President Ronald Reagan once said that character doesn’t just “happen” at times of crisis, it’s constructed bit by bit by seemingly insignificant decisions.
Our character is the compass on which we guide our decisions and our lives. When we have to make decisions, particularly those that involve morals, money, or the mission, we consult our “character compass.” I call it, “checking your moral azimuth,” your compass bearing in life for making decisions.
For a compass to function properly, it must have all its parts. So it is with our internal compass. Our internal compass is both informed by our values and experiences, and bounded by our conscience. We can also learn from others about how they process moral questions. During my time as a student at various military colleges and schools, I had the benefit of hearing a number of senior military and civilian leaders attribute their success in life to balance, or “completeness” as a person. To be a “complete” person, and have a complete compass…and that means balancing the three aspects of your life: mind, body, and spirit. Try to better yourself in each area, and keep all three in balance. Read a book, improve your fitness level, and practice the spiritual expression of your choice. Keep your compass assembled and in balance.
This time of year I always feel compelled to write advice for young people. Maybe it’s just the season, or maybe it’s I was always a little slow on the uptake as a young person. I made a few avoidable mistakes that if I’d just gotten a little help at the beginning perhaps wouldn’t have happened.
If you’re a high school or college-age person and just entering the workforce, then I have some words just for you today. It’s stuff I wish I’d known–that everyone else seemed to know intuitively.
1. Have Values and Stick to Them
The most important thing you can do is have a moral core and stick to it. This is not always an easy thing to do; it requires courage and fortitude. A contract to work in an organization is not a requirement to compromise your values. While every decision is not a moral crisis, there might arise a decision to participate in something that would tempt you to compromise on your beliefs and values. Don’t give in to that temptation. No job, no matter how much you’re paid or how lovely your co-workers, is worth compromising your integrity. Be an adult about it and go to your boss politely and forthrightly and tell them you can’t do such-and-such because it would cause you a moral dilemma. It might be a simple misunderstanding, or your boss might have not understood the implications of what he/she asked you to do–but your conscience should demand you defend your values. It might mean parting ways with the company. If that’s true, then you can do that secure in the knowledge you kept your integrity. That’s no small thing.
2. Don’t Follow the Crowd–Unless the Crowd is Right
At commencement speeches across the planet, speakers exhort graduates are to “make your own way” and “don’t follow the crowd.” That’s generally good advice; but like all advice, you have to take it both in the context of your own experience and the place you’re implementing it. Sometimes, the “crowd” is “right! Never compromise your morals or your integrity, BUT “make your own way” is not license to violate the company dress code or evangelize your co-workers to your own brand of politics. Social norms and company policy, like protocol and tradition, exist to make people feel comfortable and help people get along. You don’t have to be a “Stepford Employee,” nor do you have to conform to your employer’s or your colleagues’ political or religious beliefs–but you do have to be polite and do your best to fit in.
3. Take Chances
Did I just contradict myself? No, I did not–growing in your profession and personal life means taking chances. Take on work that stretches you, offer your friendship to the workplace loaner, get involved in the professional society or group supporting your industry–these are the sorts of things employers and leaders notice, and the sorts of things that help you grow as a person. “Taking Chances” doesn’t mean making potentially personally destructive choices, but taking chances professionally and personally can help you grow into the person you want to be.
4. “Don’t Be Stupid”
When I first began CrossFit, I read the rules on the message board, and came across this gem: “Don’t Be Stupid.” I found this to be excellent advice. Any new thing will have activities for the beginner and for the advanced practitioner–know where you fall on that continuum. If you’re a beginner, start there then as you prove your ability to yourself you can move up. It’s always better to be adding weight to the bar than being out of action for weeks because you injured yourself on your first set.
5. Believe Your Eyes
Fight hard for what you believe in personally and professionally, but when you lose the argument and someone above you makes a decision, then move out and get it done. The corollary to this rule is when you see a bad outcome to a project or decision, then believe it to be true. I’ve worked with too many people who either disagreed with a decision made by higher ups or simply didn’t have the vision to see what was plain to others. They’d make some impassioned plea as to “Why Things Were Not What They Seemed” which is another way of saying, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” That attitude is the opposite of helpful, and it both delays the inevitable and destroys the effectiveness of the organization. Live in this world.
BONUS: 6. Be On Time, Give A Full Day’s Work
I know…this is “six” when I only said “five,” but for your new boss this last piece of advice is very important and frankly should be a given. The fact that it’s not a baseline of common behavior means old guys like me have to write it: be on time. On time means you’re ready to work when the office/shop opens, and you’re not walking in at 7:59 for an 8 o’clock start. In the military, we have a saying: “If you’re not early, you’re late.” If your workday starts at 8 a.m., then you should be at your place of business at 7:45 a.m. Believe me, you’ll feel much better if you’re not racing to be “on time” and your boss will notice who’s committed to the work and who’s not. Your boss hired you because she/he wants your skills and your effort–don’t change their opinion of you because you are dashing in the door at the last minute. Then, by all means give your employer a full days’ work.