In Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he mentions his research through the last 200 years of writing on success. (Other people’s writing, I don’t believe Stephen Covey is multiple centuries in age.) He mentions that among those writings he found that the last 50 years had shifted away from what he calls the character ethic and into the personality ethic. The copyright in the book is stamped 1989, so that makes it the last 80 years at the writing of this post.
Unless, of course, they’ve taken a shift for the better. I’ll stay optimistic and say that they seem to be going that way. 😉
The point is, he noticed that literature on success used to talk about core traits: things like courage, patience, modesty… things that would give you a solid foundation when it came to interacting with the world. And with yourself, for that matter. Then we seemed to hit a point where the literature pointed to things that look an awful lot more like slogans and buzzwords: “your attitude predicts your altitude.”
That is an uplifting saying… but only if your plane is already off the ground. You can display a positive attitude all you like but that alone won’t get you airborne.
It’s important to understand what both character and personality are. Character is the core of your being: the guiding principles that we use to drive our choices and behaviour. Personality is what is presented on the outside: the social bridge to everything outside of ourselves. Having a bright and shining personality can make for smooth social connections and a welcoming air of charm, but when this is the main focus of one’s personal development it can be all too easy to build your house on the sand.
As I’m writing about this now I find my thoughts drifting to a specific breed of ugly car I’ve seen driving around the street: beat up economy cars that have had a small fortune spent on fancy rims, low profile tires, a spoiler, fancy lights, and of course a “high performance” muffler. And somehow the people driving these vehicles think that the lipstick they have applied makes their pig look like something to be envied.
Underneath all of these accouterments is still the same base model economy car… except now it’s horribly ugly. The juxtaposition of parts designed for a high performance machine now glued to a vehicle better suited for pizza delivery suggests a glaring mismatch between the owner’s desire and their perception of reality.
And so it seems that what’s important for the people living this example is the personality of the car – how it looks to the outside world. (Or, at least, how they think it looks.) This holds a strong parallel to those that practice the same effort for their own identity – it’s just as obvious to the outside world when you’ve dressed up your personality with spinning rims and a four inch high-flow muffler while neglecting what’s really important.
It’s easy to shine a car up with wax, but how does it run? Do you even know how to check the oil? Without proper care for the core parts of the machine what is the point of the mirror shine? So that it looks good being wheeled along behind a tow truck?
Character and personality have a strong cause and effect relationship: your guiding principles deep within you will inevitably shape how you come across on the surface.
Let’s look at a person that is highly accountable for what they say and do. If accountability is important to a person you know that you can trust what they say. When they say they’ll meet you at the art gallery at 3’o’clock on Saturday you know they’ll be there.
Now let’s look at a person that values the image of accountability over all else. They’ll probably impress you while you’re a priority to them – when you have something they need from you. But as soon as their need for someone or something else becomes more important you’ll find they become much less reliable and much more absent.
This will probably get stuck in a confusing state of assessment in your mind for a while; they’ve bought themselves some fudge room simply by being consistent enough at first to earn your trust, now they can afford to miss appointments with you at least a few times while you rationalize it away. “They must be stuck in traffic… maybe there was an emergency…”
But if accountability is your game then you won’t have to worry about juggling the priorities of what’s more important to you in the moment, what bridges can you afford to burn, and how do you keep your image flying high. Consistent, honest principles will materialize as consistent, honest behaviour.
The tragic part of this is that there are so many people that lean too hard on their personality and don’t even recognize the chain that links their choices to their inevitable consequences. They don’t even know enough about themselves to understand that you can live a life where you don’t burn relationships with flaky behaviour. Instead they stay locked in to a half working blueprint for life assuming that the downsides that come with it are inevitable. Bless those poor souls, and may someone bless mine for the parts of me that operate this way.
On the flipside of it, that’s what’s wonderful about character: when you’ve built that up as the core importance of who you are it shines through. Even when you falter in some way and end up missing an appointment or forgetting to call somebody, your generally good reputation will be able to stand a ding here and there. Since we’re not perfect we need room to make mistakes, but when you’ve built yourself on a house of cards, each mistake can be fatal.
Back to your altitude – your attitude can predict your altitude when you’re already up in the air. But to get there first you need a plane. And this plane needs a runway. And you need to know how to start the engine. Then how to actually get it rolling. Then how to get it off the ground! There are so many steps to get you aloft in the first place and I can promise you that “a great attitude” will not be a workable substitute for them. All of these prerequisites are the solid foundation of good character that allow you to take on something so miraculous as flying through the clouds.
When you’ve built a good strong character with which to go through life you’ll find that you won’t have to work so hard to get off the ground. Once the core pieces are in place and you keep your nose to the grindstone, success has its way of finding the room we’ve build for it within ourselves. This is where the virtue of patience will fill in the seemingly endless wait between work and result. We all do what’s natural for us to do, and being successful in life is one of those natural skills we all have within us. We are all destined to fly.
For those that live in alignment with a good life, a strong understanding and command of our own character is essential. Then flying becomes easy – it’s what we’re born to do. Then and only then will we find that our attitude can be a great influence on our altitude. When you’re already flying through your life with a semblance of success, the glowing attitude of a polished personality will definitely make your interactions with the world much more constructive.
One bright side of all of this is that personality is malleable. If you take a good long look at yourself and see that your personality is something that goes against your principles, there’s nothing to worry about. As you connect with the character underneath your personality will adjust itself to form an accurate presentation of who you truly are. It’ll be a bumpy and frustrating ride, I promise you. But it will also be a ride away from stagnation – a ride to something better.
I read the 7 Habits book years ago and it was one of those books that changed my life. I had never seen these concepts come together so coherently. And I had never realized how much our lives are a reflection of our chore character traits, let alone how much power there is in accepting responsibility for them.
How about you? Do you find it hard work to maintain your image? Do you feel like you’re juggling too many balls at once? Or is it easy for you to maintain consistency?
Let me know what you think of your own connection with character and personality and what it means to you.