“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett
What are the three or four most significant decisions you’ve made in your life? Which choices have given you the greatest pride? When we’re confronted with these questions, the first answers that come to mind are the larger events in our lives. We think about a career path, choosing our spouse, a decision to move to a new area.
“I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
It’s true that these choices affect our lives in significant ways. But when reflecting on the totality of our impact on the world — our existence and legacy — we come to realize that in many cases, the seemingly more trivial decisions constitute the essence of who we are and who we want to be. These are the courageous choices that emerge from a steadfast commitment to our values.
What do we want our reputation to be? How do our actions reflect on our family, community, and God? One of the wisest sages to grace this earth, Solomon, reflected that a good reputation is more valuable than wealth. He challenges us to ponder what mark we truly want to make in the world. What do we truly want to leave behind?
One of the core principles of leading a life of deep fulfillment and endurance is our ability to make courageous choices in every moment. Do we choose based on convenience or conviction, principle or pressure?
Oprah Winfrey says that as “you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you — the first time around.”
Studies show that most people rarely find the inner strength to make the best choices. When we’re afraid of making tough decisions, it often leads to a life of remorse and regret. In a recent book, Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware notes that the most common regret at the end of one’s life is wishing that “I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
We’re making hundreds of meaningful choices every day. These small decisions require reservoirs of strength, faith, and clarity.
Do you want to be remembered as a giver or a taker? Do you want to be remembered for your honesty, authenticity, and warmth? We make a promise; do we get back to someone with an answer? We’re asked to help someone; do we seize the chance to help? We’re entrusted with confidential information; do we keep a secret? We’re exhausted at the end of a hard day; do we smile when we walk into our home and give our family our best?
Every moment we’re given two paths to follow and we’re challenged with a chance to either elevate our lives and the world around us or not. A choice not taken is also a choice.
MORE NEWS: Americans Are Losing Our Own Backyard
Bear in the mind the Warren Buffet 20/5 formula: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Listen to the “final” words of Peregrine Financial Group CEO Russell Wasendorf Sr., which he penned in a suicide attempt note. In his letter, he confessed to bilking customers out of $200 million: “I had no access to additional capital and I was forced into a difficult decision: Should I go out of business or cheat? I guess my ego was too big to admit failure. So I cheated; I falsified the very core of the financial documents of PFG, the bank statements.”
One choice altered his destiny.
I can guarantee you that the headlines about cases like Wasendorf are merely the culmination of small decisions that spiraled out of control. One compromise leads to the next. Lives are ruined and the fallout shakes the foundations of our families, businesses, government, and schools.
In stark contrast, one of the most respected financiers in the world, Steve Schwartzman, CEO of Blackstone, the largest hedge fund in the world, shared his unwavering dedication to building a firm rooted in honesty and ethics. “When I interview new recruits to the firm, I warn them that if even only once they engage in behavior that smells wrong, not only will I fire them but I will ruin them, prosecute them, and destroy them. When asked by my partners why I am so harsh, I explain that I want everyone in my firm to be deeply rooted in doing the right thing. Your integrity is only tested when it costs you something.”
“Was there nothing worth fighting for in your life?”
MORE NEWS: Justice Thomas At The Top Of His Game
Do we possess such courage with our own convictions? One split-second decision defines us, embodies us, and is how we’ll be remembered. Every week in the news, we see examples of the truism that a reputation is built over a lifetime, but one moral indiscretion destroys one. Thousands of years before social media, the Ethics of the Fathers taught, “Do not say something we do not want to be heard, for in the end it will be heard.”
No action is private. Every choice reflects our past and determines our future.
Who are you? What are the values that define you? Spend some time reflecting on these questions. Only when you know your values can you live them. If we search for approval or accolades before making a small decision, we won’t be prepared for what could be a truly transformative decision. We won’t possess the strength to express our deepest beliefs and aspirations. Our lives are, in fact, constituted by the heartfelt choices we make every day.
I’m reminded of the story in “Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful” by South African writer Alan Paton. He tells of a man who died and came before God. “Where are your wounds?” asks God.
“I have none,” said the man.
MORE NEWS: Only House Pro-life Democrat Pretty Lonely
“Why?” responds God. “Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
Which beliefs of yours are worth fighting for?
Rabbi Daniel Cohen has served in the rabbinate for over 20 years and currently is senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Connecticut, the largest modern orthodox synagogue in New England. A husband and father of six daughters, he is also co-host with Reverend Greg Doll of the nationally syndicated radio show, “The Rabbi and the Reverend,” on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and evenings at 9 p.m. He speaks frequently on leading a life of legacy, and is the author of the new book, “What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy” (Health Communications, Inc.).