By Justin Green
What I thought it meant to be a good man in my early twenties is drastically different from what I believe now. Experience has a way of rounding the edges of self-righteous standards and teaching you that “goodness” is often found in the grey areas.
What does it mean to be a good man? I’ve asked myself this question constantly since June 12th, 2011. That was the date of my first entry into the first volume of what have become running “self-improvement notebooks” – black leather notebooks into which I’ve put journal entries, workout logs, book quotes, ideas, questions, and personal reminders – a rambling pursuit toward being a better man, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The first entry was two weeks before I started Infantry Officer’s Course. I was cajoling myself to create better habits to help me survive what was about to be a grueling 13 weeks. “Spend ten minutes every night writing in this thing,” I wrote to myself, “In 20 years you’ll be glad to look back and see how stupid you were.” Poetic for a 23-year-old. I’ve followed my own direction, to some extent, for the past nine-plus years. It definitely hasn’t been every day; I’ve gone months on some occasions without a single entry. But I’ve kept at it. There’s about 10 of these notebooks now sitting stacked in the corner of my home office.
Now, halfway to the twenty-year goal, it’s time to look back at some of the earlier entries to see if this prediction of retrospective stupidity came true, but more importantly, to see if time has changed my perspectives on what it means to be a good man. In most areas, there’s a stark contrast between what I thought at 23 and what I think now.
Me at 23: “Good men take charge of every situation and try to constantly increase their level of responsibility”
Me now (32 years old): I told myself early on that good men were leaders, and that leaders had all the right answers. In my first job as a second lieutenant, this approach led to stifled innovation and a lot of resentment from my subordinates as I tried to solve problems on my own and “create success” through my own efforts. I thought that being in charge meant you always had the right answers. Now, I realize that “good man” and “leader” aren’t always synonyms. I’ve met plenty of leaders that weren’t good men and many good men that have never held a position of influence in their lives. I’ve learned that a good man is happy to play second fiddle to the better ideas of others and that a good man is just as willing to take responsibility for bad outcomes as good ones. Good men have a healthy relationship with success and failure – they realize the only variable they can really control is their own actions. They measure “responsibility” not as a function of the power of their position or how many resources they control, but as the irreducible burden of accountability they place on themselves for doing the right thing at the right time, regardless of the consequences. When good men fail (good men fail often) to hold themselves accountable, when they give in to bitching and complaining that someone else isn’t pulling their weight, good men eventually circle back to looking inward at what they could have done better. But most importantly, I’ve learned that good men overcome the compulsion to control everything. They’re vulnerable and trusting, willing to expose the things they care about – their time, reputation, relationships – to the actions of other people.
Me at 23: “Good men are servants and stewards”
Me now: This is one of the few areas where 23-year-old me wasn’t that far off. I believed then and I still believe that good men are servants in their relationships and stewards of their positions, possessions, and environment. Good men put the needs and desires of their families and close friends before their own. They treat their possessions, their professional position, and the environment as if they will eventually hand them over to someone else. Good men don’t feel entitled to anything.
However, I’ve learned that being a servant and a steward doesn’t give you the moral high road. I used to treat being a “servant” in my relationships or leadership positions as a means to an end, I still struggle with this. “Look how much of a servant/steward I’m being” goes the thought, “you should do X or Y in exchange.” It’s easy to virtue signal how low you’ve intentionally put yourself on the pecking order as a way to increase leverage over others. Good men understand that being a servant doesn’t require recognition or reciprocation.
Stewardship can also be a slippery slope toward indifference to the actions of others around you. Stewardship is an innately introspective and sometimes selfish position because it’s focus is on the nobility of one’s own actions. At its best, stewardship has helped me walk a path of humility. But I have also used stewardship to justify a self-righteous approach to my daily conduct. Good men walk the fine line between being a humble steward and putting their foot down to hold others accountable when required.
Me at 23: “A good man’s highest aim is to earn the respect of those around him”
Me now: I used to think that respect was a type of currency – something you accrued by doing hard things and that could be exchanged between people, quid pro quo. Age has taught me that respect is not a goal, but a starting point, and that respect is best given before it’s earned. Good men act and speak from a default position of respect for those around them, regardless of the individual’s status. Good men treat their employees, a customer service representative, or a server at a restaurant in the same way they treat their boss, parents, or mentors – respect is not a function of what that person can do for you.
