Habit 4: Live with Integrity

by Matthew Ahn
November 8, 2016

The concept of “integrity” has always been rather slippery for me. As a stickler for precision, I have never used the word before partially because of the flexibility of its connotations. And I don’t mean that I’ve only used it occasionally. I have found no instances of me ever using the word: not on social media, not in text messages or emails, not anywhere on my hard drive.

Writing about integrity might seem like an odd choice as a result. But even if I’ve had my struggles living up to them, the remaining nine habits have at least made sense to me. Therefore, the opportunity to draw meaning from this habit independently of the others has been welcome.

In trying to dissect the habits when I read them for the first time, this one stood out to me. What was Kelly trying to say when resolving to live with integrity? It wasn’t a general reminder to stick to your word, as she made clear she considered that separately important (in also emphasizing kept promises). In viewing this habit as distinct from that concept, I gravitated toward her commitment to constantly doing what she could to put her beliefs into action.

And sure, this was illustrated by the organizations she volunteered for and the advice she gave and the studies she pursued. But Kelly’s methods ran deeper than that.

For example, she made a perpetual effort to better read people so that she would have the right thing to say on a birthday, in a philosophical argument, or during a friend’s breakup—she would also say it in the way you would best understand (or the way you might need to hear it, even if might not be immediately appreciated). Indeed, after meeting my friends, she would regularly ask me questions about them and the way they viewed the world, often with surgical precision. It taught me more about connecting with people than nearly anything else has.

Kelly made these endeavors not only look effortless but also brought them forward intuitively. During her second year at NYU, she signed up for a mentoring program for exchange students, something she had been very active with at KU. She was matched with a student from Singapore named Dillon, and met him at an event designed to help him feel like people here would reach out. Dillon later remarked that Kelly affirmatively reached out later to make sure that he was adjusting okay, something that was far above and beyond the requirements of the program.

Kelly, for some time, had forgotten that she had signed up for this program in the first place. Her memory was jogged suddenly, a few weeks later, while she was talking through her schedule with me. She was so overcome with concern for Dillon and apprehension as to whether he was managing New York properly that it took her several minutes to compose herself in order to send him an email to ask to meet later.

The email itself merely kept a promise, but the visceral reaction was for more than just a momentary lapse of memory. She had taken on a duty as a reflection of her beliefs about how she could make even small differences in the world. The idea that the difference had gone unmade, particularly as it was fully within her control, was truly upsetting to her.

Over the past year, I have been repeatedly reminded that Kelly’s perspective and insight, appraised and provided quickly, is impossible to replace. Taking a step back and reflecting on these habits, however, has been a valuable echo of the voice that peppered my life with nudges to understand rather than react, to give rather than take, and to find joy rather than seek out worry.

But at some point, I must take that step forward again. And it will be my own snap judgments that I will have to rely on. And in coming across those without power, those without a voice, or those without the benefit of the doubt, I have to hope that I have done enough to internalize the same integrity that Kelly regularly demonstrated.

For carrying her with us in our heads is important, but carrying her with us in our hearts is extraordinary.

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