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April 30, 2015

Hello, Trailblazer!

Sometimes we plan for important conversations so we can be in the right setting, keep away interruptions and distractions, and have plenty of time for them with plenty of time to prepare. But other times they just happen. An opportunity appears and we go for it.

Adversity came calling
Three different situations aligned in my son’s life that made me realize he has been facing some difficult times and making tough decisions. After four years playing football at school (he’s a sophomore), he decided the dislocated shoulder was a big warning. Actually, his friend having surgery for a nearly identical injury that was just more severe was the real warning. Some of the freshman have taunted him, calling him “quitter.” Sticking with a decision in the face of such peer pressure is tough.

He’s also been struggling with one course in particular, getting good grades during one chapter or unit and then faltering with the next. He goes in after school sometimes for extra help, but the big challenge he faces is being able to admit clearly where he’s struggling and asking for specific help. Otherwise the teachers assume he’s just finishing homework. Saying “I don’t understand” is embarrasing to him.

The third situation showed up earlier this week. It wasn’t exactly his challenge, but I realized it was close enough to him that it might lead to a serious temptation. His teacher in a course where he does fairly well sent a message that some students in a different teacher’s class for that same subject had been Googling test answers on their phones. I wondered if he would ever feel the temptation in a class where he was struggling.

Time to talk about character
I decided to take a few minutes when I picked him up from school to talk about those qualities that we call on when facing tough decisions, embarrassment, and temptations. I asked him to talk with me about character. It turned out to be a fantastic conversation that gave me a lot of insight into his understanding and also provided the opportunity for me to explain some things to him. On top of that, as I thought things through I filled in my understanding with some important details.

With his permission, I want to share with you the highlights of our conversation. One hope I have for you is that you will be inspired to have important conversations. Another hope is that you will join the discussion about character to help me deepen my understanding.

Selfish Benefits of Building Character

I started by asking my son what character meant to him. I knew part of the answer would be the way character was explained by the high school football coach. I was surprised by what he added.

The football answer was, “Don’t give up when things get tough.” That fits the coach’s description. They work on what he calls mental toughness, which means playing hard when tired, playing hard when sore, and keeping emotions under check on the field – not being a hothead and not giving in to despair.

However, he also said it meant being able to self-regulate (surprising phrase!), which he described as avoiding temptation and staying on task and doing what you’re supposed to do. Then he added that character is ultimately about doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.

The practial approach
I wanted to help him understand components of character so he could develop them, and also see why it mattered. Character as a pragmatic, self-focused benefit. Pretty inspirational, don’t you think?

His first answer about why character mattered was that other people will eventually notice if you are not trustworthy or reliable and you will lose relationships. Spot on! But I wanted him to look at the value of character “when nobody else is looking.” The costs and benefits are very much about the outcomes in our lives.

Here are highlights of how we described the qualities and consequences of high character and low character.

The path of high character

  • Delaying gratification
  • Sacrificing near-term to benefit long-term
  • Self-discipline, avoiding temptations and unhealthy behaviors
  • Self-direction, choosing what’s right for oneself
  • Facing challenges and persevering
  • Doing unpleasant or uncomfortable things because they’re necessary
  • Facing pain – uncomfortable thoughts and feelings – as directly as possible
  • Reaching long-term goals
  • Ongoing accomplishment and achievement
  • Ability to design and craft your own life
  • Long-term better life
  • Long-term healthier choices
  • Self-Directed – Having agency, the ability to direct situations and influence or shape outcomes

The path of low character

  • Immediate gratification
  • Sacrificing long-term to benefit near-term
  • Self-indulgence, engaging in unhealthy behaviors that provide short-term enjoyment
  • Fitting in, succumbing to peer pressure, choosing what impresses other people
  • Avoiding challenges, giving up, making excuses
  • Avoiding uncomfortable and unpleasant things although they’re necessary
  • Avoiding pain, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, sometimes at a high cost, usually through unhealthy behaviors that provide a short-term rush and distraction
  • Shifting goals, rarely making forward progress in life, looking for easy ways
  • Pursuing social recognition for shallow things instead of true achievement
  • Holding unrealistic fantasies about the future without a clear understanding of how to make things happen
  • Near-term focus on entertainment and distraction; Long-term aimless life of struggle
  • Near-term unhealthy choices, often justified with victim language; long-term health consequences
  • Perceiving self as a victim, battered by circumstances and mistreated by others, without the power to change things

Self as victim
The low character person sees self as a victim. Language is around being powerless, treated unfairly by people and/or by circumstances. Victimhood relieves the person of responsibility.

