Mark Twain once remarked that everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Human character can seem a little like that - familiar but vaguely beyond our grasp. There is no higher praise we can give a person than to say they have good character. But what, really does that mean? What makes this quality so essential to achieving personal success and fulfillment? More important, how can we build our own character and live more satisfying lives?
In this article I will explain a perspective on the meaning of character and place a call for greater cultivation in ourselves, in our co-workers, in our neighbors, and in our children.
Suppose for a moment that YOU were responsible for picking a principal for your kid's school, an executive to run one of your companies, a pastor to lead your church, or a coach to teach your little leaguers, what one exceptional characteristic would this person absolutely have to possess? Would it be good-looking, Ivy League education, athletic, good negotiator, sharp dresser, creative mind... or would it be extraordinary character?
My guess is a solid character would head that list. When we have to relate to, work with, and depend upon someone, nothing is more important than personal ethical virtues like honor, reliability, trustworthiness, and kindness.
More than 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus accurately stated that "character is destiny." History is largely known to us through the acts, thoughts and spoken words of great heroes whose character shaped their times. But as important as it is to understand how powerful character is in influencing events, it is of greater importance to recognize how powerful we are in molding our own character and, therefore, in controlling our destiny. Character may indeed determine our fate, but character is not determined by fate.
Character is a Choice
Character is often thought of as something fully formed and permanently fixed early in life. This belief implies that we have very little to do with who we are, that what we call character is essentially a composite of hereditary tendencies and temperaments, and environmentally imposed values and attitudes.
This fatalistic notion must be challenged as exercising good character is a choice. There is no doubt that the good and bad habits that become our virtues and vices are strongly influenced by both our inheritance and environment. But in no sense is anyone predestined to be good or bad, nor is a person's character permanently fixed by external circumstances.
Describing a person's character is like taking inventory of that person's habits of thought and action at a particular time. Of course it's not easy to change our ways as our habits of heart and mind are well entrenched, rooted in durable dispositions and beliefs. Yet just as a mountain is constantly being reshaped by weather, our character can be reformed by our choices. Our human capacity to reason and choose makes the formation of our character an ongoing, lifelong process.
Each moment of each day we can choose to be different. Each day we can decide to change our attitudes, reevaluate and rerank our values, and exercise a higher level of self-control to modify our behavior.
Yes, character is the cause of our actions, and it is also the result or effects of our actions. As Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do." Hence the power to control our actions is the power to control our character, and the power to control our character is the power to control our lives.
Everything we do and say ultimately arises from and reveals our character. In addition to a proper concern for improving our own character, we should also care for the character of others. If we know a person's character, we can better predict how he or she is likely to respond to temptation, adversity and success. It helps us make better judgments when we know the character of the people we date and marry, do business with, and elect as our political leaders.
In recent years, public discussion about the character of various politicians, business executives, journalists, sports stars, and even children has dominated national media coverage. It would be a mistake to underestimate the profound impact on our national consciousness of stories of unspeakable acts of violence and callousness by youngsters and of the never-ending barrage of scandals among high-profile leaders and celebrities.
More and more we are called upon to evaluate individuals and understand events in terms of character. A person who has good character is thought to be especially worthy, virtuous, or admirable in terms of moral qualities. In fact, the three qualities that are essential to good character are:
The lessons of value and good character must be purposeful, pervasive, repetitive, consistent, concrete, and creative. Children have to see their parents performing kind and decent acts as they learn to become virtuous, kind, and brave - by seeing those things modeled and then by demonstrating them in their own life.
Like most parents, I care deeply about the kind of people my children will become, and I want to be worthy of their pride and emulation. As a father, everything I say, do, demand and permit, takes on special importance because with my every word and action, I fulfill or fail my duties as a role model and teacher.
This means I have to get pretty serious about character -- my character, my children's character, the character of the people my children play with, and who they eventually date and marry. Looking at the world through the lens of parental love and duty, I've become quite judgmental. I want my kids and the people they associate with to be good, decent people - trustworthy, respectful, responsible, caring, and fair.
My parental perspective has not only fueled my desire to improve my own character; it has also clarified my thinking about right and wrong. Now, when I face an ethical temptation or dilemma, I envision my kids looking over my shoulder, and I try to do the thing that best supports the moral lessons I've tried to teach them.
In my business as a professional coach and consultant, I come across people who often have rationalizations for their less than ethical behavior. No matter the person, company or situation, I've found that the parental perspective is the most powerful tool I have to cut through these rationalizations and to help influence change.
Four Important Questions
Would you behave any differently if you looked at your choices in reference to the following questions?
I'll close with this brilliant observation by Edward Everett Hale: