When I was 24 and writing restaurant reviews for NY Press, I was poor. I hadn't made it as a writer (lots of people were reading me, but the paper was paying less than $100 per article), and my music career, never a huge moneymaker, was in a stagnant phase. Late one night, I was with my girlfriend, who worked as a waitress in a tiny cafe I'd reviewed some months earlier (before she worked there). She was closing up the place, and we were the only people there. I was quite hungry, but had no money, and neither did she (it had been a slow night and her rent was due the next day). She offered me a muffin, and pleaded with me to eat it. No one, after all, would ever know.
I have to say: I really wanted that muffin. I wanted it out of all proportion. I wanted it nearly as much as I've ever wanted anything. But it defied my reviewer ethics to accept favors from restaurants, period. So I refused the muffin and went to bed hungry.
Since then, whenever life has presented the opportunity to bend my values to gain an advantage or to somehow smooth my way, I recall the muffin. And I realize that if I were to bend in the slightest, it would make a mockery of 24 year-old me, who chose to take a stand even on such a trivial, easily-rationalized issue. He doesn't deserve that!
While I can't claim to have lived 100% ethically (or 100% anything) since then, I've at least tried to the best of my imperfect ability. Not because I'm so extremely ethical, though. It's simply because I was extremely ethical once, and the psychic pain endured (if you've ever gone to bed hungry, you understand) would have been for naught if I were ever to cross that line. I can't bring myself to say "Stupid kid, shoulda just eaten the goddam muffin!" I honor his action, and so I'm held hostage to his precedent.
The interesting thing is that, from my perspective as an old dude looking back, I realize that if all my principled stands had been ditched in favor of easy gain, I wouldn't have gained all that much. Some things may have worked out more my way, but the benefits (e.g. being known to be good for my word, a handy perq) have outweighed the lost opportunities.
The crux of any hard-won bit of wisdom inevitably boils down to some sappy cliche or other. But it's true: crime doesn't pay. Not crime in terms of disobedience, but in terms of defying one's conscience. It's not the winning move in the long run. I've never met anyone who's consistently lived with integrity and who regrets it.
It's never too late to set oneself a precedent, either.