The Importance of Keeping a Moral Ledger

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Today’s post deviates a bit from the norm. I’ve been reading quite a bit about history and Stoicism in particular. A few concepts are sticking out like this idea of a moral ledger. So, let’s explore and start with a story!

In September of 1855, John D. Rockefeller landed his first job after spending weeks searching high and low for work. Shortly therafter, he purchased a small red-covered notebook referred to forever after as “Ledger A.”

The eventual business titan kept scrupulous notes for every transaction and tracked everything down to the cent. Many years later, he acknowledged the importance the book held:

I haven’t seen this book for twenty-five years. You couldn’t get it from me for all the modern ledgers in New York and what they all would bring in.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

One can posit many reasons why Ledger A held such importance. Rockefeller was fascinated by money since a young age. The book also marked the start of his professional career and his self-sufficiency in life.

More than that though, ledgers represented a hedge against fallible emotion and a tool to aid in decision-making. They grounded the idea of business in a firm reality of additions and subtractions.

We can appreciate Rockefeller’s attention to detail when it came to bookkeeping, but this attention to detail expanded beyond accounting into the moral realm. I found the moral aspects far more interesting and applicable to the present day.

As Ron Chernow discusses in Titan, Rockefeller lived through a period of glorified spending and acquiring in America. “A contradictory impulse was at work: People were spurring themselves to excel but also trying to curb their insatiable appetites in the new competitive economy.” The moral ledger was one tool used to keep the desire for acquiring new things within the moral goal posts.

Similar to an accounting ledger, the moral ledger was a way to keep track of how well one’s actions aligned with their desired behavior. Rockefeller wasn’t unique in this approach either. Benjamin Franklin famously tracked his everyday virtues and vices in a notebook, which he discusses in his autobiography. Centuries earlier, Marcus Aurelius kept a personal journal (later published as Meditations) wherein he kept moral lessons at the forefront and recorded transgressions in an effort to learn from them. I keep a related quote from Aurelius in front of my computer:

Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself

Marcus Aurelius

The obvious question is: Why? Because we’re fallible human beings.

If we don’t keep reminders front and center, if we don’t consistently reflect on our actions, there’s a good chance we won’t show up how we desire. We’ll make mistakes, but through careful and consistent introspection, we can course correct. As Epictetus stated, “Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person stretching to avoid error.”

What does a moral ledger look like in the 21st century? You’re probably not carrying around a small book and recording your daily actions although kudos if you are. Here are some other things to try if you’re looking to keep this type of thinking front of mind:

  • Use social media to your advantage. Follow people that embody the thoughts and actions you want to embody yourself. Social apps are often criticized, but they can be used for good too.
  • Surround yourself with friends that force you to reflect and hold you to a higher standard. Ask them to checkin with you monthly and have a frank discussion.
  • Set a daily reminder in your phone at 6AM. Make it a simple statement about how you want to live or what you want to achieve. Look at it every day when you wake up.
  • Build in time for reflection (weekly, monthly, or quarterly). Otherwise, we’re likely to get caught in the hustle of the everyday.
  • Spend 5-10 minutes reflecting or consuming content each day that challenges you in a certain aspect. This is exactly what I use the Daily Stoic daily email for.

Identifying where we want to head, or in this case, the values we want to embody. Making notes of our behavior. Reflecting regularly. Making adjustments.

This is how we improve.

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