Come Hell Or High Water: Why Every Man Needs A Code of Conduct

Come Hell Or High Water: Why Every Man Needs A Code of Conduct
When life hits the fan, what will you stand for?

“Man is not made for defeat… A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

Those haunting words come to us from Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea, one of the simplest and most stirring man-against-nature stories ever told. After months of failing to bring home a catch Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, sails out into the Gulf Stream alone. At long last he hooks a fish, and not just any fish, but the most gigantic marlin he’s ever seen in his life. For two days and two nights Santiago is locked in an agonizing struggle with the fish, finally harpooning the creature and lashing its body to the side of his little skiff. However, the marlin’s blood attracts the attention of sharks, and Santiago struggles heroically but vainly to fend them off from his prize. While killing several, Santiago loses much of the marlin to the predators and returns to his village empty-handed. Bloodied, battered, and bruised, with nothing to show for it.

This, to Hemingway, was what a man was.

What made a man a man wasn’t necessarily success, or a long life, or even a very pleasant one. It was a life with integrity – a life where you stuck by your principles even to the point of your own destruction. Santiago isn’t thought of as a great man because of his skill or because of his success, but because of his refusal to give up the fight. Heck, Santiago, in his battle with the marlin, winds up respecting the fish so much that he declares no one will be allowed to eat him. While his battle with the sharks would make the vow unnecessary it’s clear he would have stuck with it regardless. It’s not about feeding the village or even ending his unlucky streak – it’s about the principle. That same relentless dedication can be seen everywhere from Saving Private Ryan to The Godfather trilogy to 3:10 To Yuma to 12 Angry Men to even The Terminal. While the exact values change (obedience, family, duty, truth, obligation), the message remains the same. A man needs to fight for something, what that might be isn’t important, but he does need to fight. Life’s a battle and a code is your banner. It signifies who you are and what you fight for, and just as with soldiers back in the day, to lose that banner is to lose that battle.

Because a Code Levels the Playing Field

Now for all the melodrama of books and movies, chances are you’re not a rebel or ronin or Maximus-Decimus-Meridius-commander-of-the-Armies-of-the-North-General-of-the-Felix-Legions-loyal-servant-to-the-true-emperor-Marcus-Arelius-father-to-a-mudered-son-husband-to-a-murdered-wife-who-will-have-his-vengeance-in-this-life-or-the-next (though I’m just guessing here). Nevertheless, a code of conduct isn’t just restricted to epic heroes and villains, it’s for all of us. Indeed, one of the most important parts of having a code is that it puts us on equal footing with these great men. A standard of principles means that we’re measuring life not in length or prosperity but in passion, courage, and honesty. Everyone’s got a fair shot at true greatness. The twenty-something grinding away at some dead-end job still has just as much a chance to live with integrity and honor as a billionaire or a rock star. At the end of the day, it turns nobility into something you earn, not something you’re born with.

Just look at anyone who you respect in your life. Chances are they’ll fit this description perfectly. They might be powerful and successful, and they might not be, but what you know for certain is that they’re good and strong people regardless.

Because a Code Keeps Us Honest

We’re living in a comparatively chaotic world with increasingly less social pressure to act or think a certain way. While that freedom is certainly opening the door for plenty of free thought and fresh perspectives, it can be easy to slip into hypocrisy or self-delusion – imagining we’re one thing when we’re actually another. A code, a set of concrete standards which we can objectively understand and vocalize, not only guides us but convicts us. In a world where there’s often no one but ourselves to keep us accountable, our codes serve to keep us on track, or at the very least get us to rethink our most fundamental values.

The Vikings believed that the only way to enter Valhalla, their afterlife, was to die in battle. While that’s probably asking a bit much from modern day men, the core principle is the same: If you were to die right now, would you be proud of what you were doing in the moments before? Would the story of your life match up with what you claimed to have valued?

truth courage honor

Because a Code Forces Us to Evolve

Life’s already hard enough without us drawing lines in the sand, and make no mistake, that’s what having a code means. Sailing with the wind, living by society’s standards rather than your own – that’s all going to be an easier way to live, and having a strict, well-defined code, regardless of what it entails, will eventually put you at odds with the world. That’s not going to be pleasant, but it is going to be good for you. The resulting struggles (if they don’t kill you) will only make you stronger. Character’s like a muscle that it needs to be worked out, and muscle can only be built up after being torn. The only way to strengthen your morality is to force yourself into moral crises, ethical dilemmas, and hard choices, pushing yourself to grapple with these issues.  Let’s be real here, with or without a personal code life’s still going to throw those tough decisions at you – how prepared are going to be? The hard fact of the matter is that we need to get good at being good.

