Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 26, 2012. It has since been updated.
As we head into our last week of this “Heading Out on Your Own” series, I’d like to pause from our “harder,” more practical skills to talk about a character trait, that, like self-reliance, is both an important building block in your life’s foundation, and, unfortunately, too often in short supply amongst young men.
The word reliable has its origins in relier, Old French for “fasten” or “attach;” the reliable man was an immovable pillar of strength on which you could hang your hat, someone you could lean and depend on, a man you could trust.
Compare that image with its opposite: the flake. Floating, drifting, fragile. Melting as soon as it meets any resistance.
We’ve all known reliable men, and we’ve all known flakes. We admire the former, and avoid the latter. To become the kind of man you’ve grown up trusting and counting on, read on.
Why Be Reliable?
Only recently a prominent public man was criticized throughout the newspaper world as one not having enough character to keep his promises. He had not the stamina to make good when to do so proved difficult. He hadn’t the timber, the character fiber to stand up and do the thing he knew to be right, and that he had promised to do. The world is full of these jelly-fish people who have not lime enough in their backbone to stand erect, to do the right thing. They are always stepping into the spotlight in the good-intention stage, and then, when the reckoning time comes, taking the line of least resistance, doing the thing which will cost the least effort or money, regardless of later consequences. They think they can be as unscrupulous about breaking promises as they were about making them. But sooner or later fate makes us play fair or get out of the game. –Orison Swett Marden, Making Life a Masterpiece, 1916
1. The reliable man forges deeper relationships. Relationships are built on trust; without it they wither and die. Being reliable builds that trust – your friends and loved ones know that they can count on you to keep your word, be there when you’ll say you’ll be, and do what you say you’ll do. They can also feel secure that you’ll be the same man day after day, no matter what happens. That you won’t be capricious with your warmth, blanketing them with affection one day and then withdrawing into prickly remoteness the next. That you won’t sometimes be patient with their foibles, and other times fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. Without this steady reliability in your mood and behavior, your loved ones will begin to withdraw from you, and feel they must walk on eggshells in your presence.
2. The reliable man receives greater opportunities. When people see that you can be relied upon, they will give you more challenging tasks and responsibilities that will in turn allow you to grow, learn, and become a leader. A boss promotes the reliable employee to higher positions; the professor offers research opportunities to the reliable student; the team picks the reliable man as its captain.
On the other hand, the flakier a man is, the lower people’s expectations become of him, and this easily becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, destining him to stay a follower, a bit player in every sphere in which he half-heartedly participates.
3. The reliable man is given more freedom. The unreliable young man must always be watched; he’s kept on a short leash. His boss has to constantly look over his shoulder to make sure he’s doing his job and hasn’t made another mistake. His parents check in on him even after he’s left home to offer reminders to take care of his car, thank his grandma for the birthday money, and make an appointment with the dentist.
The reliable young man receives much less supervision and is given greater responsibility over his time. His boss, his parents, and everyone else knows that if he is simply given the roughest outline of what needs to be done, he’ll find a way to do it – and do it well — in his own way.
4. The reliable man gains a reputation for integrity. The word integrity is related to the roots of words like “integrate” and “entire.” In Spanish it is rendered “integro,” meaning whole. Integrity thus implies the state of being complete, undivided, intact, and unbroken. Such a state contrasts with one that is scattered, fragmented, and incomplete. When a man has a reputation for integrity, others do not wonder what fragment of him they will get that day, and which fragment they’ll be dealing with the next. They know he is a rock of strength on which they can rely.
5. The reliable man lives with confidence and a clear conscience. In always doing his duty, keeping his promises, and fulfilling his obligations, the reliable man is free from the pangs of regret that haunt less dependable men. Not only can other people count on the reliable man, he knows he can count on himself. This breeds the courage and confidence he needs to take on greater challenges and adventures.
6. The reliable man leads a simpler life. When you’re the same man each day in every situation, when you don’t have to think up excuses for breaking your promises, when you don’t have to live with the regret of letting others down, you can enjoy a type of simplicity that goes way beyond decluttering your closet.
15 Maxims for Being a Reliable Man
A disregard of promises, finally, is like a fungus, which imperceptibly spreads over the whole character, until the moral perceptions are perverted, and the man actually comes to believe he does no wrong, even in breaking faith with his warmest friends. –William Makepeace Thayer, Ethics of Success, 1893
1. Keep your promises. Being a man of your word: this is the cornerstone of reliability. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, and do it in X amount of time, you better move heaven and earth to fulfill that promise. This is often easier said than done because of the so-called “Yes…damn” effect: when looking ahead to when a promise will need to be fulfilled, we predict we’ll have more time in our schedule, and say yes….but when the day of reckoning finally arrives — damn! — you’re just as busy as you always were.
But even when you don’t feel like doing something, even when more desirable opportunities arise, you still have to make good on your word. Which is why you should make such grudgingly fulfilled commitments extremely rare by not overextending yourself, which brings us to our next point.
Never affect to be other than you are—either richer or wiser. Never be ashamed to say, ‘I do not know.’ Men will then believe you when you say, ‘I do know.’
