Character: what is it, and why is it important?

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Character: what is it, and why is it important? Here is my attempt to answer these age-old questions.

What is character?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines character as “the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves : someone’s personality.” Well, that encompasses everything that a person is. Perhaps that is why people have a such a difficult time describing character. It’s the proverbial elephant that is described differently depending on what part people touch. Some call it social-emotional learning, and positive psychologists have broken it down into a 24-trait list which also appears as a shorter 7-trait list.

I am interested in how people can improve their lives through character building. Breaking things into components improves our knowledge of character but not necessarily our ability to build it. This is because most people don’t go around thinking, “I’ll work on wisdom today and justice and transcendence tomorrow.” They simply live, gathering experiences as they go, and these experiences reinforce different traits and habits simultaneously and often unconsciously. This raises the question of whether character can truly be taught, which I will address in a future article.

In light of the above, I thought that I’d try a different approach. People may not think of individual traits, skills, and habits, but they do set goals. Goals shape experiences, and experiences shape character. Reflecting upon my own experiences, I came up with the following three goals that anyone can strive toward and, in so doing, acquire most of the skills and traits found on the lists mentioned above (italicized):

Exploration – When you explore, you are curious and open to new experiences, people, and ways of thinking. This changes everything. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” When you interact with people very different from yourself, you develop social intelligence, become aware of your strengths and limitations, and understand that collaboration is necessary to achieve great things. You may have strong opinions of your own, but you become a willing listener–empathetic, fair, and respectful of others even if you disagree (all hallmarks of good leadership). This is because you have a growth mindset. Your mind is not set in stone, and you love to learn because you are always looking to improve yourself.

As you build diverse experiences and understand how things fit together, you become comfortable with ambiguity and complexity. You gain perspective (wisdom) which helps you better understand what you can and cannot control (acceptance), appreciate what you have (gratitude),  and recognize that there are many ways of doing things (creativity). Perspective can also inspire a sense of awe, spirituality, and/or belonging.

Integrity – When a person is said to have integrity, it is often said that he is “true to himself.” What does this mean, exactly? It means that he knows himself, what he believes in and why–a self-knowledge born of sound judgment (critical thinking). He courageously lives his beliefs despite the obstacles and/or lack of reward because his beliefs are central to who he is. He is intrinsically motivated–a self-starter who does not require the threat of punishment to do why he feels is “right.” He stays true to himself by being honest, prudent, and disciplined (self-regulating). 

Craftsmanship – When you set your heart and mind to something, it becomes your craft. Your passion (zest) compels you to do whatever it takes to perfect your craft. You will learn whatever skills are needed and are not afraid to ask for help because it’s not about you (humility), it’s about the craft. You persevere (show grit) because you have faith (hope) in the “process.” As long as you strive for excellence, the results will come. As you master your craft, you can’t help but find interesting or better ways to do things (creativity).

As you can imagine, character takes time–and a lot of work–to develop. Why bother?

Why is character important?

Bad news first. People will tell you that character is essential to living a happy, productive, and successful life. This is true–if you adopt the appropriate definitions of these terms. The truth is that character neither makes you money nor guarantees that you will live a trouble-free life. Just look at history. Many “high character” figures–people we’ve come to admire–were poor, mistreated, and produced few works.

Okay…so, what’s the good news? These same historical figures were also happy, productive, and successful. They were happy because they were “in the flow” as they pursued their passions and/or principles.

Happiness is not a goal but a feeling of contentment (often upon reflection) of a life lived purposefully. “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same has been said of success. In his landmark work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote the following:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Success is not fame, money, or critical acclaim–although these can accompany it–success is self actualization. You are successful when you live to the best of your abilities. You are productive when you produce any work in pursuit of success. It’s not about quantity but quality. It’s not about acclaim but authenticity. Marcel Proust toiled in obscurity for most of his life on a single work, In Search of Lost Time, yet that work is considered a masterpiece. It has influenced countless people across space and time and will no doubt continue to do so. Can you say the same of any bestseller today?

The big picture

We’ve talked about the importance of character on the personal level; now, let’s look at the big picture. Why is character important for society and humanity? It’s a matter of justice. In The Republic, Plato wrote that justice is “the having and doing of one’s own and what belongs to oneself.” If everyone did this, he believed, we would have a just state. There would be order, harmony, because people would be where they belonged and doing what they should be doing. There would be less envy, crime, etc. Perhaps this notion is a bit too idealistic, but it does have a certain appeal, doesn’t it?

Our society is very different from Plato’s Republic. It is a materialistic place where money is often the measure of all things. This is problematic because money can’t buy love or happiness or anything, really, that provides lasting satisfaction. Can you remember the last time you bought something that made you happy for a significant amount of time? For any given thing, there are dozens of options, and the bigger, better deal is always around the corner. Choice is a good thing when you know what you want or need. Unfortunately, most people don’t. Instead, they suffer “paralysis by analysis” and gladly abdicate their free will by letting the market tell them what is wanted or needed. Left to its own devices, the market tells us some rather interesting things. For example, CEOs are vastly more valuable than the general populace, easily worth hundreds of us in terms of salary. Do we all agree with this? Is this justice?

If we want a different brand of justice, we must know our values, live them, and inspire others to join us. This requires character. If we want to exercise our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need character. Capitalism may have its flaws, but there is also a tendency for excellence to rise to the top. If you are the best at what you do–whatever it is–there is a decent chance that you will be recognized for it. Does it always happen? No, but it happens enough to encourage people to do what they love.

“Do what you love” has become a sort of truism, but it’s still true. It sounds so easy, but really, it’s very hard. People will yell at you, plead with you, call you stupid for wasting your life. In order to succeed, to be happy, you must be brave, resilient, disciplined…you must have character.

If you take away nothing else of this article, remember this:

Character makes it possible to do what you love, and love makes the world a more beautiful and just place for us all.

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