A particularly avid sailor shared with me a piece he’d read about celestial navigation: “…you begin by pretending you know exactly where you are—with fiction. On a chart you mark your position, a dark point on blank water. You call this your ded reckoning position. The ded comes from deduced, what you think you know based on history: the history of the boat, how fast she has been moving, and in what direction. You draw a line along your true course: five hours, say, at 6 knots equals 30 nautical miles of distance along that course line from your last known position, the place where you think you are now. This is what you believe. Up until this moment, it has been the basis for all your decisions regarding the voyage, yet you are [if need be] willing to abandon it.
“[To check your calculations] you open your navigator’s tool kit—star finder, compass, chronometer, parallel rules, triangular protractor, pencil, stopwatch, etc. And you prove yourself wrong: you’re not where you thought—and if you’re a good navigator, hopefully, not too far from where you thought you were. In proving yourself wrong, you prove something else: exactly where you are. It is not a matter of opinion, not open for debate, not arguable or biased by gender or ethnicity or influenced by national regimes or political agendas, not personal. You either miss the reef or you hit it. You either find the sea buoy that marks the entrance to your harbor or you pass it by. You make landfall or you don’t. That’s the beauty of navigation. It is unequivocal.”*1
A lot of things in our day-to-day lives have a malleability to them, a flexibility. Multiple options are available—we can go one way or another, and whatever our choice, things can turn out OK. With celestial navigation, however, that’s not the case, nor is it the case with integrity. Both have this built-in unequivocality to them. While it’s easy to appreciate the consequences of being a few degrees off course when at sea, it’s not as immediately obvious in the matter of integrity.
The notion of integrity has intrigued us for a long, long time. It never stops being relevant—whether we hear about it in monarchies, politics, financial practices, scientific research, or ancient mythology. Thousands of books are written on the subject, millions of web searches take place. Integrity was ranked as the most looked-up word on the web at one point. The notion of integrity usually comes with a lot of associations—there’s something that the word already means or doesn’t mean to us, some reaction or point of view we have about it. Many people think of integrity as synonymous with morality—being ethical, a good person, an upstanding citizen, or doing the right thing. Each understanding has a certain validity and an important and central place in personal, professional, and societal life. Yet the potential power of each word (integrity, morality, ethics, goodness) can be lessened when meanings are collapsed and mushed together with other meanings. Integrity is actually a phenomenon in and of itself—one that goes beyond what we might mean by morality or ethics. It’s one that has more to do with authenticity—being true to ourselves—and it is the foundation for power and effectiveness.
“Integrity” comes from the word integer, meaning “whole, complete, and missing no component or part.” If we think about a computer chip or a bicycle wheel, for example, and if in the making of it some small part was left out, neither would be able to function as they were intended. Any disruption in the integrity of something’s design, however small, impacts its workability and function. When something is whole and complete, it is not good per se, it just works. The same holds true for the “being” part of being human. When the wholeness and completeness of who we are is jeopardized in some way, however small, that begins to alter our life, even if at first it’s imperceptible or unnoticeable.
It’s in those moments when we might say to ourselves, “it’s just a one-time thing,” or “no one will ever know,” that we unwittingly alter our baseline of integrity and compromise who we are. We might experience a sense of discomfort or unease, or if we’re justifying ourselves, we might spend time defending, explaining, or pointing fingers. When our integrity is out in some way, we find ourselves tolerating a level of unworkability, and because it’s usually gradual and occurs in small increments, we never seem to fully come to grips with how much impact it has on things not working in our lives. A baseline that was once at 100% is now 99 or 98 or 70%—and while most people don’t notice it, the difference between 99 and 100% is everything— it is in that 1% that the quality of our life alters. So when our baseline for integrity moves to 98 or 97 or 70%, our sense of ourselves becomes more and more obscured, making it harder and harder over time to return to who we are.
Resignation and cynicism begin to show up—not so much in the obvious or expected ways, but more so in things like being reasonable, acting negatively, being upset. There’s a certain momentum that builds. The most subtle form it shows up in might be such comments as “While things may not be great, they are as good as they can be.” We convince ourselves that we’re not free—that our actions are determined by our circumstances, our natures, whatever. But freedom isn’t dictated by circumstances. Our actions are only determined by our free, unconstrained choices. In being true to ourselves, being authentic and honoring our word, we tip the scales. Integrity and living a life of power and effectiveness are inseparable. Instead of the already/always condition setting the limits on who we are—our saying becomes the gravitational pull for who we are. When we live our lives consistent with our word, when we experience ourselves as whole and complete, we create the possibility of freedom and power.
We face, every moment, the choice of who to be and what to do. As with celestial navigation, integrity is not a place to arrive, but what we use to steer the ship— integrity is unequivocal. Integrity is a matter of choice, and the matter of choice is uniquely human.
*1 Adapted from Philip Gerard, “Adventures in Celestial Navigation,” pp. 245-252, in Lee Gutkind, Ed., In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.