A gentlemen’s guide to being a man in the 21st century
“There is one rule, above all others, for being a man. Whatever comes, face it on your feet.”
— Lan Mandragoran, The Wheel of Time
Several years ago, I found myself plagued by a question that stumped fellow men. So broad — and confusing — were the responses to the lone question that it spawned a viral article over my own laments about manhood. That question, however, never resolved, and three years later, the responses got even murkier. The answer I wanted resolved from my fellow men was, “where did you learn to be a man?”
The problem — and even more so today — is that the responses became tangential. As in, “Do you mean like who taught me how to change the oil in my car? Or how to tie a tie? Or how to fight? Or love football?” One guy recently told me he grew up without a dad so he didn’t really learn to be a “man.” His statement garnered head nods from other men in the room. What he said next, however, impressed upon me the depth of his emotional awareness and the sad state of affairs for many men.
“Because I didn’t have a dad, I joined the Army,” he said. “And from there, I collected sergeants and officers as my father figures. Most of them were just as confused as I was because they grew up without male role models, either. So I became an amalgamation of their character flaws and virtues.”
His statement hit me harder than expected, but dug into an ongoing conversation that runs undercurrent in our society: What is masculinity? Who teaches it? What does it look like? Why does it matter?
Most online discussions have revolved around buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” plus the failures, shortcomings, and flaws of the modern man. Every essayist with a following, op-ed writer, or scorned lover has a hot take about “toxic masculinity” ever since the term arrived. There’s just a problem with the term — it uses an adjective as a modifier to explain problems with masculinity. The actual issue is that no one has a clue what the hell masculinity actually is. We’re able to point to traits we deem deplorable and say they’re a form of “toxic masculinity,” yet by definition masculinity has to have its own set of characteristics, thus making the term toxic somewhat redundant. If it isn’t masculinity, then it simply isn’t masculinity.
Food — by definition — isn’t toxic. It’s only when it’s spoiled or become infected with bacteria that it becomes so. But if you don’t know what food is, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between what’s nutritional and what’s spoiled meat. For all you know, every sort of food could be toxic. That’s the approach we’ve taken with the term masculinity, and — as stated — no one is talking about the defining traits of what masculinity is. We have ideas, sure, but most of them revolve around machismo and topics like fast cars, bench pressing heavy weight, and girls, which is rather silly. Instead, we should be asking “what are the hallmarks of a gentleman throughout history?” What traits that have remained timeless and not aged with whim and fancy?
Looking through that lens, I’ve found four timeless traits that represent masculinity and that (I believe) most would agree are the earmarks of a good man.
Trait 1: Character and integrity
“Character is destiny.”
People have wondered why modern veterans are killing themselves at endemic rates. Consider the following. In the military, you’re surrounded by men and women who would gladly take a bullet for you. Then you reintegrate into a world where your boss lets everyone at the company catch the proverbial shrapnel to make an extra buck. However, in the military, everyone has your back, and we live by the adage that “leaders eat last.” In our current society, no one has your back but trample each other to get ahead. That’s a rough spot to be in when you’re taught integrity and sacrifice, but your CEO is making hand over fist money while using cutthroat tactics or treating employees like they’re disposable. I’ve never heard a CEO say, “No thanks, I don’t need that raise, bonus, or salary bump. Let me take care of my employees.” Bezos, Musk, and the richest politicians and CEOs in the world don’t do it and there’s a simple explanation why: they lack character and integrity.
A gentleman, on the other hand, is a man refined by the hallmarks of character and integrity. Their life showcases they care about people over profit. They do the right thing, even when it’s hard and unpopular. They emulate personal courage and will take it on the chin when the time comes. They’re not entitled rage monsters or believe they’re owed more for their hard work. Instead, they’re thought well of by their community because they aim to make life better for all, not just themselves. Show me a man with character and integrity, and I’ll show you a man who’s respected by others.
Trait 2: Wisdom
Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
And the man who gains understanding;
For her proceeds are better than the profits of silver,
And her gain than fine gold.
She is more precious than rubies,
And all the things you may desire cannot compare with her.
Length of days is in her right hand,
In her left hand riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
And all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her,
And happy are all who retain her.
— King Solomon, Proverbs 3:13–18
Historians and philosophers widely consider King Solomon as one of the wisest men who ever lived. In his instruction manual to his sons — The Book of Proverbs — he repeatedly harps on the idea that pursuing wisdom is a cornerstone to being a man. In chapter after chapter, he harkens back to the idea that wisdom prolongs life, allows you to choose wise friends and business partners, and helps you avoid less than reputable men and women. Wisdom, however, seems in sharp decline. After all, when was the last time you overheard someone remark about a group of men, “they’re so wise!”