Victimhood is the justification for unhealthy choices that distract and avoid pain. Pain is seen as being victimized and nothing can be done about it other than avoiding it. Victimhood is the justification for inconsistency and lack of integrity. Circumstances and other people’s choices create challenges and conflicts, which the lower character person sees as beyond his or her power to shape or navigate.

When circumstances change, ‘commitments’ collapse. The lower character person says, “I meant it when I said it but things changed.” He or she has no real understanding that commitment incorporates the ideas that things will change and situations will become difficult, and that commitment means setting an intention to persist through those challenges.

Self as director
The higher character person sees self as author and director, with power to shape situations, from influencing to designing and creating. Language is around action and culture, being involved in defining the guidelines and principles for a project or a group.

Self-Direction (Self-Authorship) embraces responsibility, understanding responsibility is inseparably connected with exercising authority and power. Self-direction is the motivation for facing pain and embracing healthy choices. Pain is seen as an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life that must be faced and experienced and that often produces wisdom and growth, even transformation. Self-Direction is a motivation for integrity: consistent, predictable behavior that is respectful and based in core values and principles. When circumstances and other people’s choices create challenges and conflicts, the high character person looks for his or her responsibility and points where he or she can exercise control in order to shape the situation or navigate through the difficulty.

When circumstances change, commitments hold firm. The high character persons says, “I meant it when I said it and I mean it still.” He or she understands fully that commitment incorporates the ideas that things will change and situations will become difficult, and that he or she is setting an intention to persist through those challenges.

He really wants me to tell you this
My son realizes that when he’s not doing his best at something, usually school work or chores, he’s nearly always struggling with laziness, arrogance, or both. He thinks a lot of people will identify with that so he wants me to include what we realized while talking about these two mindsets.

Laziness and arrogance are the foils of character. They can both speak the language of victims and persuade a person to perceive self as victim and justify irresponsible or unhealthy choices.

The power of laziness to persuade
Laziness victimhood says, “This is too hard, and that’s not fair.” When something is perceived as difficult because of unfairness, the difficulty is considered to be unreasonable and avoiding it becomes justified. Low character behaviors like cutting corners, plagiarism, exaggerating performance numbers, and so forth are considered reasonable because the expectations are unreasonable and oppressive.

To be clear, my son has cut corners many, many times and stopped before he was thoroughly finished. But he hasn’t plagiarized or exaggerated his performance. Those were examples form situations he knew about.

The power of arrogance to persuade
Arrogance victimhood says, “This is embarrassing, and that’s not fair.” When something is perceived as putting one’s image at risk, such as asking for help or admitting struggling with something challenging to accomplish, the challenge is considered unreasonable and hiding it becomes justified. Low character behaviors like withholding information, delaying telling difficult truths, distorting stories, deceiving, and full-blown lying are considered reasonable. The embarrassment of being seen as inept is victimhood and therefore unreasonable.

My son holds back information when it’s about his performance at school. He delays telling the truth, waiting for me to find out instead of telling me, choosing to avoid the immediate discomfort even though he knows he will have to go through it and it will be easier if he tells me.

I’m sure there are other members of the “7 deadly sins” that are the foils of character. I’ll be pondering this. I hope you will, too.

Application: Choose an important, meaningful topic about your personal life and explore it. Spend time journaling about it or sketching out your ideas. Look for the opportunity to have a conversation with someone about it. Up the challenge and have a conversation with someone close to you about a topic that affects your relationship.

Question: How can you use a difficult conversation about an important topic as an opportunity to challenge yourself to face something in you that you want to change through growth?

Having the important conversation is an act of high character. Facing something in you that is pain-driven or fear-driven takes courage and is an act of high character. Even if you don’t choose character as the topic to explore, the act of exploring the challenging topic will be an act that builds your character.

I’m not being sneaky. It just works that way.

What do you think? Did we miss some things? I’m sure we did. Did we get some things wrong? It’s likely. I would love to hear your take on character.

May you be agile on your trail.

Take Care,

Stephen Coxsey, MA, LPC, PCC
Positive Psychology Coach
Developing Leaders and Self-Leaders

About Steve Coxsey

Steve is a supportive ally to people in charge who carry the responsibility for results in a variety of roles. They have a compelling vision of what they would like to create or accomplish and are committed to turning it into reality. To do this, they build the elements of leadership – guiding self, guiding work, and guiding others – by engaging in whole-self development.

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