A Personal Ethos?

What is a personal ethos?  It’s not a term or expression most of us are familiar with.  What is it and should it play any role in our lives?  Do we need a personal ethos?

Good question.

angel and devilAll of us actually do have a personal ethos – we just may not be able to clearly articulate it.  But we do have a pattern of values, motivations, and aspirations that can be distilled from decisions, both large and small, that we have made in our lives.  We are what we decide, how we behave, and what we do – much more so than what we say, what we intend, or what we think we want.  This pattern makes up the ‘personal ethos’ by which we live, consciously or unconsciously.

It can be empowering to know, accept, and understand the values and aspirations that are behind our decisions and actions, and even more empowering to choose and embrace them, rather than be pushed around by them….A personal ethos that we create and try to live by, can give us a sense of direction and even purpose for our lives – especially if it is crafted to fit our particular needs, personality, and circumstances.

I believe that a personal ethos should speak primarily to our “heart” and emotions, and less to our “head” and reason. It should inspire us to choose and live a “path with heart,” and should serve as a hand-rail to guide us when we may be tempted to wander off that desired path. This hand-rail should steady us when we lose our balance or stumble, help us get up the mountain when the going is rough and steep, and help us keep our footing and perhaps even slow down, when we’re going downhill with the wind at our back. It should guide us toward the man or woman we want to be – the best we can be – given that we are human, with all the strengths and frailties that implies.

A personal ethos is indeed personal; what works for you may not work for me.  It should fit our own inclinations, and remind us to consider those aspects of living well which may not be intrinsic to the groove we’ve created for our lives. A personal ethos should include those things each of us believes deserve our regular attention, and may ignore those things that may already be embedded in our lives.

In thinking about a personal ethos, you might consider my “top ten” considerations, listed below in no particular order.  Your top ten will certainly be different, and I expect some interesting feedback.

1.- Failure, or not getting what I want. Does my personal ethos support me, buoy me up, serve as a source of strength and resilience when I don’t get something I want that is important to me?  Though I often don’t get what I want, my personal ethos reminds me that I always get what I need.

2.- Hardship/suffering/tragedy. Does my personal ethos serve as a source of strength and resilience in times of suffering and tragedy? Does it help me find meaning in suffering and sadness? I find it instructive and inspiring to read the accounts of people who have struggled and suffered in prison – Stockdale, Mandela, Bonhoeffer, and especially Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz (Man’s Search for Meaning.)

3.- Community.  Does my personal ethos help me recognize that we are all part of a much larger story, and that who we are, how we live, and what we value are the results of the blood, sweat, and tears, the joy and the suffering of generations of others? Does it remind me that we can only flourish in a community, and that “flourishing” includes responsibilities?

4.- Love. A big word worth thinking about. The Dalai Lama builds his ethic and faith around compassion. Does my personal ethos demand that I acknowledge, accept and appreciate my common humanity with those who are so easy to dislike, distrust, demean, even hate? (And there are so many!) Sometimes, a good place to start is simply to hate less, and then build to “love more.”

5.- Joy/Fun/Humor.  Most people take a lot of $h!# way too seriously – especially themselves.  That’s just my opinion. Meher Baba’s counsel: “Don’t Worry! Be Happy!” applies to about 80% of what bothers most of us. One of my father’s favorite sayings is “If you ain’t having fun doing it, you ain’t doing it right.” Sometimes we all need to remind ourselves to laugh – especially at ourselves and our predicaments. God simply HAS TO have a sense of humor – why else would the Buddha be laughing?

6.- Challenge.  Does my personal ethos push me out of my comfort zone? Does it challenge me to get better and be better? I know I get better by forcing myself out of my comfort zone. Even just a little. Choosing to get uncomfortable, to get up off the couch and change my routine, just doesn’t seem to come naturally (to me.)

7.- Faith.  Does my personal ethos acknowledge and seek connection to an Unseen Order of Things? Many will automatically include Faith as a centerpiece in their lives. When pressed, atheists and skeptics also have a spirituality that gives meaning to their lives in the face of the Unanswerable Mysteries. To paraphrase the famous words of Dick Butkus, former NFL line-backer: “There’s a whole lot of $h!# going on that we just ain’t gonna understand.”

