I grew up in the hills of Los Gatos, California. Our family was blessed to have a home with a view of Silicon Valley and endless woods in the backyard.
I built treehouses and fashioned rope swings to play Tarzan of the Jungle. There were blue belly lizards to play with, deer who ambled through our property, and raccoons, squirrels, and skunks who visited regularly.
It was an idyllic place to grow up, except for one problem. There were no other kids around. The homes in our area were spread out and separated by woods and long, steep driveways.
Fortunately, my mother struck up a conversation one day with a neighbor down the street. Mom discovered that the neighbor had a son the same age as me, and arrangements were made for us to meet. I guess today you’d call it a “play date.” The boy’s name was Steven, and we soon became fast friends.
Taking the moral high ground
Steven and I played in the woods, tossed frisbees, rode bikes, and swam at the local health club. We visited each other’s homes and were nearly inseparable.
Steven and I attended different schools, where we met new friends. Sometimes we invited these new friends to our birthday parties. I remember feeling awkward when Steven’s school friends were around because I didn’t know them. I’m sure Steven felt the same way with my school friends.
Steven developed a friendship with a school buddy named Jason. One year, Steven celebrated his birthday by attending a carnival with Jason. For whatever reason, I was not invited.
I remember feeling angry and hurt and told my father that I would not invite Steven to my birthday party. Dad, in his infinite wisdom, told me the following:
“You should do the opposite, Johnny. You should invite Steven to your birthday party. He’s your friend and it would be small of you to exclude him. It’s called ‘taking the moral high ground.’ Who knows why Steven didn’t invite you to his birthday party. Sometimes three is a crowd. Better to not worry about it and invite him to your birthday. Show him you value his friendship.”
I stewed about it for a few more days, but in the end, I took Dad’s advice. I had a birthday party with several friends, including Steven, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I was glad I invited Steven, and our friendship continued into adulthood.
“The thing, in general, about being a good person is just do the right thing as often as possible.” -Sami Zayn
A strong foundation
My father was a wise man. He knew that shaping a young man’s character begins with a strong foundation. It’s nice to save for your children’s college years, but the most important investment happens when your kids are young.
Making time to teach small lessons about character, ethics, forgiveness, and doing the right thing, all help shape a child’s character. My father and mother both understood this, but it wasn’t always easy, because correcting behavior can sometimes invite conflict.
My parents called me on being petty or selfish. They asked me how I’d like to be treated. They showed me, time and again, that life is sweeter when you choose to be a good person. Taking the high road may not be easy, I was taught, but you like yourself better when you do.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt
When I was a teenager, I envied friends whose parents were laissez-faire. These friends always had late or no curfews and seemed able to do whatever they wanted. I didn’t appreciate how the restricted freedoms my parents placed on me kept me out of trouble. Further, the hands-on approach of my parents reflected their love for me, and their desire to raise a well-adjusted young man.
The love, structure, life lessons, and involvement of my parents were blessings that molded my personality, character, and virtues. Through their guidance and teaching, I learned how to handle jealousy, disappointment, anger, and desire. Together, all of these things helped shape an important success quality that served me well my entire life.
All eyes will be on you
Fast-forward many years and I’m now a young police sergeant during a Lieutenant’s promotional exam. My competition is a fellow sergeant with the same educational background as me. Unfortunately, he has a bit more experience and seniority.
I studied hard for the exam, which included research essays, comprehensive oral boards, and a professional assessment of my career accomplishments. I felt good about every step of the promotional process, especially the last oral board. I could just tell that I knocked it out of the park.
At the end of the week, an announcement was made, and I found out that my competitor was selected to be the next Lieutenant. My heart sank. I remember complaining to my father, sharing my disappointment.
“Did you shake the new Lieutenant’s hand and congratulate him?” my father asked.
“Not yet, I just found out today about the results,” I told my Dad.
“Johnny, people judge you more by how you handle defeat than how you handle victory. All eyes will be on you. Go shake this guy’s hand, congratulate him, and tell him if you can do anything to help him succeed, you’re happy to help.”
Dad smiled, adding, “Also, if they have a promotional party, be sure to go and celebrate.”
Even in my adulthood, Dad was shaping my character with sound life lessons. I took his advice, congratulated my competitor, and showed up at his promotional party. I also made a point of supporting the new Lieutenant and helping him succeed.
I thought being a good sport and displaying a gracious attitude would be difficult, but it wasn’t. I felt good about it. I knew I was doing the right thing.
Years later that Lieutenant and I would square off once in a promotional process for Chief of Police. That time around, I won the promotion. The Lieutenant congratulated me, attended my promotional party, and stuck around a few more years to help me succeed.