And that sometimes means failure. Even the most strong-willed person is going to fall short of their own standards. That’s simply inevitable, but the good news is that even here, there’s opportunity. Messing up gives us an ability to understand who we are. It can be easy to focus on our strengths, facing our weaknesses, not so much. Still, it’s something that we have to do to grow as human beings. If the commitment’s real we’re going to pick ourselves up again and get right back to it, now armed with the knowledge of how to avoid our past errors.

Because the Code We Make Makes Us

Perhaps most importantly, a code of conduct doesn’t just put us at odds with the world, it helps us overcome it.

In his play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The brave experience death only once.” The idea here is that a betrayal of one’s principles is, in a certain sense, a kind of death. You are not you without the things you believe in. Those words, spoken by Caesar, were in response to his wife’s premonition that something terrible was about to befall him. And indeed, on the Ides of March, Caesar would find himself betrayed by his closest friends and brutally murdered on the floor of the senate.

And in spite of her prophecy he still went. Caesar had built his life on ambition and courage – better to die today with those qualities than years later without them.

While it might sound more appealing to play life by ear (and as mentioned, it’d certainly be easier), a man who takes the path of least resistance isn’t really a man. Being a victim of circumstance, being a slave to random chance – again, that’s not living, or at the very least, not living life to the way it was meant to be lived.

But what happens when we hold on? If we can stick to our guns, no matter what the universe throws at us, whether it’s the forces of nature, the hell of battle, or all the tiny jabs and grinds of daily life, doesn’t that prove that something’s stronger than all that? That the universe can’t just break us?

So really and truly challenge yourself.

Find out what it is that you absolutely care about – what you wouldn’t be you without. Be open to fresh perspectives, whether it’s Bushido, the Boy Scouts, or something more modern. And it doesn’t even have to be sweepingly heroic, just so long as it’s right. Take this simple rule for example: “Never make a promise you don’t have every intention of keeping.”

Of course, holding that principle means anything or nothing unless we stick with it to the bitter end. With that in mind, say you tell a friend you’re going to help him move Saturday but that beautiful girl you’ve been after tells you that she’d like to hang out on the same day. No matter what, you would be forced to sacrifice that date to keep your promise – that’s what makes you a man of principle. No matter how much it inconveniences us (or outright hurts us), we have to stand for something.

Take your time, but when you do get it figured it out, etch it in stone. There’s a fine line between being dedicated and just hard-headed, but if you can walk it there’s nothing in this world that’ll be able to take it from you. Be the kind of person Hemingway would’ve admired: Someone who could be destroyed, but never defeated.

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at


  • Reply February 2, 2015


    “The twenty-something grinding away at some dead-end job still has just as much a chance to live with integrity and honor as a billionaire or a rock star.”
    I’d be willing to bet that the guy grinding away at a dead end job stands a far better chance of actually HAVING integrity and honor than the billionaire or rock star.

    • Reply February 2, 2015

      Bozzington Tribeard


    • Reply June 22, 2015

      James Cook

      Based on what? My personal experience has shown me that truly successful millionaires are known for having impeccable integrity. But that’s just my personal experience. Don’t believe the pictures the media paints.

      • Reply June 22, 2015


        I was taught that integrity is doing what is right, even when no one is watching.
        Millionaires and billionaires don’t become such because of integrity. They become such because they do what they consider to be right for them so that they can reach their end goal.
        I once worked for a privately owned, multimillion dollar manufacturing company. This man was successful in his business and treated his employees well, all employees received a yearly bonus with those most vested received between $25K and $30K. The last year I worked there he reduced the bonus to about one sixth of what he gave all previous years with the excuse being that there was more waste generated for that year than previous years. A few months later we all found out that he was selling the business and the real reason he cut the bonus was to either show a better bottom line for the sale or simply to put that money into his pocket. I don’t blame him. It was his business to run as he saw fit. But, he certainly had no integrity.

        • Reply June 23, 2015

          James Cook

          You share the same definition of integrity as I do. Do you like science? I love science. In science, you conduct experiments and set up controls on variables. If you conduct an experiment and have one result it’s hardly data.

          My experiences are not yours. I grew up poor but had the exceptional opportunity to meet some very wealthy people (even a Forbes) and work for one now. I’ve also, because of my background, have known a lot of impoverished and middle class people. The latter group will cut corner on their taxes, steal cable (when it was possible) and even keep something that wasn’t rung up at the store because it was missed. Does that mean ALL middle-class and impoverished people lack integrity as well?

          For real-world data, I highly recommend “The Millionaire Next Door” and “The Millionaire Mind” both by Thomas Stanley. Both books were birthed from a market research study where they were looking for ways to market to the affluent. The results were not at all what they were expecting. In the Millionaire Mind, they studied Deca-Millionaires and did 360 Surveys (family, friends, employees, coworkers, etc.) and the underlying theme was integrity. Sure there’ll always be the exception as in the case of your employer, but that is an anomaly.

          Until you realize that you can be rich and have high integrity, you can never join their ranks.

