When I think of fear, what at once makes its way into the confines of my thought is paralysis. Anytime I have felt truly afraid, what I was compelled to fight was usually the inability to act. And this was not always an easy fight; it is harder to make a decision than not make one, especially when faced with seemingly impossible choices. Choosing the right thing to do out of many competing options can prove difficult. And yet, it is then that our characters are strengthened.
How do we know what to choose, in these times? There is hardly ever a straightforward answer. As Paul Graham, Venture Capitalist at Y Combinator, puts it, the rule of thumb is that “if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right. Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim… but also at decision points along the way.” He goes further to say that humans should generally aim to “relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter and savour the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.”
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
‒ Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled.
I have always been fascinated, in a largely academic way, by the idea of character, a muscle which is only improved when we flex it. I think this fascination comes from my sustained interest in the twin angels of Philosophy and Psychology. Tom Griffin, Director, Development, Change and Communications at Sears Holdings Corporation, said in an interview: “To me, that is the definition of character: when your life speaks for you and your values are plainly visible to others. Character is an accumulation of the everyday decisions I make. All of these decisions represent who I am, what I stand for and what I think is important. If you want to know about a person’s character, look at what they do, how they do it, and how they spend their time. These things send powerful messages as to what a person considers important.”
Thus, character exists in having integrity, which is saying and doing only the things that one believes and always being truthful, especially about mistakes and weaknesses which may be a knock on the door requiring that we improve and become better, if we are to move forward. Character is in choosing not to take counsel of our fears and not letting anger run our lives.
Character means choosing to never live in the thick of thin things. It means being brave as well as objective, and always having the courage to try. Character is in treating people ‒ friends and strangers alike‒ as we would want to be treated, with respect and dignity. It is in understanding that each of us has our role to play in ensuring the success of the herd. Character is being aware of that which is real and essential, at once hidden and evident, so much so that we have to remind ourselves over and over again. It is shown when we make conscious efforts to exercise control over how and what we think about, choosing how we construct meaning from our varied experiences. Character is knowing that true success comes in overcoming our own primal inclinations and conquering our former selves. By choosing to exert our wills, we cease to be slaves to our impulses.
“Man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate”. ‒ Viktor Frankl
I believe it is made easier when you narrow down to what you truly want to do. You choose to forgo excuses and complaints and develop the discipline and character required to succeed. You choosing the right rather than the easy path is the hardest ‒ and yet the best ‒ decision you can make. You choose to forgo feeding your weaknesses and being around negative influences, instead replacing them with reinforcing resources and people that would help you along your path. Surprisingly, you find that everything starts to fall in place when you make that decision to go forward in the direction of your dreams, rather than wallowing in negativity and self-delusion. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
There are lots of things that seem like logical choices in the interim, because they provide fairly immediate benefits. In the search for success, it may be desirable to pick the temporary highs. I do not think all temporary highs are inherently bad. Perhaps the trick is in knowing which to chase and which to let run past you. Maybe, sometimes, you have to let go of the more temporary things and be okay with the less temporary. There is always dignity in obeying the things you really want in life, and as is so often the case, the more temporary highs get in the way of those. Hindsight is always 20/20 though. It can be hard to really know. So, be vigilant. Whenever you observe yourself seeking the shorter path, the faster path, slow down, if you cannot stop. Know that to get to where you really want to go, you might have to walk along the longer, more arduous path, the more unfamiliar one. And in some cases, you might have to create a new path for yourself.
Character is also compassion. It is in choosing to help others, whenever we can. Making a difference in the lives of others makes our lives richer. I find that investing in others often leads to them investing in us. I do not mean this in the financial sense, although sometimes this is the case too. Being the listening ear in a friend’s time of need is often reciprocated in our own time of need. It is not a rule of thumb and may not always happen this way. But sometimes you get lucky. And the times you do not get lucky, you still would have helped someone along their path in life.
What I have learnt, with the passage of time and gaining of experience, is that people of strong character choose to solve hard problems. Whether those problems are professional or personal, as in the case of overcoming addiction, taking the decision to overcome limitations and take responsibility for the direction of your life helps you strengthen your character further, and this in turn exponentially improves your productivity. You learn to trust yourself more, and with time, others learn that they can trust you too.
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” ‒ Robert Browning
When life pushes us, it is merely testing our character. And if we have strengthened the muscle to a reasonable degree, it would be sufficient to pull us through. And if we have not, we trip up and fall, staying down for a while until we find strength enough to stand or someone else helps us up. As Wayne Dyer said, “When you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out, because that’s what’s inside. When you are squeezed, what comes out is what is inside.”
Our lives are perpetually unfinished stories which we build out, with each day we live. I believe character exists in recognizing what is important and knowing that there is always more we can do, more we can give. We all have to remember to treat people kindly, be useful and use our limited time well. We are a part of this big story that brings us all together. And if we find ourselves looking for an end, an absolute outcome to the struggles that make up our journey through life, perhaps we have to realize that we have all been played. There is no real ending to it all. All that exists is the place where we stop the story.
Image via: emaze.com