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The Power of Positive Example

The Power of Positive Example

A fundamental rule of influence is this: You cannot impart what you don’t possess! In other words, you cannot teach honesty if you’re a thief and a liar.

Close your eyes for just a few seconds and think of one or two people who have motivated you, encouraged you, spurred you on. Then ask yourself, was it because of what they said, or what they did? How they talked, or how they behaved?

What those people did and how they behaved probably had the more lasting impact. Certainly, no one is inspired in a positive way by the hypocrite or by the unprincipled. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you’re saying.”

Each of us is inspired far more by the power of positive example than by mere rhetoric, commands or threats. Doesn’t it mean so much more to us to earn the respect of others as opposed to ordering it? How much have we really won, if others pay attention not because they want to but because they are coerced to?

Who influences you more—the big mouths or the quiet doers?

I can think of so many things I wish more people would do. I wish they would value education more highly and read to their children. I wish they would show more concern for those around them in need and do something about it themselves instead of waiting for the government to do it (at ten times the price). I wish they would work harder at being the very best at whatever they’ve chosen as their life’s work. I wish they would show more respect for the lives and property of others. I wish they would be better neighbors, more caring friends, more honest politicians, more responsible business associates.

We could pass laws that would force more people in these directions and that would penalize them if they failed to comply. Government officials do this all the time, but it’s not at all obvious that we’re better people because of it. That approach—of pushing people around like pieces on a chessboard—leaves me with a feeling of hollowness. I don’t want a society in which people do the right thing just because they have to, when they really don’t want to. And I believe strongly that the most effective but underappreciated teaching method is the power of positive example.

Forcing a person to go to church doesn’t make him religious any more than forcing him to stand in a garage makes him a car. You don’t make a person truly loyal by forbidding disagreement. You don’t make a person charitable by robbing him at gunpoint and spending his money on “good” things.

What is the most effective and lasting technique for raising children to responsible, productive adulthood? Surely it is not simply handing them a printed list of instructions and telling them, “See you in 20 years.” Good parenting, in fact, is defined as being a good example in everything because your children will learn far more from observation than from memorization.

When I was around age 8 or 9, my father took me fishing on the nearby river. Upon returning to the dock, he accidentally dropped his car keys in the water. Neither of us were good swimmers. Observing a teenager swimming a few yards away, he motioned for help. “Can you swim to the bottom and retrieve my keys?” he asked. The young man offered to try and within a few minutes, he had found and returned the keys. My father did not simply thank him; he generously gave him a 20-dollar bill. Then he turned to me and said, “Be grateful when someone does something for you that they do not have to do. Reward them for it, and you will feel good inside yourself.” Ever since that day nearly 60 years ago, I have been a happy and generous tipper when someone deserves it.

What we sometimes forget in our haste to reform the world is that we must first reform ourselves, one at a time, and none of us has yet done all we can in that regard. We chronically underestimate how much influence for good we can be by simply being better individuals—not pontificating about doing good, but actually being good—and doing it with our own resources, not someone else’s.

The British novelist, Aldous Huxley, noted “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” Yet, these words from Russian writer Leo Tolstoy contain considerable truth as well: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity but nobody thinks of changing himself.”

A fundamental rule of influence is this: You cannot impart what you don’t possess! In other words, you cannot teach honesty if you’re a thief and a liar. You cannot teach humility if you’re an arrogant, condescending know-it-all. You cannot teach responsibility if you constantly make excuses and blame others for your shortcomings. If you’re timid, do not expect others to learn courage from you. Don’t expect others to be open-minded to your ideas if you’re close-minded to theirs. If you claim to be compassionate for the less fortunate, you are a hypocrite and a fraud if you think that voting for demagogues is the way to prove your compassion. Your personal example will always speak louder than your words or your votes.

There’s a sign on a wall in one of my favorite restaurants. It says, “Be as good as your dog thinks you are.” That’s good advice but being as good as we know in our hearts we should be—in our speech, conduct and relationships—is still the best advice any of us can either give or take.

Self-improvement—perhaps the most important mission in life over which we each have total control—starts and ends with yourself. What are you waiting for?

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