          • June 23, 2015


            So, your comes down to you were poor, became rich and you have integrity so other rich people do too?
            How do two books and 360 survey translate into real world data? This is nothing more than the media you told me not to trust. Are they somehow more trustworthy when the message is one that you support?
            You talk about tax shortcuts by the poor. Are the shortcuts taken by the rich fine, simply because they are rich?
            Are the games played on the stock market, utilizing the funds of those who aren’t rich and can’t afford to lose much if any of what they’ve invested, fine simply because they are rich and can afford to absorb losses where the poor can’t? And yes I do understand that market forces are legion but one of those forces is the rich who have enough, either by themselves or together, to drive what they want in the market.
            I do get where you are coming from but I’ll still put my trust in a person who actually has to work for a living before I’ll ever trust a person who has millions of dollars.

          • June 23, 2015

            James Cook

            No – the books were not intended to be book but actual research data collected systematically. The data was so shocking it became a book.

            Games played by CEOs and Wall
            Street executives are about as representative of rich people as Walking Dead is of dead people – in other words: they’re not.

            I’m not rich (yet) but my boss is – I know because I manage his properties. He drives a 10 year old Honda Accord, eats at chain restaurants when he has a coupon, and wears a Timex. This is who the rich are as defined by actual research data – they look like that working guy – they drive tractors, trucks, and collect junk or are often covered in sweat and dirt.

            You are not defining rich people at all but the societal construct of who they are. Most people who drive fancy new Jaguars, Mercedes and fly first class are as broke financially as most blue-collared people: they spend every dime they earn (thus are broke at a much higher level trying to earn significance through status symbols).

            Trust whomever you wish. I consider people as friends who come from all walks of life: those on assistance/SSDI, clerks, blue-collar, white-collar. The people I would not trust are the people who most would think are rich as described. I’ve met a lot of them – people who earn $250 – 900k a year and make sure they look like they do by spending 98%. Those people will do anything for ego and cannot be trusted. I call them pretenders and I have a neighborhood down the street full of them.

            BTW – the average millionaire earns roughly $150-175k a year through a very ordinary looking business operation. They’re harder working than most people who “work for a living” but you’ll never believe me because there’s no way you could ever walk in my shoes.

        • Reply June 18, 2018


          Maybe he saw that he was losing passion for his business and wanted to sell it before he started to hate it. There is nothing wrong with this….at least he still gave a bonus. Just because he used to give stronger bonuses at one point, it’s no indication that he needs to keep doing it. That’s a false sense of entitlement my friend.

          • June 18, 2018


            The lack of integrity comes from the excuse he gave. 3/4 of the employees were directly responsible for production and therefore directly responsible for waste. We did our work well and minimized waste because he took such good care of his employees. We saw that the waste was no higher than previous years.

            As to my sense of entitlement, false or righteous, re-read my original statement. It has nothing at all to do with my or anyone else’s sense of entitlement as you are calling it out. In his lack of integrity he was laying blame on us for losing money when we know we did nothing to lose money.

            Integrity encompasses more than just money my friend. Integrity is, at its root, honesty.

  • Reply February 2, 2015

    Christian Naylor

    Definitely a good Monday morning read.

  • Reply February 2, 2015

    Royal gamble

    After this lecture, I’m ready to pump iron and become the warrior/gentleman I’m supposed to be…

  • Reply February 2, 2015

    Rick McGarry

    Is there something that makes this primarily or exclusively a masculine issue?

    • Reply February 2, 2015


      Don’t know that its uniquely masculine issue, but men may be more prone to neglect this aspect of life. Women tend to be more introspective and share their findings with other women. It not only helps better define there code but also supports a level of accountability to this code. My church recently promoted reaching men and establishing a code (albiet centered from a Christian perspective). The explanation given as to why men, was not because we cared less about women but because men tend to neglect their spiritual life.

  • Reply February 2, 2015


    Love this article. However, if you’re going to quote Shakespeare, QUOTE SHAKESPEARE, not sparknotes.
    “Cowards die many times before their deaths
    The valiant never taste of death but once.”

  • Reply February 5, 2015


    Ernest* Hemingway, not Earnest 🙂

  • Reply May 7, 2015


    I live my life free of the 3 C’s: Cigarettes, Cocaine, & Cheating.

  • Reply June 25, 2015

    Channing Bailey

    Great article! Thanks Gordon.

  • Reply June 5, 2017

    Serafin Nunez

    “In some things in life, there are simply no guarantees. You have to push forward with all you have and make the most of the moment. You have to trust that even if you burn up so much fuel on the way out that you don’t have sufficient energy for the way back, you’ll have yet traveled far enough to have reached another shore. You won’t have to return to where you started. You’ll have opened a new possibility for your life.”

  • Reply June 30, 2017

    Yash Dhopawkar

    Great article Gordon. Gave me a completely new perspective to living life. Cheers.

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