On Being A Good Person

Nihanth Subramanya
3 min readMar 11, 2021


This week I paid a visit to my building’s garbage area in the courtyard, only to find that my key wouldn’t work to open the fence gate (yes, I tried whatever I could to get it open) and ultimately I had to return to my apartment with my bags of trash.

This whole mini-experience ticked me off rather disproportionately, not in the least because I was planning to go for a walk after dropping off my bags. Further than that though, when the time came to decide I had to go back home, my mind lingered on the idea of leaving the trash there at the gate, just as I’d seen others had done in the past. And the icing on the cake: walking back with my bags still in hand, for some reason, felt like a walk of shame, in spite of a lack of any rational reason to feel shameful.

I clenched my jaw and went back home; this really simple, seemingly mundane chore should not have been so emotional. It’s got me thinking a lot about littering, people who litter, the psychology behind it, and why some cities manage to stay clean and some don’t.

I’m fairly convinced that this kind of thing is evidence (if evidence is even needed) that humans are by nature easily corrupted, and require layers upon layers of systems — at the cultural as well as civic and personal levels — to keep themselves “good”. And now that I’ve ridden this train of thought this far I figured I’d write a bit about some ideas to implement for keeping myself “good” at the personal level.

  1. If you don’t like something about yourself, pinpoint the contexts in which the behavior manifests. Identify patterns of experience and environment.
  2. Establish personal policies for how to deal with such contexts. Don’t leave it up to yourself to make decisions in the present. Leverage the policy to enable you to be better — “Sorry, I have a policy on this”. Should your actions be called into question, direct the criticism at your policy, which is impersonal and can be changed, rather than at yourself.
  3. Try and build simple stories around what causes you to behave in a way you don’t like, why you behave one way and not the other, and why you don’t like it. We’re social creatures and storytelling is an important part of implementing change.
  4. Negotiate. With yourself, with others. Don’t let yourself forever indulge the fear of confrontation and accept that which is given to you without representing yourself adequately, because a lot of it is unjust (justice is something that’s implemented; a topic for another day) and you will build up resentment. Resentment leads to disregard, negativity, and nihilism, which leads to behaviors you don’t like.
  5. Regulate your vices. I think there’s a place for some indulgence, so as not to become a tightly wound, disagreeable, and altogether unlikable character from all the rigor and policy making. But it’s got to stay regulated — vices are something I allow myself, which means they’re disallowed by default.
  6. Practice (yes, practice, as in do it a lot) forgiveness. Practically speaking, failure to behave in a way that you like should be interpreted as a systemic issue, and an indication of work that needs to be done — not as a testament to your nature as a person.
  7. Share your policies and stories! A huge part of keeping yourself accountable is keeping others around you accountable. Knowing others had left their garbage lying around astronomically increased my own inclination to do so. Corruption is viral.