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The Road to Character


It’s a sort of challenge to the values of today.  The Road to Character proposes that, historically, we were more concerned about our character than our appearance.  We were more concerned with community than individual wealth and happiness.  We knew, the book supposes, that serving others was the path to joy and happiness.  It also proposes that we’ve lost our way.

Others agree.  Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation to acknowledge the work, sacrifices, and character of the generation that fought great wars and tamed nature.  While Chuck Underwood was looking at the differences in America’s Generations, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that things are different now.  They’re somehow more “me” focused.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt express a similar sentiment in The Coddling of the American Mind.  What happened, they wonder, that we must have trigger warnings on everything, that people can be cancelled from university appearances because we disagree, and everything has been turned into a microaggression?  Instead of intelligent, thoughtful, and passioned debates about the issue, we’ve fallen into isolation and attacks.

Delayed Gratification

It seems like we lost our willingness to delay gratification.  If we were all preschoolers in Michel’s Marshmallow Test, we might eat the one in front of us before the researcher had left the room.  While there’s some question about the replicability of Michel’s tests, the concept of delayed gratification is important.  Albert Einstein called compound interest the 8th Wonder of the World.  The more you can save and delay gratification, the more interest works in your favor instead of against you.

What Other People Think About Me Is None of My Business

We’ve also become obsessed with our image – what other people think about us.  Image consultants work on everything.  Hairstyles and clothing are set to match the image to project.  Public relations firms shape what we say so as not to offend, and when we do, “fixers” help us to clean up the mess.  This process has been happening for some time now.  As I mentioned in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, we’ve started putting on brands so that we could feel differently.

The Hidden Persuaders and Unsafe at Any Speed both explain that marketing stopped being about features and utility and started being about selling emotions and a life that you didn’t have.  Instead of working to be happy, serve others, or whatever it took to really get what you wanted, the suggestion was made that you could just buy a product and have it immediately.

Large Organizations Are Dinosaurs

There was a very old commercial where a man is at a party, and someone asks him what he does.  He explains that he’s a filmmaker, and the girl he is talking to swoons.  He adds that it’s for cable and she visibly deflates.  Finally, he explains that he makes films for HBO, and she regains her amorous attention.

It used to be that working for a large organization was an honor that not everyone could have.  However, since Enron, MCI/WorldCom, and countless other disasters of ethics or environments, we’ve come to believe that large organizations aren’t as good as they once were.

Instead, the darling place to work is the venture capital-based startup.  If you can work for a small company that makes it, then you can cash out and retire early.  Not only do we question the ethics of a large organization, but we’re not interested in working hard for decades for someone else.

Neither, by the way, are most up for the entrepreneurial struggle that many of our great-grandparents faced in working for themselves.

Forging Morals from Weaknesses

It used to be that your teachers, mentors, and friends would encourage you to work on your weakness.  You’d be encouraged to build your weaknesses until they were no longer weaknesses.  Today, we encourage people to focus exclusively on their strengths.  The problem with this approach is that the weaknesses – sometimes critical weaknesses – remain.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of weaknesses that are easily solved, like getting glasses or contacts to improve vision,.  I’m talking about the kind of weaknesses that can’t be worked around and will continue to negatively impact you year after year.

It used to be that folks like Josh Waitzkin would learn chess and then go work in martial arts – and he’d celebrate the work it takes to push through the losses.  (See The Art of Learning.)  Positive psychology, for all its benefits, can create challenges.  It’s fundamental to positive psychology to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual.)  The challenge is that once people have recovered from their challenges and have achieved a baseline normal, they rarely go back and work on their weaknesses.

Focusing on strengths, so that people recognize they have value and that things can get better, has its place.  It’s important to redevelop a sense of self-efficacy, but at some point, it’s necessary to return to the things that are holding you back.  Raise Your Line makes the point that hard work is necessary.  If we want to change our outcomes, we’ve got to work on the weaknesses that are holding us back.

Performance (Merit-Based) Love

Too many children are told that they’re a good child and that they’re loved with the implication that they’re loved because they’re good.  Too many children begin to associate love with their performance.  Instead of recognizing their intrinsic value, they believe that they’re only valuable when they’re doing something good for others.  This sets children up to become adults that don’t recognize their own worth and seek ways to find their worth externally.

It works from a deficit model instead of a model that builds on a foundation of strength.

Emotional Morals

Without a solid foundation, it’s hard to be a moral person.  Knowing what you believe and accepting the consequences for what you believe is hard.  It’s even harder when your perspective is warped with the belief that your only value is what you can do for others.

Distortion becomes accepted.  Instead of making hard decisions, people begin to make decisions that feel right.  In fact, they endorse utilitarian ethics with the sense that the only real value is how it makes them feel.  Feelings, while necessary for our survival, are also not reliable.

Inner Cohesion

I describe it as stable core.  I last wrote about it in my review of Resilient.  It’s this sense that you know who you are and what you stand for.  It’s a foundation for the development of character, and it’s too often overlooked.

What Am I Being Called to Do

May people believe that you don’t choose what you are to do in life.  Life, God, or the universe decided what you are called to do, and it’s up to you to answer the call – or not.  For most of my life, I’ve not known exactly what it is that I’m supposed to do, what my calling is.  I’m not entirely certain I understand it today.

However, I can say that the path including work on trauma and suicide wasn’t on my list.  The events surrounding me pushed me in that direction, and I moved along with them.  Even writing these posts was a set of circumstances that led me to believe that, if I wanted to continue to grow, I’d need to read voraciously and work to integrate the learning into my life.  For me, that meant writing a book review every single week.

Late Bloomers: A Life of Preparation

An important point to remember if you’re on the long path to character is that many of the greatest leaders of all time experienced their success very late in life.  We venerate Abraham Lincoln but fail to see the losses in his career.  Walt Disney’s bankruptcy is washed away by history.  (See The Wisdom of Walt.)  Nothing much was expected from the great military leaders that we revere.

In the end, what we realize is that the end may be some sense of success and perhaps fame, but the path to get there is The Road to Character.