Legal / Ethics

Ethics is not punitive

My good friend Carolina and I had just left an excellent morality play called Everyman, and we were enjoying ourselves tremendously while critiquing it over a glass of good wine. “On the other hand,” Carolina said, pretty much apropos of nothing, “everyone wants to be successful which, unfortunately (and contrary to such modern day behaviors), requires self-discipline – the sine qua non of ethical behavior by the way.”

“Perhaps,” I responded,”but doesn’t that depend on what you call success – and perhaps what you want to succeed in?” “Not at all,” she responded somewhat cryptically and then went on to discuss various parts of the play we had just seen. I was having none of that, “On the other hand of what?” I demanded. “On the other hand of mediocrity!” She replied with studied patience. “Most people think that failure is the other side of success. It isn’t. One can be a grand and glorious failure! But there is nothing great about mediocrity.” And with that I had to be content for she would say no more on the subject.

People do want to be successful – and many of them even want to be ethical too, but self-management seems so punitive – or, at any rate, not the least bit inviting! Aristotle said it first and best: “First, know thyself…” Then a millennium later Shakespeare added, “…to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”. If there is a strategy that helps ensure success, this is its a priori principle: Discover what you mean by success – and do not accepting anyone else’s definition. For starters, it is important to understand that success is not a destination: it is never merely final or terminal. Time marches on – and so do expectations. What one did yesterday may be of little consequence today. According to John Dewy, the kind of success one seeks, and one’s attitude toward it, largely determines whether or not it is sustained or even sustainable.

Certainly, success of a certain kind can be measured in terms of wealth, powerful position and/or fame (or at least recognition in one’s own field) – and some people think that you almost have to be both unscrupulous and lucky to attain it. Perhaps, but success also can be measured on a more personal scale: a happy marriage, close friends, children who become good citizens. Perhaps one of the most well-known definitions of success – and it has more to do with character than with achievement is: “To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty for its own sake; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better… to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – this is to have succeeded.”

These notions may seem at first a bit too grand. After all, we all are not going to become wealthy entrepreneurs, famous actors or politicians or singers, and very few of us indeed will become saints. What’s more, many of us may not want to. Nonetheless, the secret of success in any endeavor is to find your passion in work and life, and do it! Your vision need not be all encompassing or superhuman to be valid, but it must suit you. Moreover, what you have to do to “get there” must fit who you are, or the chances of “getting there” fall far below statistical averages, and even if you do succeed, you may wish you hadn’t, says Shirley Peddy in her book The Art of Mentoring. The thing of it is, at a bare minimum, a successful person likes him/herself. If, at the end of the day, you end up not liking yourself then the price you paid was too high. “If a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul…” According to Meyers and Deiner, happy people invariably like themselves – and they like what they do for a living.

So, where do you get started? With little steps such as finding time each day to be alone with your thoughts, selecting those activities that you enjoyed, and then writing a “want list” that contains everything from a new pencil sharpener to peace of mind. This is where self-discipline comes into play. Second, write an autobiography, and as you do, look for the sources of your strengths and fears – self-discipline again! Nonetheless, writing promotes mental clarity. You’ll find it awkward at first and you’ll find all kinds of reasons why you can’t do it. However, if you persist, you will likely find yourself becoming very restless and uncomfortable indeed – which almost always means you’re on the right track. In an article on journal writing, Anderson notes, “The first step is the experience of clarity. And just before the moment of clarity – the ‘Ah-ha’ – comes the greatest confusion. So if you feel stirred up, congratulate yourself. You’re beginning to know yourself.” The next step is to accept yourself as you are, the experiences that made you who you are, and the kind of activity that makes you feel good about yourself.


Believe it or not, everyone has a passion for something, and most assuredly everyone has a preference, at least, for one sort of work over another. Far too often, we buried these passions because someone in authority (parents, teachers, bosses) or, God forbid, our peers ridiculed us for getting carried away or laughed at our grandiose ambitions. Not everyone can be a poet or an opera singer or a major leaguer, but most healthy people won’t have a passion for what they cannot do. If you love something enough, there are ways to stay close to them as a business manager, publicist, sports announcer, and so forth. Far more to the point, look for your niche – for work that allows you to live in accord with your own natural inclinations and rhythms. Finding your passion is the hardest part, but it’s not the only hard part.

From there, choices abound, and anyone who thinks having choices makes life easier is sadly mistaken! The first choice one faces is, “So what are you going to do about it?” And the first inclination is to say; “I can’t do anything about it. It’s too late.” or “I have too much to lose.” Or “I’m too old or too young or too poor.” Or “I have too many family duties.” Any excuse for failing to take responsibility for one’s own happiness will do.

If you don’t think you can do anything about it, think again. If you believe you are trapped you are – and this is a sad excuse for failing to give yourself an answer. If you choose to stay where you are doing the things you’re doing – if you choose not to follow your bliss when you are among the few who’ve had the discipline to discover it – then too bad for you! (Note: Following your bliss has nothing to do with abandoning your responsibilities, but rather with finding ways to fulfill them that enrich your life in the process.) Perhaps you can create a passion for what you are doing. Otherwise you will not be happy with yourself, and that unhappiness will slowly poison everything and everyone around you. You can chose to make the changes, plan for them incrementally, devise a short- and long-term strategy, but only you can do so.

If, as you explore your options, you find that there are many things about your current situation that you like very much, start building your work around them. Looking for a job is very different from creating one – or even from recreating the one you already have. Clarify how you’d like your job to be, and find a way to make it that way – if not in this work setting, then in another. As author Mihaly Csikszentmihayli says, “The most creative and productive people in the world refuse to do anything they don’t want to do. That doesn’t mean they never do unpleasant tasks. It means that they find a way to transform even those tasks into something that comes closer to their interests.” Successful people never stay in a job they didn’t like, and they love the job they have. So, if you cannot fall in love with the work you’re doing now, find work you can love. Thus, even if, by some mischance, you do not succeed, at least you will be a grand and glorious failure, which beats being a “mediocrity” any day!

Leah Curtin is Executive Editor, Professional Outreach for American Nurse Today.

Selected references

Anderson J. Journal writing: The promise and the reality. Journal of Reading. 1993;36(4):309.

Aristotle. Complete Works, vol. 19. The Lobb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1962.

Bihler D. Working with passion. Business Ethics. May/June 1992, p. 46

Csikszentmihayli M. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Collins; 1996.

Dewey J. Human Nature and Conduct. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1922.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London; Abbey Library; 1997.

Meyers L, Deiner J. Happiness: Who Is Happy and Why. Avon Books; 1993.

Peddy S. The Art of Mentoring. Houston, TX: Bullion Books; 1998.

Stanley B. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/06/26/define-success. Accessed June 10, 2013.

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One thought on “Ethics is not punitive”

  1. Roselyn says:

    Thank you — we all need such a reminder in our materialistic world!

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