science learns how the human brain works, the more we discover the unnerving depth of truth in that statement. We naturally and unconsciously exaggerate both positive and negative outcomes. We misjudge the intentions of others and we overestimate the clarity with which we understand the things driving us to action. Most of us certainly can identify these mistakes in others. Some of us are even aware that we do the same and have an uneasiness in the knowledge that we may do many more things and make many more mistakes than we are conscious of making. Mistakes that cloud our decision making, impact our relationships in ways we did not intend, and even blindly guide our lives forward in directions we do not choose.
This knowledge of human fallibility has been known, spoken about, and documented by great teachers for more than 2,000 years. Many schools of thought have arisen to help individuals learn about these errors; avoid or overcome them, or make them irrelevant. There are literally thousands of guru’s who have been creating, exploring and teaching principles and tools based upon one or more of these schools of thought for centuries. Recent generations have added the process of scientific inquiry to begin to validate and refine the teachings known to humanity for millennia. The dream is to create a scientifically validated toolbox for humanity to use in order to become their best. One of the things inside this newly validated scientific toolbox is the concept and importance of self-awareness.
To understand self-awareness, let’s break it into three perspectives; the experience, the science, and the result. Experientially, self-awareness is a journey of discovery of one’s self which includes awareness of how our body and mind react to the world and how those interactions influence our decisions. Full self-awareness may only be an ideal. It is impossible to reach, but the journey is the goal. Second, is neuroscience which shows that self-awareness can be measured by the size of some specific brain circuitry, namely the prefrontal cortex, the insula, and the somatosensory cortex. As you become more self-aware, these regions of your brain become bigger and more connected. Finally, and most importantly is the life outcomes possible through high self-awareness. The more self-aware one becomes, the more capable one is to make free decisions; decisions of one’s own volition. Decisions where results are earned by the “you” with eyes wide open instead of the zombie you.
“He who controls others may be powerful,
but he who has mastered himself is mightier still”
– Lao Tzu
But how does one get to know themselves when one may usually be deceiving oneself? Science does not have an answer, but our ancestors had methods that can be used as a guide. The word Integrity once had a pure and clear meaning which enabled individuals to create a form of scientific inquiry into themselves. However, over time, the word has been tainted with a misleading and fuzzy aura making it seem impossible and even confusing to implement in today’s world.
Integrity comes from the word Integer meaning something like “whole and complete” and originally applied to numbers that were undivided (1,2,3 instead of ¼, ½, 10 ¼, etc.). The original meaning did not have a “moral or ethical” connotation. The meaning was obscured sometime around 16th century in England when the word integrity gained the moral label which we see in some of the popular definitions of today; “adherence to moral and ethical principles” and “soundness of moral character”.
The inherent lack of clarity in the concept of morality has buried some of the value of the pure definition of integrity. You see, morality is a collection of principles and beliefs that a group of people agree to live by. One groups’ morals are not necessarily another’s. The beliefs and principles guiding life are equally likely to be shared as they are to be different even within our smallest and most typically unified groups. Differences do not need to be dramatic to see violent clashes evolve from within a group and cause divisions as we have observed from the Catholic and Protestant divide of the 16th century to the Shia and Sunni of today. Therefore, by adding morality to the definition of integrity, it lost its value as a true and sound tool.
The addition of morality to the definition of integrity appears to be an obvious connection. Most humans, under most circumstances seem to share some common beliefs and principles which give false hope that they can be united in their entirety. However, the fact is that only under special circumstances, and for limited amounts of time do we tend to fully align. We, as humans, yearn for those rare moments; we like to see harmony which provides certainty in an uncertain world. Aspiring to align everyone’s morals feels like a worthy goal because it removes the uncertainty that comes with diversity. Unfortunately, this desire for certainty through unified morals and ethics has turned the word “Integrity” into a way to label others, a way to control through social pressure…a weapon. A weapon we use against one of humanity’s most valuable attributes; diversity.
In 16th century England, around the time when the definition was modified, preserving diversity was not the goal. It was a time period when freedom of movement was limited. Able-bodied people who moved from town to town were strapped to a wagon and whipped until they bled and then returned to the town of their birth. This was a time when imposing your ideas on other people was standard practice. European powers were in the process of taking over the world and subjugating other cultures. Machiavelli wrote his famous book “The Prince” to explain how to manipulate your way into power and then keep it. The 16th century concept of Integrity, simply did not consider a world where moralities from different cultures were both peacefully mixed and considered equally valid. It was a world where MY moral and ethical standards were right, and YOURS were wrong. Keeping and maintaining your cultural beliefs and values were sacred, and to be subjected to others beliefs and values was to be a slave. At that time, the tradition of exchanging beliefs, ideas, and values was limited to a very few traders or scholars who travelled abroad.
“Men sooner forget the death of their father
than the loss of their patrimony”
– Niccolo Machievelli
Today’s world is much different. Business is global and cultures have been interacting on an exponentially increasing frequency thanks to cheap travel, the increase in the incomes of the population of developing countries, and the internet. The days of pushing our own morals, ideals, beliefs and perspectives onto others are going away and interactions between cultures are driving balanced and mutual exchange and adaptation of morals, ideals and beliefs. This does not suggest that being moral is unimportant. In fact, being moral is critical to success, and the topic will be preserved for a future blog. The point regarding integrity is that the current definition is based on a world that no longer exists, and decoupling integrity and morality opens up possibilities that were not available when they are linked.
If we remove the moral baggage added to the word integrity and rediscover its raw meaning, we find it has something to do with wholeness and completeness, something to do with honestly, consistency, and stability. I will leave the whole metaphysical discussion for another article, which may be interesting in its own right, and focus back to the beauty of the word integrity. If the word integrity means that a person with integrity is whole and complete, then it must mean that “who he is”, “his words”, and “his actions” are all in alignment; they are consistent, stable, and complete without division.
This meaning is profound when it is viewed, not as a social or moral contract to be adhered for the good of society or to avoid being judged, but instead as a path of self-discovery. The original concept of Integrity is a critical tool on the path of self-awareness: It describes a type of scientific inquiry into one’s self. If we are deceived most of the time by our own subconscious mind, then we would expect to discover misalignment between who we believe ourselves to be, what we say, and what we do. Therefore, the misalignment points directly to the area of our own self-deception. Once we discover this area of self-deception, we can choose to investigate it. Upon investigation, no matter what the reasons we uncover, we have learned something more about ourselves. We discover the roots and reasoning behind the promises we make, the excuses our brain tells itself which lead to not following through with our word, and the outcomes both big and small that show up based on these alignments or misalignments between who we are, what we say, and our action.
So, if we apply the tool called “Integrity” to our everyday life we can look for, and investigate those misalignments. Some misalignments may be large, “wow, I say I am generous and compassionate, but I do nothing for charity and I don’t have anyone that depends on me”. Others may be small, “I tend to slightly overpromise, which means I always slightly under deliver”. Each time some self-deception is uncovered, self-awareness is heightened and we have a chance to make a new, conscious decision to either change our view of who we are, change the promises we make, or change the actions we take. But any self-aware choice we make is a choice leading us towards a life as close to our own design as possible; A life as close to the greatness we are capable of achieving. And this journey can only begin when we stop using integrity in its current meaningless and overused form, as it is in many corporate mission and value statements, and instead, use it as a distinct tool inside our daily life to help us uncover the hidden parts of our unconscious minds that hold us back from our dreams.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will
direct your life and you will call it fate.”
– Carl Jung