The first time I remember hearing the word “integrity” was at SuperCamp when I was 15. It was a camp dedicated to “making great kids greater” (real slogan) through teaching study skills, leadership skills, communication skills, the works. The camp was founded on what they called the 8 keys of excellence. Integrity was number one, not, I assume because it was the most important, but just because numbers go in order and something needed to be first.
It never made a huge impression on me, integrity. I favored some of the other keys, like “failure leads to success” and “speak with good purpose.” They defined integrity as when your values line up with your actions. We had a movement for it and everything - one hand values, one hand actions, bring them together and BAM: integrity.
I suppose I understood what it meant, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until literally this year, more than 10 years later. Because what are values anyway? How does one come to know his or her own values?
When you think of the word "values" you might think of something having to do with morality. The phrase do the right thing might come to mind. You might think loyalty could be a good example, or commitment. You might think success or religion or family or a hot bod. And you might think of some values that were instilled into you by your parents or siblings or friends or society. Our society values things like hard work and innovation, independence and money, marriage and family.
But here's the thing. Any of the values that you've acquired from these aforementioned places are probably not really yours. Some of them might be, yes. But I believe that values are deeply personal. In fact, I believe that they are to be found only by becoming intimately acquainted with the fabric of your being. Because your values are what make you, you. Literally.
I have spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure out who I am. When I was a freshman in college I stopped wearing makeup and straightening my hair in an attempt to "find my soul." I don't know where or how I came up with the idea of finding my soul. And I don't know how I came up with the idea that leaving the house au natural would help me do it. But I guess I had a sense that I was hiding who I was in some way, or that I couldn't be sure of who I was if I was to continue living in accordance with what I perceived as societal norms about beauty. I didn't want to be beautiful. I wanted to be myself. Well, I did want to be beautiful. But I figured I would never know if I was really beautiful or not unless people saw me for who I really was.
And for some reason, those tiny actions worked. Or maybe it was simply the question, the wondering. Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? What is a soul? What am I doing here? What is going on right now? How did I get here? Who am I? I asked the question over and over to myself, consciously and unconsciously, continuously for 8 years. I experimented with Judaism. I experimented with drugs. I defined myself by my friends, by the city I lived in, by the job I had or didn't have, by the relationship I had or didn't have. I studied Spiritual Psychology. I tried to be an artist. I studied the Law of Attraction. I cried a lot. I tried to be a comedian. I tried to be a writer. I tried to stop eating sugar. I drove across the country and back, for goodness sake. Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? The search was incessant and seemingly without an end. But then something happened.
My amazingly gifted friend and life coach, Julie, asked me to do a simple exercise. She said, "Write down your values. These will act as your compass." I did it. Creativity, that's an easy one. Connection. Compassion. Sensuality. Ease. Nothing really happened. Then I lost whatever paper I wrote them down on and had to write them down again. This time Beauty was included. Vitality. Simplicity. Joy. Magic. And at some point during the weeks I was working on this, it hit me. These values are my compass, just like Julie had said. These values are what guide me. And the reason they can guide me is because they are the makeup of who I am. Ah-ha! My makeup! But this time, the constitutional kind, not the kind I put on my face.
It was a total shift. Because before this, I had been trying to find out who I was by identifying my qualities. It might have gone something like this:
Who am I?
I am someone who is kind and compassionate.
I am someone who is funny.
I am someone who is beautiful.
I am someone who is curious, creative, strong.
Forever I have tried to define myself by my qualities. I was on a search for unwavering things about myself that I could latch onto and wear like buttons or tattoos or certificates for myself and everyone else to see and know. But the thing about qualities is that they’re like water. You can’t hold onto them. They change from moment to moment.
I’m usually nice, for example, but I’m not always nice. I can’t define myself as “nice” because that’s not who I am. And if I try to make it who I am I will always be disappointed in myself. I will always fall short. I will inevitably fall into people-pleasing. I will inevitably sometimes be mean. If I have to be nice to be me, and one day I’m not, then my identity is in question.
Maybe I’m funny. But I’m not always funny. In fact, I’m usually not funny. Because sometimes I’m sleeping. Sometimes I’m sitting quietly reading a book. In fact, I would say the percentage of time that I’m funny is maybe .01%. But people still call me funny. But that’s not who I am. And again, if I try to make it who I am, I will be disappointed and confused 99.99 percent of the time.
But values. Values are like big boulders. They’re solid and sturdy and generally unwavering. I could value kindness and it requires nothing of me, no question of my identity. I could value kindness and be mean to someone and all it would do is make me feel a little uncomfortable or guilty. It would probably make me question my choices. It would make me wonder if there was a nicer way to have handled the situation. But it wouldn’t leave me hating myself. It wouldn’t leave me questioning who I am.
The difference between using qualities to define yourself and using values to define yourself is that qualities are things about you, while values are things you strive toward. As I said before, values are your compass. They dictate the choices you make. If you value money, you’ll make choices that you perceive will make or save you money. If you value commitment, you’ll make choices that will get you places on time, and you’ll organize your day around the commitments that you made. If you value humor you’ll probably find yourself with funny friends, watching funny movies, and finding the funny things in life. You might not be funny, or you might. If you value humor and you do things that make you serious, hang out with serious people, and focus on serious things, you’ll probably feel unhappy and dull, and this is what being out of integrity is.
When you’re living in integrity with your values, you feel alive and fulfilled and energized. When you live out of integrity, you feel icky and sluggish and sad, sometimes even guilty. But here’s the weird thing: we always act in accordance with some values. It’s how we make decisions. Our choices are always influenced by our values. This is why it’s so important to differentiate between our real, core values, and the values we’ve taken on from other people. If we know our values, we can always find happiness. If we don’t, we will always struggle to find who we are and how to live our best lives.