8.- Nature.  Does my personal ethos push me to connect with the natural world, of which we are a part, on so many levels? This is so easy to forget in our front-country busy-ness. Connection to the bigger story of community is even bigger when we connect to the oceans, the mountains, and forests and deserts, and the drama of living for a brief moment of eternity as mammals on this planet. Take a look at goggle earth and see if you can find yourself….

9.- Rest and Silence.  Does my personal ethos remind me to slow down and rest, not only my body but my mind? Does it encourage me to let the churning waters of my conscious life settle, to allow whatever wisdom may be inside me, to come to the surface and be recognized? Does it remind me to slow down, listen to myself and to others, and to pay attention to what is going on around me? (I find this one particularly difficult.)

10.- Mortality and Death.  Does my personal ethos encourage a conversation with that ultimate reality we all face? Living well includes dying well, and I want to be ready and at peace when my time comes, whether suddenly, or expectedly. St Augustine told us to be ready to die at any moment. The Dalai Lama meditates on his own death daily. Samurai warriors were taught to become comfortable with their own death, so as not to live in fear of it. There are important lessons here.


If you were to create a personal ethos, what would your top ten considerations be?  The ultimate criterion for judging a personal ethos is whether it works ….for you – whether it helps YOU to become better, stronger, wiser, more resilient – to live well. Living well is not only the best revenge, it is literally the goal of a lifetime, and there is no work more worthy of our effort.  Thinking about what that means, and building a hand-rail to steady us as we move along our path, can help.

What is your personal ethos? Can you articulate it? Is it helping you to live well?
For those interested in this topic, my essays What is it REALLY all about? and Simplicity might be of interest.   A personal ethos is indeed a  simple, personal statement of what it’s really all about…for you.

13 thoughts on “A Personal Ethos?

  1. Wow. The perfect food for thought as we get set to roll into a new year, although great for any time of year. If I defined in writing my personal ethos your considerations would be the perfect outline. I find your writings very interesting and you do such a wonderful job at it. Hi to Mary Anne and kids. Haben Sie einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!


    • Implementing a personal ethos is the hard part, would be interested in the groups thoughts/best practices. Some of my ideas are:
      1) Develop a list of priorities or mission statement. I find Covey’s books (7 habit of highly effective people/families a good place to start)
      2) Build in some type of daily reflection and rewind of the events of the day at the end to see where I fell short or can learn from what happened.
      3) Force my self to diversify outside of work and busy-ness of life to have volunteer opportunities, time for a hike, or spiritual/church related events/reflection.
      4) Humor is clutch, I find it easy to dish out and make levity of the situation. Trying to allow myself to find humor in my shortcomings as well….

      Anyone else have any good ones?



      • Some good ideas Bog – thanks. The reflection time is very important and hard to find. Benjamin Franklin kept a list of virtues that he wanted to develop and in the evenings graded himself on how well he’d done. When he got to be in his 70’s, he quit keeping score, asserting that he’d become the man he wanted to become – or at least as far down that path as he was willing to go!


  2. A number of people have responded to me personally. I paste this response into this reply because I think it reflects an important reality to this concept – a personal ethos changes and evolves, as we change and evolve. My friends comment to me:

    “I would offer the thought that for most of us, the content of our personal ethos changes over time. What I thought of as my “top ten” when I was playing football in college was different from what it was as a young Naval Officer; was different from what it was as a LCDR; was different from what it was as a mid-level foreign service officer; was different from what it was as an Ambassador; was different from what it is today. Components drop in and out of the top ten, and priorities and the emphasis placed on individual components will change.”


  3. Great post, Bob! On reflection, I have decided that the components of my personal ethos have changed as I have aged and the world about me has changed. There is one constant theme and this is my “hand-rail” – my family, especially my son, my friends and my belief that somewhere there is a benevolent God and I do sincerely hope that he (or she) does indeed have a sense of humour!
    Feliz Ano Nuevo!!


    • Thanks Sandra – I’m not sure that a sense of humor (or humour) isn’t a choice to step outside whatever situation we’re in and see how what we are taking so seriously can also be viewed as pretty damn funny, if not ridiculous!
      To get my point, think about copulation – those involved are pretty intense, serious and focused – anyone viewing from outside can only be thinking about how ridiculous the whole act seems – and it’s worth a good and hearty laugh! Hey – God is watching – and probably chuckling and shaking her head! And that is a valuable perspective. I think that analogy translates to much of what we take seriously – with the exception of the suffering of others.


  4. Pingback: Living Heroically (Part II) | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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