A simple thought experiment will show you the utter lack of wisdom in our society. Is it wise to continually get on dating apps and never commit? Is it wise to spend your time binging Netflix or gaming? Is it wise to eat junk food and not exercise? Is it wise to spend all your time on social media? Is it wise to be known for anger and vanity?
Each of those questions is a simple “no” and is yet what many lament regarding the state of the world (or character flaws in men). Wisdom, however, is knowledge applied. While we may grasp what’s best for our brains, body, career, or relationships, there’s a stark difference between applying it and simply accumulating knowledge. Some of the most vainglory people are those with endless knowledge, yet cannot seem to apply it, and we despise them for it. However, with ancient philosophers like Solomon and Plato, we see wisdom applied. Wise men know when to tame their tongue, when to walk away, and when to run into battle. But a fool — as the Proverbs teach — returns to his folly like a dog to vomit.
Trait 3: Tempered strength
“There arrives that moment at which soft speaking should be abandoned and a fight to the end undertaken. Any man who hopes to exercise leadership must be ready to meet the requirements face to face when it arises; unless he is ready to fight when necessary, people will finally begin to ignore him.”
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
A phrase I heard repeated during my years in martial arts is one by Master Gichin Funakoshi: “Karate ni sente nashi,” or “There is no first attack in karate.” A Master like Funakoshi could have easily destroyed men who insulted him, yet used tempered strength to avoid violence. However, should the day arrive in which evil men bring violence before the karate fighter, he must act. Sadly, men choose violence in an attempt to prove strength instead of the quiet, tempered strength of humility. As I’ve said often in other pieces, humility is strength under control.
Like the opening quote to this essay, tempered strength requires that when hardship and adversity come, you face it on your feet, not kissing the ring of some tyrant, unethical boss, or bowing in cowardice. Instead, you keep your strength in check, but when the time comes for a fight, you put a stop to evil. This is partially why I never talk trash on my wife… ever. I meet far too many men who dunk on their spouse or significant during a night out with the boys. I shut that crap down if I’m with a group of guys because it’s wrong. There’s nothing strong or tempered about taking the coward’s way out. Deal with your frustration at home or humbly speaking with your significant other because — in truth — you sound like a whiny child. Going back to the theme of wisdom, it’s important to find other tempered men who you can address problem areas in relationship, career, or otherwise in order to reach resolutions. They also can help you decide whether it’s time to take a stand or let something slide.
Trait 4: Emotional awareness and intelligence
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.”
There’s been an idea that’s permeated throughout much of the 19th century that men are required to keep a stiff upper lip or be a stoic robot with no emotion. There’s been a backlash to this mindset in the 21st century in which everything seems to be dominated by emotion. Having a hard day? Check out and pamper yourself. Feel offended by an opinion? Then you are. Emotional awareness and intelligence, however, teach us that our emotions are valid, but not everything is in our control and how we feel isn’t the center of the universe. It’s both/and that allows us to be emotionally available and practice empathy, but also know when emotions — like rage — will do more harm than good.
The best way I can explain this is with the relationship with my wife. There are days in which I feel I don’t want to be married or that I’m not in love with my wife. And yet, feelings can be a fever, and they’ll pass. My spouse and I might have gotten into a fight or I’m just feeling blah. Emotional intelligence and regulation helps you regulate what to ignore and what’s valid. Instead, many people act like an old scene from the Jim Carey movie, Bruce Almighty. In the scene, Bruce, acting as God, grants everyone their prayers, but it turns out to be a living hell. Many men and women now just assume all their feelings are valid when they’re not. Or they take that old approach and stuff their emotions, never letting their kids see their tears or learn from their mistakes. You can be angry, and still not be a dick. You can shed tears and not be a “pussy” (just look at Medal of Honor recipients talking about friends they lost). It’s the ability to hold both and know which makes you a more of a man, and not less of one.
Becoming a gentleman
It’s vital to remember that change comes through example and positive reinforcement. That’s why alcoholics in the 12-Steps don’t get blasted for being alcoholics. They’re shown a model and example even as they struggle to get better.
A gentle man becomes so, not because he’s been shouted down by a mob, but because others have shown him a better path by wiser men. Being a man has nothing to do with physical prowess, though strength is important. It has nothing to do with changing a tire, though life skills are vital. Instead, the timeless and ancient hallmarks of men throughout history teach us exactly how to step into virtue and put away vice.
We’ve been focusing for far too long on what masculinity isn’t.
Perhaps now is the time we do.