Never be ashamed to say, whether as applied to time or money, ‘I cannot afford it.’—’I cannot afford to waste an hour in the idleness to which you invite me—I cannot afford the guinea you ask me to throw away.’
Learn to say ‘No’ with decision, ‘Yes’ with caution; ‘No’ with decision whenever it resists a temptation; ‘Yes’ with caution whenever it implies a promise. A promise once given is a bond inviolable.
A man is already of consequence in the world when it is known that we can implicitly rely upon him. I have frequently seen in life a person preferred to a long list of applicants for some important charge, which lifts him at once into station and fortune, merely because he has this reputation—that when he says he knows a thing, he knows it, and when he says he will do a thing, he does it. — Lord Bulwer Lytton, from the Inaugural Address of the Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, 1856
2. Don’t overpromise. The promise of the reliable man is an enormously valuable thing, since it will unswervingly be fulfilled. For this reason, you will find yourself being asked by others to take on more responsibilities and will be offered more opportunities than the flake. Some of these will grant to you valuable chances for growth, learning, and leadership. But some will simply overextend you and take you further away from, not closer to, your goals and priorities.
Thus, being reliable does not mean saying yes to everyone — quite the opposite. The reliable man must use great discretion when making promises to others. The “yes…damn” effect has two main causes, 1) an overly rosy forecast of how busy we’ll be at a future date, and 2) the desire to please others. To counteract these causes, you should:
- Ask yourself whether you could do it tomorrow. If you feel like there’s no way you could do something tomorrow because you’re too busy, and you wouldn’t rearrange your schedule to make room for it, then you can bet that you won’t feel any differently a month from now, and will come to regret making the commitment.
- Double your estimate for how long you think it will take. Part of our overly optimistic forecast for the future is thinking an event or task will take less time than it actually will. When weighing whether to commit to something, double your knee-jerk estimate of how much time it will require of you, to make sure it will really fit in your schedule. Better to over deliver than over promise.
- Give yourself a day to think it over. It can be hard to say no in the moment — you’ll feel pressure to please the asker. So just tell them that you need to look over your schedule, and that you’ll get back to them the next day. This will give you time to really think it over instead of answering on impulse and regretting it later. If you decide to decline, it also usually gives you a chance to make the “no” less personal, by simply shooting them an email the following day.
- Learn how to say ‘no’ firmly but politely. This is one of the most important skills a young man can master. Don’t hedge your no with some “I’ll have to see’s,” and “maybe’s” — be direct and clear. We often feel like turning others down isn’t “nice,” but it’s much more impolite to commit to something, and then bow out later at the last minute, or to come, but to fulfill the commitment in a half-assed manner.
3. Manage expectations. When you make a promise or take on a job, be careful to be realistic about when and what you will deliver. If you’re a salesman or a freelancer, you understandably want to make the thing you’re offering seem enticing to attract customers and clients. But inflated expectations can lead to big-time disappointment — sinking your chances of repeat business with the current client and damaging your reputation for potential future ones.
4. Don’t leave other people hanging. If you do make a promise that truly dire and unforeseen circumstances prevent you from fulfilling, let the person know as soon as possible. Bite the bullet and don’t wait until the last minute to tell them you can’t make it. If you’re running late, call ahead to let the person you’re meeting know instead of letting them wonder where you are.
Always strive to be prompt in your responses to online communication as well. Try your best to reply within 24-48 hours of receiving a text or email, even if just to say, “I can’t give you an answer right now, but will look into it, and get back to you as soon as I can,” or “Got it. Will get to work!”
You are now a man, and I am persuaded that you must hold an inferior station in life, unless you resolve, that, whatever you do, you will do well. Make up your mind that it is better to accomplish perfectly a very small amount of work, than to half do ten times as much. What you do know, know thoroughly. — Sir Fowell Buxton, from a letter to his son
5. Whatever you do, do it well. The maxim: “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” has been around for a couple of centuries, and is just as true today as it ever was. Do your best work whether the task is fulfilling and important, or menial and mindless. Some young men feel that it’s alright to half-ass work when it’s a task that’s “beneath” them, saying that they’d put in a real effort if the work was commensurate with their talents and abilities. But it’s the man who takes pride in his work, whatever it is, who moves ahead; he who cannot be trusted with little things, will never be trusted with big things.
In great matters men show themselves as they wish to be seen; in small matters, as they are. —Nicolas Chamfort
6. Be consistent. Consistency is a huge part of reliability. The guy who gets pumped about an exercise program, works out every day, and then after two weeks falls off the wagon for several months; the student who sometimes churns out A+ papers and sometimes doesn’t turn them in at all; the friend who hangs out with you every day but disappears when you ask for a favor; the boyfriend who apologizes for his temper and callous behavior and swears he’s going to turn over a new leaf…for the tenth time. These men lack consistency, and thus fail to gain the trust of others, and build faith in themselves.
The reliable man develops consistency by setting goals for himself that stretch and challenge him, but are doable day after day.
