In case you haven’t heard the news, Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, passed away on Monday at age 79. I shared the details in a short blog post this week. He will definitely be missed.
Covey’s books were some of my early reads when I first became interested in personal growth. In this article I’ll share some insights on character building, partly from the influence of character-based books like the 7 Habits and partly from past experience.
The Consequences of a Weak Character
I didn’t think much about character development until the lack of it became a serious problem for me. In my late teens, I would lie, cheat, and steal if I felt it would benefit me in some way. At first this was simply a lot of fun, and I had no qualms about living this way, but over time I could see that it was leading me in a very self-destructive direction.
In my first run at college, I used to hang out in the UC Berkeley computer lab on the night before programming assignments were due. I’d stand by the shared printer, and when a student’s completed assignment rolled off the machine, I’d quickly snag it before the student got up from his/her workstation to retrieve it. These were just print-outs of computer code, so there were never any names on the pages. I’d write my name at the top and turn it in as my own the next day. This only took minutes and saved me hours of work. I completed most of the assignments this way and ended up getting a B+ in the class. With about 500 students in the class, I doubted there was much chance of getting caught. I never got caught.
When I had a chemistry midterm come up that same semester, I played poker while other students studied hard for it. I also ditched many classes. Then I prayed that the midterm would somehow be canceled. And much to my surprise, when I was getting ready to leave to take the exam, the Bay Area was struck by the Loma Prieta Earthquake at 5:04pm. I believe the midterm was scheduled for 5:30pm. The buildings on campus had to be inspected for damage, so the midterm was postponed. I crammed for it and and somehow passed. I ended up passing the class with a C+. If not for that timely earthquake, I might not have passed.
I could have excelled in these classes, but I became very lazy and did the absolute minimum to squeak by. Soon I began doing less than the minimum and eventually got expelled. It seemed that with each passing month, I was developing more of a something-for-nothing mentality. I spent more time drinking and playing poker than I did going to class. Most weeks I committed at least a few crimes; when I got caught, I took a few weeks off and then picked up where I left off.
A Character Building Environment
Only a year earlier, I had graduated with honors from high school, acing my classes all the way through. Everyone thought I had a bright future. I was accepted into many quality universities, some with scholarships.
When I was in high school — a private Jesuit school — there was a lot of emphasis on character development and morality. It was an all boys school, and each of us were taught to become “a man for others.” It was a very disciplined environment. During my entire 4 years of high school, I witnessed only one fight, and I’m pretty sure those students were promptly expelled. I never saw any evidence of people bringing weapons or drugs to school. It was a very clean place with a hardcore focus on academics.
Because the whole campus supported this focus, it was easy to buy into it. It paid off for the students and teachers alike. Our teachers maintained excellent discipline in their classes, with students rarely talking out of turn. In this disciplined environment, we were able to learn a great deal without getting distracted. Teachers were treated with respect, largely because they were competent and deserved it.
The central theme that bound all of this together was our shared religion. All of the character and moral teachings were rooted there.
As I matured I began to question the religion part, eventually rejecting it as something that couldn’t possibly be true. And so along with that, I uprooted all of the character-based teachings that were piled on top of the religious ones. If I was going to doubt the roots, I had to doubt the branches as well.
When I entered college as a newly minted atheist, I found myself free of any character code. At the time I was often reminded of a Mark Twain short story I’d read called “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” which is about a guy who kills his conscience and becomes free to do as he pleases. (You can download that story for free here.)
Freedom vs. Responsibility
Initially I found this way of living immensely liberating. I had no more sense of right and wrong other that what felt good in the moment. Other people seemed very stiff relative to the options I had available.
Over time I learned that society very much frowns on living this way. After several arrests and being expelled from school, I could see that my future was becoming bleaker. This is no way to live, I sadly concluded.
Turning back towards religion wasn’t an option for me, but I could see the good in the character-based aspects. So I set out to study character development outside the bounds of religion.
Around that time I read Covey’s 7 Habits book. He got me thinking about character development in a new way. For him it probably sprung from religion as well, but his book gave me a start in thinking about character development in more humanistic terms. Covey explained that certain character attributes were simply more effective for getting along in the world. They consistently produce better results than the alternatives.
This was easy for me to accept since I had the opportunity to see how my underlying character affected my results in life. When I was disciplined, I did very well in school, embraced leadership roles like President of the Math Club and Captain of the Academic Decathlon team. I had strong bonds with intelligent friends. When I let my disciplined slide, I got to see the inside of some jail cells. I still had many friends, but few of them trusted me.
I set about character building almost like I was developing myself as a character in a role-playing game. What attributes will I choose to develop?
At first I focused on conformity for several months because I needed to stop getting into trouble before I could advance any further. So when I felt tempted to do something reckless, I would ask myself, This could be fun, but would a normal person do this? If the answer was no, I did my best to put a leash on those impulses. Usually I succeeded.
Conscious Character Building
When I felt ready, I began searching for character attributes that mattered to me. I had a lot of courage, but I felt it wise to temper it with a sense of honor. Doing my best, even when other people weren’t, was another quality I sought to develop. Embracing challenge also resonated with me. And soon, honesty became immensely important to me.
The core of this whole model was that I spent a lot of time asking and answering the question, What kind of man do I wish to become?
My past experiences taught me that my character was pliable. I didn’t have to settle for the current status quo. I could make changes to my character, which would have a major effect on my results in life. But instead of merely backtracking from the results, I focused on the kind of man I wanted to become on the inside. I figured that if I really liked myself on the inside, then intelligent actions would flow out of me, and positive results would follow.
How to Develop Your Character
Think about the character qualities you consider ideal. What kind of man or woman inspires you most? What is it about those people that inspires you?
Brainstorm a list of character qualities you might like to develop. For help generating ideas, feel free to use this list of values. You can copy and paste it into a word processing document and whittle it down to those core qualities that you feel are the most significant.
Post your list somewhere you’ll see it often. If you have a smart phone, type your list into a note-taking application, so you’ll always have it with you.
My friend Darren LaCroix has small wood carvings of words that inspire him placed throughout his home, so whatever room he’s in, one of those values is always visible to him.
Another thing you can do is memorize your list. If you sing your list to yourself, you’ll find it easy to memorize, and then you’ll find yourself automatically singing it in your head at certain times, like while standing in line somewhere. This will remind you to do your best to become the man or woman who exudes those character qualities.
When he was 20 years old, Benjamin Franklin wrote out a list of character qualities to develop in himself. He had 13 of them:
- Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; waste nothing.
- Industry – Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Instead of trying to work on every attribute at the same time, Franklin would cycle through them, picking only one quality to focus on each week while “leaving all others to their ordinary chance.” He still evaluated his progress for all of these attributes, but he focused on improving one attribute at a time.
In his autobiography, Franklin spent a significant number of pages going over the details of this plan. He admitted that he fell short much of the time but that the pursuit made him a better, more successful, and happier man. (You can download his autobiography for free here.)
Character development isn’t easy, but it pays long-term dividends. If you can become a little more honorable, this alone could prevent major problems in your relationships and career, and it will surely boost your self-esteem. If you can become a little more disciplined, you can get out of debt and enjoy more abundance in life. If you can become a little more peaceful, you’ll serve as a relaxing influence on others, helping to alleviate stress and fostering good health wherever you go.
I encourage you to give serious thought to how you’ve been developing your character. Are you doing this consciously and with good care, or are you allowing influences like television and social media to passively shape who you are? Do you like yourself as you are right now?
The more you strive to become the man or woman you most desire to be, the more consciously you’re living. Even if you fall short of your ideals, the pursuit is a reward unto itself.