Be true to yourself

I was appointed minister of a Baptist church in Aberdeen, Scotland. The congregation had gone through tough times since its previous pastor left nearly three years earlier. With a leadership vacuum, divisions had formed. Two months before I took up my new position, a friend met people from the Aberdeen church at a conference. He reported back to me that one said, ‘It’ll be great when Alistair Brown comes to be our pastor, because we can get back to being what a traditional Baptist church is about.’ Within a half hour, he’d met someone else who said, ‘It’ll be great when Alistair Brown comes, because we can finally get away from being a traditional Baptist church’.

Two views, representing two ‘parties’ in that church, and each thought I was ‘their man’. I made up my mind that I’d be fair to all and pastor to all, but also true to myself and true to what I believed was right. And I was. A few, including some leaders, left the church but the large majority accepted the new leadership, set aside their differences, and inside three years we’d grown so much in numbers we’d moved to larger premises.

Being true to yourself is essential for both personal and professional well-being. It can come at a cost, but there’s a higher price to be paid by living a lie.

What does being true to yourself mean?

It means living out what you believe. The UK runs a national census in every year that ends in a ‘1’. The census is done now by answering questions online but in earlier years everyone filled out census forms. In one of those past ‘1’ years, I was a student looking for summer employment and got hired to help deal with the millions of census forms. My job was in a very large warehouse, almost entirely filled with shelving holding boxes of forms. A small team of ‘experts’ sat at one end coding each answer for entry into the rudimentary computer system used back then. I was a much more lowly file-picker. All I did every day was take an order for a batch of files, find their boxes among the shelves, and transport them by push-trolley to the coders. When the coders were finished with them, I put them back on the shelves. It was brain-numbingly boring work. But they paid me to do it, so I was grateful to have the job.

A fellow file-picker told me one day that when he was given an order to bring a batch of files, he was told not to use a trolley, just bring them one box at a time and walk slowly. He thought it hilarious that he was ordered to take as long as possible to do his job. I didn’t think it funny, just strange, perhaps too strange to be true. Until one of the bosses gave me virtually the same instruction: to fetch files but not to use a trolley and to take my time.

Eventually the explanation dawned on me. It wasn’t just the file-pickers who were temps; so were the coders and so were many of the bosses. Almost everyone working in that warehouse had a financial interest in their job lasting as long as possible, hence a secret ‘go-slow’ policy.

That first time I carried the files one by one to the coders and back to the shelves. And I did it the next day. But then I couldn’t do it any more. This was wrong, just wrong. Deliberately slow work cheated the top officers who needed census results processed promptly, cheated the tax payers who were paying my wages, and, for me as a Christian, I felt I was cheating God by not giving my best. I didn’t sleep well that night; I knew what I had to do next morning. I got my first order for files, went to the shelves, offloaded the boxes on to a trolley, and wheeled it to the coders. Later I did the same in reverse to put them back on the shelves. I kept doing that through the day. No-one said anything.

But they did the day after. I got an order for files, and found my way to their location in the centre of the ‘stacks’. Two file-picker colleagues were waiting there for me. One pinned me against the shelving, while both of them made their views very clear. ‘You do what you want to do, but you’d better not show us up by how you do it.’ I can’t reproduce the hostile tone they used, and I haven’t included the words beginning with ‘f’ and ‘b’ that littered their warning. With a last shove they let me go, and disappeared. It was a moment of decision. But the only decision I could make was to be true to myself. I had to live what I believed, and that was to do the job right. Which I did, day after day. And, as with most bullies, the file-pickers didn’t go through with their threats.

Living with a clear conscience, living as you believe you should – it’s the only way to feel good about yourself, to honour others and God, and to get a good night’s sleep.

It means being honest about experience and abilities. I’ve read hundreds of job application papers. Often they’ve seemed too good to be true. In some cases, they actually weren’t true.

Let’s imagine how Dishonest Joe – DJ – secured the job of his dreams. DJ wrote a great application, sold himself at interview, and chose referees he knew would write positive references. DJ got the job. ‘We’re impressed with what you can do’ they told him.

Except DJ didn’t have the experience he said he had, and couldn’t do what he’d said he could do. His application was a very generous statement of abilities and accomplishments. And every answer at interview could have been a model response in a textbook. Actually, that’s exactly what they were, answers DJ memorised from textbooks on interview technique. He wasn’t at all the person the employer thought he’d hired.

So, how long before DJ was found out? Not long. Anyone can bluff it for a while, and DJ’s early mistakes and uncertainty were written off on the grounds that he was ‘new to this job’. But after a couple of months, who DJ really was and what he really could do was obvious to all. Pretence doesn’t last.

Nothing but problems and unhappiness would lie beyond that point for DJ. If this was real, probably he’d be fired after a few more months, and he should be. If that didn’t happen then he’d find his deceit had landed him in a place of incompetence, with disillusioned colleagues, and challenges he’d no idea how to meet. Perhaps DJ would leave after a year, write another dishonest application, and try to persuade the next potential employer that the last role simply ‘wasn’t a good fit’ for him.

The DJ-like people I’ve met were one of two types. Either they’ve been unaware of their limitations, and think they’ve just been unlucky in the past but now, if they can secure a great job, everything will miraculously ‘work out’. Or they’ve been cynically intentional when overstating their character and abilities, believing that’s the only way to get on in life.

When someone can’t or won’t get real about the kind of person they are and what they can do, only bad consequences follow. It’s hurtful for them, and causes anguish and extra work for those around them.

It means living out your values. I’ve known a lot of travelling sales reps. They were on the road most of the week, trying to persuade existing customers to buy more or cultivating ‘leads’ to win new orders for their product. The company car was their office and hotels were their accommodation.

I asked Harry how his week had gone, and apparently it had been a good one. He’d closed several deals, and he was looking forward to a bonus. Then he added with a smile, ‘One day I drove 200 miles south in the morning, and 300 west in the afternoon.’ I asked how he’d fitted in time with clients along with so many miles. ‘By averaging about 90 mph almost all the way,’ he said, ‘which I don’t like doing because I know it’s wrong. But I couldn’t do my job if I kept to speed limits.’

I thought about that a lot afterwards. My reaction was, ‘If your job requires you to do wrong, you’re in the wrong job.’ But I also realised that ‘sales’ was likely Harry’s only skill; finding an alternative that didn’t create a moral challenge wouldn’t be simple; and he had a mortgage to pay and a family to feed.

But – while sincerely acknowledging the real-world situation Harry faced – I still wonder how someone can stay in a job which requires them setting aside their values. How do they suppress the unsettledness that must generate? Being true to who you are means being true to the values you must live by.

And that doesn’t just apply about a job. It’s a truth for every area of life. If a relationship isn’t right, then it’s not right to be in that relationship. If the cost of a holiday, or new car, or golf club membership is causing financial damage, then these are wrong expenses. If building a career requires everything else to be sacrificed, it’s wrong to wreck your health, weaken your marriage, and alienate your children.

Most people wouldn’t say these things are what they really want. But if it’s what they’re getting, then they’re not living true to their values.

I’d never tell anyone that change is easy. We don’t just wake up one morning, decide to be different and easily start living a new life. But it can start by waking up one morning, realise we’re not living true to our better selves, and begin a journey to the right place. That journey may be long and rough, but supremely worth making.