Forging Conduct

I have a question for you. On what do you base your actions? On feelings? On thoughts? If these two are in conflict, which gets the "last word?"

One camp says your feelings are most fundamental, and should be relied on above thoughts. It says that thoughts are only based on conventional knowledge and nonsense we've picked up from our parents. But feelings — they have a deep root, a spiritual source, or just a natural source of your basic constitution or "Buddha-nature." There are lots of different ways to use it, but the basic idea is that decisions about what to do are based on what you feel more than what you think.

The other camp is the rational camp. Rationally think through what is best and decide based on logic and reason. Use what scientific evidence or simply your personal observations and decide what is best and then do it, whether you like it or not.

In the feeling camp, there is a tendency to not stick to anything long enough to get anything done. Yes, stretching feels good, and for awhile you'll do it. But then there will be some days you don't feel like it, and after awhile, you will find you've gone a long time without stretching. Or exercising, or working on that goal or whatever. The feeling camp is dreadfully lacking in follow-through.

The thinking camp has a frightening side. The ultimate example is the general who decides what's the best plan of attack, and commits soldiers to the trajectory even though it is certain many of them will die. Or the rational idea that there are too many people in the world, which is quite true, but then some woman in remote China has a baby girl, and they aren't as valued in that culture as a boy, and taxes on more than one baby is high. It is rational to kill the baby.

These two can be merged, and they are merged in most people. But when they are merged, thinking must have the last word. If you want to accomplish anything, thinking must have the last word. Feelings change all the time. That is the nature of feeling. Any approach to accomplishment that is based on feelings will suffer from fits and starts and lots of abandoned projects.

Recent research suggests that rational thought needs to take into account feelings. When it doesn't, it's not fully rational in a human sense. Feelings need to be involved in the decision making process. Feelings need to be consulted, as a president consults his trusted advisors. But thought makes the final decision. And actions must be based on decisions — thoughts — not on feelings.

Intellect decides. Body obeys.

That's what works. The source of action needs to be decisions.


I have heard the suggestion, "be yourself," in so many places. I have read it from so many people I respect, from Emerson's essay Self-Reliance to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Be yourself. It doesn't work to try to please others, or to pretend to be what you're not.

Fair enough. And quite true. But what is "yourself?"

That's not a silly question. Do you consider "yourself" your set of feelings? Your "personality?" Your beliefs? A nonphysical soul? It makes a difference what you think because it will determine the source of your actions.

When I was younger, I thought of my "self" as whatever I was spontaneously. My rational side was suspect and sort of an enemy.

For much of my life I thought of my "self" as my personality. But that just means the ways I have learned how to adapt to previous environments. In other words, if my mom thought it was cute when I was being silly, I might develop a set of behaviors that might be bunched together under the heading SILLY. And we all have a whole slew of different "acts" or behavior patterns we are familiar with and have, in a sense, practiced. But are my accumulated behavior patterns "me?" Are they what I should be when I'm "being myself?"

The answer is no.

The self indicated in "being yourself" is the standards you have decided on. Not the standards you think others will approve of. Not the standards you were given by your parents. Not the standards of the society or religion of which you are a part. But the standards you have thought through and decided on.

The alternative is to "be yourself" by simply doing what comes naturally, which means (if you are like most of us) only exercising when you feel like it, yelling at people when you're angry, being selfish and stingy sometimes, and saying rude or offensive things which you will regret later. This is no way to live. It is much more sane to be yourself by deciding what standards of behavior you really want to live by and then following your own standard.

For example, I set a high value on living with a sense of purpose. My parents didn't, but that doesn't matter. I have thought it through and experimented with my life and have decided one of the things I value most highly is setting clear goals and persisting until they are achieved.

Now, given that standard, "being myself" would have to include setting clear goals and following though on them.

Good posture is one of my standards. Being loyal to those to whom I have committed myself is another. Being trustworthy is too.

If you sat down and wrote out what you think an ideal person would act like, you would get a finite list. And you would also have a set of standards to which you could then try to adhere. The adherence to your own standards is "being yourself."

Intellect decides. Body obeys. Your intellect, taking what you know and have experienced into account, and taking your feelings into account, decides what your standards of behavior are, and then you make sure that's what you do.

And what you decide on are standards of behavior. Not feelings. You can't say, I will never feel angry. But you can decide not to yell.

Sit down and decide what you think should be your standards. What behaviors represent you at your best. Decide to be that and you are being yourself. For example:


1. He sets clear goals and persists to success.
2. He is loyal and trustworthy.
3. He never flinches.
4. He is honest and direct.
5. He keeps himself physically fit.
6. He always conducts himself with good manners.
7. He never yells except in emergencies.

Standards are a goal of perfection that you continually shoot for. In any given moment, you may fail, but you still know what you're shooting for and you keep trying. That way, over time, you become more and more true to yourself.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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