The Danger of a Good Reputation

We all screw up. It appears to be a settled law of having goals that we’ll miss them sometimes.

Occasionally, though, some people screw up less often than others. Enter reputation ranking.

A good reputation is a valuable thing in a tribal/social world of humans. It lets people know that they can rely on you to not do anything crazy, like taking joyrides in their Ferraris. That trust makes a good reputation a key to great work, social, and romantic opportunities. As the writer of one famous Hebrew proverb said, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” 

You would think these positive incentives would make a good reputation a real guardian of virtue. In some ways, it is. A good reputation can be a great deterrent of being a total trashbag. It stands to reason that you’ll be less likely to lie, cheat, kill, or steal if you’re satisfied with the benefits of a good reputation and don’t want to lose them.

But again, we all screw up. And that (seemingly) inevitable human shortcoming is something a good reputation doesn’t prepare you for. In fact, a good reputation can prevent someone from recognizing and correcting their mistakes when they happen.

Remember The Scarlet Letter? That book you read in English Lit (English is lit, kids)? Our protagonists Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne stand on two sides of the reputation line in 17th century American Puritan village.

Hester’s adultery is discovered at the book’s opening. She is publicly shamed, branded with the scarlet “A” (for the sin of adultery) and exiled with her daughter Pearl to the edge of the wilderness. Her good reputation is shot to hell.

On the other hand, the reverend Arthur Dimmesdale – Hester’s co-adulterer – is beloved and well-respected in the little town. Pearl’s father and Hester’s partner are unknown, and Dimmesdale takes an entire book to reveal the truth. He has a deathly fear of being discovered which threatens to corrupt him. He maintains a good reputation with the townspeople for most of the book, however. Telling the truth and ruining his reputation ultimately kills him, but it does set him free and brings resolution to the main conflict of the plot.

Ironically, Hester – who has the worst reputation of any character in the novel – is the most forthright and so is perhaps least guilty of the main characters. Because she has no good reputation to protect, she is able to honestly face her sin of betrayal (even if she’s a bit unrepentant). She takes up her negative reputation and so makes a better start toward personal transformation.

Dimmesdale lets his good reputation prevent him from actually doing what is right. In this way, the reputation which is a reward for the good within him actually becomes an enemy of the good he could be doing. Ironically, his willingness to sacrifice his good reputation with the revelation of an ugly truth is the most righteous decision he makes in the book. By sharing the unholy scarlet letter with Hester, he does the holiest thing he could possibly do.

“[T]he scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.”

Like Dimmesdale, we all have a choice about our reputations.

We can choose to make good reputation and good image paramount. If we do this, we can feel good about ourselves for some time. It’s nice to know that others approve of you.

But when we inevitably fail to own up to our shortcomings, we become captive to the endless chore of maintaining the illusions of other people. We will never be safe to be our flawed selves, so there will be little of ourselves to enjoy the benefits of good repute.

On the other hand, like Prynne and like Dimmesdale at the story’s end, we can choose to make our relationship to reality paramount. We can choose always to own our failures and successes with equal courage and grace. We can accept that we have screwed up, and that we will need to work to correct our screw-ups in very public, very embarrassing ways.

This means holding our reputations loosely. We have to be willing to lose them for the sake of the truth that will allow us to be whole humans. If we do that, reputation will take care of itself.

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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