Recently I read or heard that until the 1930’s, most self development dealt with the development desirable character traits such as honesty, friendliness, generosity, discipline and integrity. Then the tone of this literature changed from working on one’s self to working with other types of people to meet your ends, such as what we read in Dale Carnegie’s, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Later, new branches of psychology emerged dealing with reading people’s actions and noticing how they moved, perhaps their facial tics, to reveal what they are really thinking and feeling. This proved to be, as poker players already knew, a great insight into the human psyche as well as an excellent sales technique. Instead of achieving success and happiness by developing positive character traits, success could also come from learning what to say and how to say it in order to soar up the ladder of success.
For many years, this became the dominant strategy of personal success. Books that dealt with how to dress, how to speak, how to manage people, and how to get people to like you, were popular. They dealt with being the person the other person wanted you to be; ‘looking good’ on the outside, and not worrying too much about the inside. The maxim ‘Know thyself’, became ‘Know the other guy’; one achieved success in life by figuring out the other person. Initially this strategy worked well because ‘being of good character’ was part of a person’s education and upbringing. However, the rise of the ‘individual’ and ‘egocentric thinking’ has resulted less emphasis on character traits and in some people using the new psychology to manipulate and abuse people. I can be a knave with no principles but do very well in life because I understand how to get people to do what I want them to do, and give them what they want.
And while these principles of success lead to money, real estate and big toys for some, for others, all the wealth, prestige and trappings of success that were generated were hollow; a circle of paper with a flashlight shining upon it is not the moon. Many saw that they had no substance.
The substance that they were lacking is character.
I believe that if something is to ‘look’ good, it must ‘be’ good as well. Here in earthquake country, you learn the difference between looking good and being good very quickly after a tremor. The building of a ‘good’ house requires reinforced construction and exact strengthening of all its systems for a house to stand up to Richter’s logarithmic scale. A poorly built home might look good but it will only stand up to one or two shakes. Eventually it will collapse. Character development is the unseen foundation, the re-bar, the cross bracing and the engineered trusses of a soundly constructed person.
From the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin carried a small notebook with him at all times. In it he had his list of thirteen character traits or ‘virtues’ that were part of his system of character development and at the end of the day he would evaluate just how well he had done with respect to each of these traits. He has always been regarded at a model of high moral character.
Franklin was unencumbered by cell phones and emails. The amount of information in the 18th century was a small percentage of what we have available to us at the speed of light in our pocket or purse. However, we can still choose to be ‘virtuous’ or of ‘good character’ today by building a solid foundation on these same principles. I can change from the person I am now into the person I want to be, or at least into the guy my dog thinks I am.
“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” B. Franklin
I have picked out a dozen character traits that I would like to infuse into myself: self-responsibility, self-discipline, generosity, honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, resilience, open-mindedness, spiritual awareness, and gratefulness. Your list will be different I am sure. And a periodic review of my own list will probably change as well as I review my progress in these areas.
Take for example self-responsibility. I am responsible for me; my parents and family, my friends, the community or the government should not have to take care of me. That’s my job. I am responsible for the state of my health and fitness, for my continuing education, for my career, for my finances, for my relationships, my emotions, and my decisions. I remember hearing years and years ago the saying: “If it is to be it’s up to me!” There will always be people, places and things that are outside of my control. However, I control my perspective. I control what I learn. I control who I let into my life. You get the picture? I must stop pointing the finger of blame around me. It’s up to me! It’s my responsibility! Me! Mine!
What does this do for me? It gives me options. I am an active participant in my own life and the direction that it takes. I am active in my health, learning, finances, career, emotions, and relationships. The passive lifestyle tells me “there’s nothing ‘I‘ can do; ‘he‘ has to fix it.” The active one gives me choices for changing what I can.
I don’t have to become the person of high moral character today. Like Franklin, it is something that I aspire to and I know I will have setbacks along the way. Like the child that is learning to walk, falling on my ass the first few times is part of the process. It means that I wasn’t successful this time and I can learn from my errors and work at taking that first step again. It takes time to evaluate deeply who and how you want to be in life, but I believe the effort will result in greater happiness and contentment. The examined life will result in a strong character and that’s one of my aspirations.