The dirty chores at home on the farm were always “character-building.” My dad always used to say that shoveling out the hog barn “builds character.” What I knew at the time is that the only thing it built was a healthy smell that lingered way too long.
No different than you, just different activities at different times. Those words of “it builds character” echo through our lives. When we get dumped or ignored by someone we think we love, we hear the whisper of “it builds character.” When we are way behind on writing a term paper or preparing for a test, we hear the chant of “it builds character.” When we have the horrible boss experience again, we cling to the words of “it builds character.”
It builds character.
“It” is really just a fill-in-the-blank space to add in:
- Hard work
- Civil debate
- Solving problems
Each builds character. Just plug it in.
What Is Character?
Character. We know it when we see it. Maybe more importantly, we know it when it is missing.
Headlines fill us in with the individuals lacking character. The headlines feature more than the common criminals. Politicians and business leaders make the front page with many counts of bad character. Bad character knows no boundaries.
The good news is good character knows no boundaries, too. Good character is exemplified every day and too often goes unnoticed. Media attention gets attracted to the obvious places too often.
But character is more than visual. Character is engraved within us. The engraving isn’t always planned and clean. The word “character” comes from the Greek kharakter that means “engraved mark.” The character trace goes back to another definition of “to scrape or scratch.” For me, the combination of engrave, scrape, and scratch fit well with what character really means. Here are my thoughts on why:
- Engrave – An active art of determining what builds our character – honesty, courage, and the like.
- Scrape – Learning from the challenges that come our way (or those we create) and then proving what we learned by doing much better than before.
- Scratch – The act of working our way back when we fall down and gaining strength of integrity from what we experience.
Character is all the good traits we think it is. However, character is much more. Character is a verb, demonstrated in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Character is also how we recover.
Character Over Time
Character builds over time. Character is additive. We cannot waste our youth pursuing things that neuter or subtract from our character. Equally true, we cannot spend our older years tearing down the character we built. In both cases, we are wasting time and, most importantly, damaging relationships. Legacy and trust carry a high lifetime value.
Each choice and action we take adds or detracts from our character. Any given day, we should have more positive character choices and actions than negative ones. Getting character right is not a balance exercise. Not even close. We should build character through our good choices and actions as often as we can. We are imperfect. How we respond in our imperfect choices and actions can add to or subtract from our character. This is the choice of our character.
No matter our age, we should never dig a big hole in our character in which we spend a lifetime trying to recover. The younger we are, the longer the lifetime of recovering. And this is why trying to make the best choices possible and take the most appropriate actions as often as possible early in our lives can make a very big difference in the quality of our overall life.
Time matters. Time tests. Character erodes or grows.
Our character is developed through time. More accurately, our character is developed through our experiences and what we choose to learn and do from them. Trials and tribulations are tough. We all have them in some way. We can mask them, pretending they are not really there. We can tackle them, risking relationships and results. What I know is we cannot ignore them, and we must face them.
Character in many ways is a combination of our mind, soul, and backbone. We need to work through our thoughts and pick the ones that matter. We need to understand how the trials are impacting our soul and take the necessary steps to protect and grow. We need to know when to stand up, move on, or protect. Character is tested. How we respond and learn will determine the legacy of our character.
In times of success and prosperity, our character is at risk as well. Just because everything seems to be going very well and we are rich in what we have in our abilities and worth, too often character falters in these good times. Laziness creeps in. Thinking we are above what is normal and right invades our actions. Character loses our attention because we think we have it all.
The only time we have it all is when our character remains intact and grows in strength.
In good times, we need to continue to add to our character by what we say and do. We need to pass on our lessons learned and share our wealth of experience along with whatever else we give. People will remember your stories of character, and these stories deliver much more meaning than a name on a building. Legacy of character carries forward like folklore.
What Builds Character?
Each year, we begin with a ritual with little lasting impact: Resolution-making. Instead of making resolutions, maybe we should do things to build our character every day. Imagine what a year’s worth of character-building could produce.
We should never ignore our habits, though. Habits effect character. Eating right. Exercising frequently. Reading often. All these elements provide the nutrients for a clear mind, activating spirit, and strong backbone. Good habits feed our inner goodness.
With this disclaimer now complete, we return to what can build character every day. I have thought about my own life work experiences, and these seven character activities came to mind:
1 – Work hard to build, create, survive, and excel (in purpose).
Laziness achieves nothing. Work for work’s sake creates little. Whatever our responsibilities, we need to do the work. Whatever our purpose, we need to do our important work. Getting our tempo right will take time. Through doing the work, our time will rise up, and our character will show its strength in purpose. Keep focused on your purpose horizon and do the work.
2 – Engage in tough conversations with empathy and action (don’t put them off).
The easy thing is to sidestep the tough conversations. We need to take deep breaths and determine how to engage in meaningful conversations that make a difference in what we say and what happens next. We cannot control what may happen next, but our character will be stronger if we interact with empathy.
3 – Nurture relationships that matter through good and challenging times (staying power, the power of love).
Too often, the first thing to go when times get challenging are our relationships. They have become almost disposable. Relationships that are damaging physically or psychologically are different. In those, safely leaving is the first step, and these times take strong character as well. Absent the damaging relationships, we need to try hard to make them work, no matter the place. Whether in our homes, neighborhoods, or workplaces, we need to nurture our relationships and find better paths forward.
4 – Exhibit humility in achievement and success (giving credit, giving back).
Be humble in all you do and say. Humility is not permission to be run over. Quite the opposite. See number 2. Humility is knowing we are stronger together than apart. Humility is giving all we have and doing it again.
5 – Be nice when everything tempts you not to be nice.
Being nice is not permission to be run over either. A quiet strength of character exists in being humble and nice. Build this character strength. One of the best professors I had was one of the nicest, kindest guys, but you did not want to skip the work. Being nice doesn’t mean low expectations. Too often, we want to play to the crowd and say outrageous things to incite or fit into one. Instead, we need to stand out by saying and doing things that are helpful.
6 – Always get up, no matter what, to create something better than the day before.
We will get knocked down and stepped on. Two things to remember. First, there is an old political adage that says “what goes around, comes around.” If someone is stepping on us, holding us back, or ignoring us, nature has a way of dealing with this, so focus on what you can do and do so with a strong sense of character. Second, keep getting up and creating what you are meant to do. After all, this is the only way your purpose will take root and begin to bloom.
7 – No task is too small and no person is too ordinary or extraordinary to extend a hand and help.
Never think or do things that make others feel small. Always pitch in no matter the task. Our hands are meant to be extended in a helpful way; it is why we have arms and elbows! We are designed to do the work, hug each other, and extend a helpful hand.
These are the things I know will build character. Each come from my experiences on the farm, school, college, work in politics and business, and family. How you build character may differ, which is okay. The point is to understand what builds your character and go do those things as often as you can.
David Brooks wrote an important book, The Road to Character, and I recommend it highly. I like this telling statistic and point he made in this NPR interview:
“My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.”
We need to remember to be big in our character and reduce the size of our personality. Personal brand chatter focuses too much on superficial things and too much on self-importance. If you want to build a sustainable personal brand, focus on your personal character early and often. Determine what will stand.