But good men also understand that respect for others, like service and stewardship, is not an excuse for indifference. Respect is not conflict avoidance. Respect is not the unquestioning acceptance of everything.
That last part has always been the hardest for me to navigate. As a systems-thinking introvert, it’s very easy for me to find a justifiable reason not to confront someone about something – “there’s probably a very good reason they’re doing what they’re doing, I’ll let them continue out of respect for their perspective.” This isn’t respect, it’s conflict avoidance. Good men respect others enough to challenge their perspectives, knowing that at the very least, they might learn something.
Me at 23: “Good men pursue excellence in everything they do”
Me now: This is great in theory – “anything worth doing is worth doing well” – but it fails the test of time and shifting priorities. I have used this maxim to justify zealous dedication to various pursuits throughout my life. In high school, it was baseball (200-300 balls off a tee every day); more recently, it was SOF selection (two-a-day workouts, eating like a monk, and a mandatory 9-10 hours of sleep a night). I jump in to things with both feet and do very few things casually. I have always taken this as a point of pride.
What I have failed to appreciate was that this zealous dedication demanded significant sacrifices in other, equally important, areas of my life. Relationships, school, and work have all taken the back seat to my priority du jour at some point. But aren’t these sacrifices just the unintended consequences of pursuing greatness in anything? Yes and no.
Good men understand the importance of prioritization. They willingly accept the fact that achievement requires dedication and sacrifice, but they make these decisions intentionally, communicated when possible to those affected by the sacrifices, and done with the understanding that debts in any one area usually have to be repaid by re-balancing the priorities before those debts become permanent. The un-prioritized aspects of a good man’s life are not the unintended casualties of his pursuit of excellence, but willing sacrifices made in furtherance of a goal.
I’ve been an unintended casualty. When I was young, my dad spent 10-11 months of the year traveling for work to give me and my brother the comfortable upbringing he never had. Money was the goal, and my relationship with him was the permanent casualty, unintended as it may have been. My dad was a good man, but good men aren’t perfect.
There are aspects of the “dogged pursuit of excellence” that good men do follow. Good men take pride in doing things well; they ask questions and seek mentors; and they set ambitious goals, but understand that the long game is won minute-to-minute, and often when no one is watching.
Me at 23: “Physical fitness is key to making a good man ready for anything”
Me now: My early notebooks were essentially work-out journals, so it’s easy to see what I prioritized and where this idea came from. Fitness is still at the core of who I am. I still see a good, brutal training session as the cure to most ills, and I still view physical fitness as the gateway to achieving mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness. But age has shown me the gaps created by my heavy prioritization of the physical. My 3-mile run time didn’t help me cope with the death of my father in 2014, and while physical fitness definitely helped me survive combat, it hasn’t helped me deal with what I’ve seen during or as a result of it.
Good men see value in physical fitness. They understand that they cannot be of any service to their family, friends, community, or country unless their own house is in order. But good men also understand that in fitness, like excellence, prioritization is key. They’ll sacrifice a degree of physical fitness to repay debts in other areas, but they invariably return to it because they know it is the cornerstone of resilience. Good men also understand that mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness are critical components of the whole, and that the vulnerability required to strengthen all of them is not weakness, but a checkpoint on the way to resilience.
Me at 32 (today): What it means to be a good man is constantly evolving
It’s easy to belittle my 23-year-old perspective of what it means to be a good man as the self-righteous ramblings of a young, dumb, single kid. But doing so ignores the depth and complexity of the issue because what it means to be a good man evolves over time. A prioritization on respect, excellence, physical fitness, and solving problems made as much sense to me at 23 as my new perspectives do to me now. Sure, some of my perspectives have changed as a result of hard lessons learned (hint: any sentence that begins with “Good men…” usually implies I messed up royally in that area), but just as many perspectives changed due to gradually shifting priorities and significant life events. I’m sure that in ten years I’ll look back on my 32-year-old perspectives with just as many head shakes. Am I a good man? Every day is a struggle, that’s all I can say for sure.
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