Over the past week or so, I’ve really been reflecting on and comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between personality and character.
Just so we’re all on the same page...
By personality, I mean a public persona comprised of attitudes, behaviors, skills and techniques employed to facilitate social interactions.
By character, I mean the basic principles of effective living that are unchanging and rooted in the laws of Nature.
When examining the literature on success and personal development since the founding of this country, there has been a marked shift in what people consider to be the “keys” to successful living.
Prior to World War I, most of the literature focused on characteristics, or desired “mindsets” that were identified as key to living an effective life.
These characteristics or “mindsets” are more conceptual (big-picture) in nature and consequently leave a lot of room for interpretation and individualization. Society valued traits of character, or virtues, like simplicity, modesty, “do unto others...,” justice, patience, courage, temperance, integrity, humility, fidelity…basically a lot of words not spoken much of in today’s world, but found consistently in the literature of the American Revolution and ultimately derived from tenets of major religions and secular philosophies.
Literature of the First American Revolution such as “Common Sense,” “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” The Declaration of Independence, and works by authors such as Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, etc. -- were all based on an “inside-out” personal code of ethics and philosophy of living that established the foundations for actions, attitudes, behaviors, skills, techniques and actions.
Based on the spirit of their writings, I am led to believe these individuals would probably cringe at the idea of a “Top 10 Ways To…,” “Life Hacks” or “Become a Better Person by <insert action here>” sort of content we see produced, en masse, today.
The writers of the American Revolution did not teach narrowly focused, and situation-specific, “life hacks.”
The writers of the American Revolution taught concepts that had plenty of room for interpretation and personalization for the individual to take it upon themselves to create a life, “well-lived” -- a life not of dependence, but a life of independence and ultimately INTERDEPENDENCE.
Shortly after World War I, the basic view of success shifted from a focus on Character, to a focus on Personality -- meaning “success” became the effect of the many “things you could do,” “actions you could take.”
With this shift, came an increased focus on public image, attitudes, behaviors, skills and techniques most likely resulting from changes in technology and modes of living such as the advent of radio and television, the increased pace of life and the shift to suburban living and the ever increasing “give-it-to-me-now” attitudes.
As mindsets and behaviors evolved post World War I, so did the philosophy of success and personal development.
No longer were ideas of slow-cooking character sufficient. Personal development needed to be “microwaved” just like everything else and as a result, self-help literature from World War I onward tend to focus on the IMMEDIATE application of skills and techniques to improve human and public relations and positive mental attitude.
(Take for example, the classic Napoleon Hill -- “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” -- a work that has served as foundational for much of the “Law of Attraction,” aka “The Secret” work that we see in self-help culture today. A lot of people mock this sort of literature, calling out its seemingly fantastical claims of riches made possible just by mere thinking or “calling it into existence” because this type of “microwave” philosophy doesn’t fully explain the hows and the whys this IS possible, and/or how to get there in a realistic and sustainable way.)
And therefore, from the ashes of World War I arose a “cult” of personality and an excessive admiration for the outward characteristics of a person marked by the habit of individuals making significant life choices based on “what successful people do” and “what they should do,” (Personality) versus making choices because of a certain principle by which they choose to live (Character).
This dichotomy, (and perhaps push-pull) of Personality vs. Character reminds me of the two types of students I taught in my math classroom -- (a) the students who just wanted to “memorize the steps” and “live for the next test,” and (b) the students who took the time to understand the concept and work through the nuances of each problem-solving method.
The former group of students expected very straightforward, example-driven teaching, while the latter group of students much preferred “figuring things out on their own” and “discovery based learning.” The students who “lived by examples,” could never perform well in ambiguous situations. They were the students who could receive an A or B in the course, but would only perform average or slightly above (or even “shockingly” below) on standardized assessments (which contrary to popular belief, actually assess ability to work in ambiguous situations).
On the other hand, the students who understood concepts and completed their work based on principles of problem-solving, retained more over time which eventually found mastery with their math studies and rarely, if ever, “hated” or were “bad” at math.
Because they conducted their math studies with the mindset that practice makes mastery. Because of this principle-based mindset, these students worked to understand the big picture, and used that context to make inferences and exhibit flexibility in never-seen-before situations WITHOUT teacher prompting. And of course, these students not only ended up mastering the course, but also tended to receive consistent marks in all content areas.
The dichotomy of character vs. personality and the evolution away from the former and towards the latter can also be recognized in another place where we expect to gather tools and develop the habits necessary for a principle-centered life -- the organized CHURCH.
In alignment with post-World War I “cult of personality,” there has been a steady increase of “self-help Christian” movements flooding America -- think Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Judah Smith, Billy Graham, Rich Wilkerson, John Grey and so on and so forth. These are all pastors who use the power of personality, influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills and positive attitudes with a side of Biblical text, (sometimes taken grossly out of context), to support their points. Contrast this with the more “boring” yet deep, principle-based, textual study of the Bible. People wince at that sort of thing today because it’s tedious, dry and heaven-forbid, may also be “convicting.” (How dare something make someone feel bad or “bring down the mood!”) And although many people’s lives are changed using these techniques, what is the cost of not providing the opportunity for people to engage more deeply and actively in their spiritual growth?
When it comes to living a slow-cooker principle based life versus living a life of personality and action, there is not one that is inherently more “preferred” than the other. However I do believe part of the ART of living is knowing what to do, and when. This involves understanding we need BOTH the ethic of both character and personality while also understanding that ultimately, personality flows from character, and not the other way around.
Personality can be used to shape character, but ultimately, character is the “firm foundation” upon which a life “well-lived” is founded upon.
Like it or not, contrary to many of the talking points on mainstream media, a part of the “Make America Great Again” movement has nothing to do with race, class or gender. It has to do with the fact that Americans have become so focused on the building and creating that we have forgotten about the foundation -- namely living a life of character rooted not only in heart, but in logic and reason.
This idea may seem fundamentally flawed to a lot of people, given their sensory perception of the President, and is not something that I haven’t found the words (yet) to clearly communicate in a blog post, but this I know for sure...
Part of the MAGA movement is about remembering AND REINCORPORATING our Revolutionary American roots because...not EVERYTHING in our past was terrible.
And so, as I close out this post, I would like to leave you with a quote by Erich Fromm to reflect on just how much our society has shifted from its roots as you hurry about your day...