Think About It

You and Your Reputation

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | April 16, 2011

"It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it."
Benjamin Franklin

The other day Evie and I were trying to reference someone and because we couldn't think of his name, we described some features which were unique to that person. Later, we began talking of the ways someone may describe us if they couldn't think of our name. We had a good time with that hypothetical question. 

When we think of those around us or they think of us, sooner or later our reputation will be part of the consideration. And reputation is somewhat slippery to identify. I think most of us would agree that our reputation is what others think of us; our character is who we really are. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." 

But depending on who is commenting, our reputation can take on many shades of description. Today, a teenager may resent a mother by describing her as mean but in a few short years that same mother will be deeply honored for caring. Today, a student may describe a teacher for being tough but in time that same student will revere that same teacher and honor him. Today, the athlete may dislike the tough coach but, when the team wins, the athlete views the coach as a hero. 

We could ask, then, how important is our reputation? I guess it somewhat depends on who is asking and when it is being asked. The examples above inform us that sometimes how we are perceived today may not be all that important. Sometimes we must literally ignore what other people think of us. Of course, as a friend of mine once said, "We would worry a lot less of what people thought of us if we realized how little they actually did." 

Years ago I came across this insight from Thomas Merton and I ponder it again when I think about our reputation. "Your idea of me is fabricated with materials you have borrowed from other people and from yourself. What you think of me depends on what you think of yourself. Perhaps you create your idea of me out of material that you would like to eliminate from your own idea of yourself. Perhaps your idea of me is a reflection of what other people think of you. Or perhaps what you think of me is simply what you think I think of you." 

We must be careful we don't minimize the impact that our reputation has on our influence. If we are perceived as a dishonest or self-centered or deceptive or uncaring person, everything we say and everything we do will be tainted by that negative reputation. I recall one person who was perceived as being very political in his approach toward leadership and even when he tried not to be political, those very actions were perceived as being political. 

In some ways we don't care at all what our reputation may be but in other ways everything (and I do mean everything) hinges on our reputation. One of the challenges of our reputation is that even if it is good, it can be destroyed in a moment, for as Ernest Bramah said, "A reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment." 

My friend, Don Argue, always used to say, "Bad is worse than good is good." We have all seen lives with impeccable reputations devastated by one wrong decision. We really can mortgage our entire life over one stupid decision. And when that happens, 'bad is worse than good is good.' 

Joseph Hall warns us, "A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu
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