I’d like to say I witnessed this same kind of gracious behavior with everyone in the police department, but I can’t. Some sulked after unsuccessful promotional exams. Other’s offered weak congratulations, and sometimes even worked to undermine the newly promoted person. Such people lacked one of the most important success qualities:
When I was Chief of Police, I looked for two essential qualities in hiring new police officers and emergency dispatchers: integrity and emotional maturity. Experience taught me that emotionally mature people tended to base their decisions on character rather than feelings.
Emotionally mature people avoided petty office politics and gossip. They held themselves to high standards and generally were happier and more successful at work.
Seek to fix the problem
During my law enforcement career, I witnessed my fair share of emotionally immature people. You’ve probably dealt with them in your work, too.
They’re the ones who complain to anyone about perceived injustices at work. They’re the ones who talk behind the backs of others, rather than resolving differences directly. They’re the ones who gossip and peddle conspiracy theories. They’re the ones who blame others, engage in passive-aggressive antics, spread negativity, and seldom take responsibility for their actions.
In short, emotionally immature people tend to be childish.
An article in TheRoot.com defined emotional maturity this way:
“Emotional maturity is the ability to handle situations without unnecessarily escalating them. Instead of seeking to blame someone else for their problems or behavior, emotionally mature people seek to fix the problem or behavior. They accept accountability for their actions.”
My parents taught me that when you confront a disappointment or obstacle in your life, you shouldn’t waste time complaining about it or throwing a pity party. Better to learn from the experience and find positive solutions. Don’t whine about the unfairness of it all, work around obstacles and get on with your life.
The fact is, no one wants to hear your tale of woe (except for other emotionally immature people who seem to feed off of negativity). People may smile and appear to commiserate with you when really they are thinking less of you.
The article in TheRoot.com goes on to note:
“Emotionally mature people don’t lie in uncomfortable situations. Rather, they face the reality of them head-on. In a disagreement, they don’t resort to personal attacks; they address the issue being discussed. They are not impulsive and they don’t speak recklessly. They make sure they are calm and think before they speak.”
I noticed that the people who succeeded (and often promoted to positions of leadership) in my career were the ones with emotional maturity. For some, their emotional maturity was a byproduct of having great parents. But I knew others with strong emotional maturity despite having come from difficult childhoods.
Only the wise seek wisdom
Emotional maturity can be learned, despite one’s background. Here are five suggestions to help you develop your emotional maturity.
Emotionally mature people constantly seek ways to improve themselves. They seek honest criticism from others, rather than fish for compliments. They read about and study effective people, to learn their habits and success secrets. Emotionally mature people adopt habits and routines that maximize their time and positive outcomes.
See problems as opportunities
Emotionally mature people accept that problems are a never-ending part of life. Rather than run from their problems, emotionally mature people research and find the best solutions. Then they tackle their problems head-on. They may not solve all their problems perfectly, but they learn from them.
“Those things that hurt, instruct.” -Benjamin Franklin
Most people seek the path of least resistance. They put off dealing with hard things. Emotionally mature people do the opposite. They delay gratification and focus on the hard stuff first. If you’re wondering why that sculpted guy at the gym looks better than you, it’s because he endures more workouts and probably eats better than you do. He delays the gratification of lounging on the couch to achieve his fitness goals. Learn to delay gratification, and you’ll find greater success too.
If you want to develop emotional maturity, try putting yourself in the shoes of other people. Whether your boss, spouse or even a homeless person on the street. Emotionally mature people tend to be empathetic.
An article in Hackspirit.com notes:
“Someone’s ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes means that they can position themselves in different situations, understand a variety of challenges, and get along with people during difficult times.”
Emotionally mature people accept that they don’t know everything, and seek qualified instruction to help themselves grow. Arrogance and a know it all attitude are the enemies of personal growth.
“A mature person is teachable. They don’t presume they have all the answers. The wiser they get the more they realize they need more wisdom. They’re not ashamed of seeking counsel from adults (teachers, parents, coaches) or from other sources. Only the wise seek wisdom.”
Looking back, all those early life lessons from my parents set the stage for my emotional maturity. I learned the importance of taking the moral high ground and doing the right thing.
Not that I’m perfect. I still make mistakes and stumble at times. Even the best of us can fall victim to our emotions. However, when you develop emotional maturity, you start to make fewer mistakes and find success more often than not.
Embrace the five suggestions listed above, study emotionally mature people you admire, and hone your emotional development. If you want success in your work and relationships, focus on developing emotional maturity. Doing so will make you a happier, more efficient and well-adjusted person.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest essays and artwork.
This article originally appeared on Medium.