I hate a thing done by halves. If it be right, do it boldly; if it be wrong, leave it undone. –Bernard Gilpin
7. Finish what you start. A boy picks up one toy or craft or game after another, leaving a trail of half-finished projects through his childhood. A man carefully decides what projects he will begin — he does not rush into things in the heat of blind emotional enthusiasm — and then sees them through to the end.
8. Pull your weight and shoulder your own responsibilities. When you’re on a team or working on a group project, other people are counting on you. When you don’t fulfill your role, you imperil their success, and unfairly increase their burdens. For example, when you call in sick to work, when you really just want to loaf around, you make your fellow employees work much harder or force someone to work on what was supposed to be their scheduled day off.
There is nothing like a clean record, the reputation of being square, absolutely reliable, to help a young man along. There is nothing comparable to truth as a man builder. Nothing else will do more toward your real advancement than the resolve, in starting out on your career, to make your word stand for something, always to tell the truth, whether it is to your immediate material interest or not. Truth and honesty make an impregnable foundation for a noble character. — Orison Swett Marden, Making Life a Masterpiece, 1916
9. Be honest. If a news site frequently got a story wrong, readers would soon reject it as unreliable. We also offer “news” and opinions to others, and if they contain falsehoods, people will stop looking to us as a source of enlightenment. We can deceive others in very straightforward ways — lying, cheating, stealing — but in more subtle ways as well — in a look or a gesture, in silence, in telling only one part of a story and leaving out another, in passing along gossip, and so on. Anything that leads people to believe something that isn’t true is dishonest.
Another part of being honest is always saying what you mean. Don’t tell an acquaintance that you’d love to hang out and you’ll give him a call every time you run into him, if you have no intention of following-through. Don’t tell a girl you want to stay friends when you break up with her, if you’d really rather go your separate ways altogether.
10. Pay back money and return things in a timely manner. Whether you borrow $100 or a hammer, return the money or item as soon as you can. Your friend will remember that you owe him, but won’t want to ask, which can cause a rift in your relationship.
11. Be punctual. If you tell someone that you will meet them at a certain time, you have essentially made them a promise. And if you say you’ll be there at 8:00, and yet arrive at 8:15, you have essentially broken that promise. Being on time shows others that you are a man of your word.
We wrote about the importance of being on time just last month, and also offered some concrete tips for how to always be punctual. Check out these articles if this is an aspect of reliability you struggle with.
12. Be fair and consistent in rewards and punishments. A reliable man makes very clear what requirements must be met to earn a reward, and what kinds of behaviors warrant punishment. When those standards are met or violated, he doles out rewards and punishments without regards to favoritism or his current mood. People know exactly what to expect from him, and this builds the resiliency of those under his leadership.
A man who showers one person with praise, and is stingy with another for the exact same accomplishment, or sometimes punishes punitively and sometimes leniently for the same transgression, breeds apathy and “learned helplessness” — a feeling of “what’s the point?” — among those he leads. Being consistent with your rewards and punishments is especially important if you aim to raise resilient children. Esquire Magazine called this “parenting like a video game.” The rules of a video game are predictable — do this and get docked, do this and move ahead. When your kid does something wrong, you dispassionately dole out the agreed upon punishment, and hit the reset button — time to try again. When they do something right, you consistently give the agreed upon reward, and let them level up in your trust of them.
While, then, the stubborn facts may not be altered, we can…make them serve our ends. He who thus adjusts himself to circumstances makes them his friends that hasten to help at every turn, while he who fails so to do is surrounded by enemies that continually annoy and attack. –William C. King, Portraits and Principles of the World’s Great Men and Women, 1898
13. Don’t let circumstances dictate your behavior. Your values, ethics, morals, purpose, and so on should not be contingent on the circumstances in which you find yourself. A man who chooses to be happy can be happy anywhere, while the man who wishes to be morose will find reason for complaint in even the most favorable of situations. The reliable man is the same man no matter what befalls him and makes the most of whatever hand he is dealt.
14. Don’t collapse in emergencies. Your reliability will be most tested during a crisis. Plenty of men can be there for others and do a job when the sailing is smooth. But when the crap hits the fan they fold like a lawn chair. Fair weather reliability is no reliability at all. The reliable man practices and prepares for emergencies so he knows just what to do in a crisis. And he cultivates the virtues of courage and hardihood, so that when everyone else is running away from chaos, he digs in his heels and starts running towards it.
15. Show up. It is often said that 95% of life is just showing up. I don’t know how accurate that number is for life as a whole, but it’s certainly spot on when it comes to reliability. Show up to work on time. Show up to the party you promised to attend. Show up to your friend’s play, even if he only has a bit part.
Even when you haven’t promised someone that you’ll be there, if they need you, show up.
I was recently talking to a friend whose mother had just died. She said how surprised she was to see old friends of hers and of her family — some she hadn’t seen in two decades — show up at her mom’s funeral. She said she hadn’t realized how much their presence would mean to her, and how grateful she would feel to see them there. She had previously wondered how well you should know a person to attend their funeral, but now felt it was always a good idea to show up.
Being reliable means that when a friend needs support, he does not even have to ask you or wonder if you’ll show. He can say with certainty, “He’ll come.”