003B. A Conversation on How to Build Character

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Key Quotes

• “Building takes time, planning, and patience. Building character is no different.” – Wesley Jackson
• “You can’t build character unless you know what you’re building towards. So figure out who you want to be.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary

• Character is defined as someone’s mental and moral qualities, which are built up of habits and behavior patterns over time.
• Coming to terms with one’s true self is important as we are only at our best when we are being ourselves.
• There is no universal way to define character as each person has a unique set of values, emotions, and experiences.
• Society does not prioritize self-actualization and doesn’t provide guidance on how to build character.
• Abuse and neglect in childhood have a significant effect upon one’s character.
• We should strive to treat children as individuals with respect and empathy rather than possessions.
• The individual should take the initiative to develop their character by familiarizing themselves with core values and taking tests/surveys online.

Links to Additional Resources

• New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research
• Personal Values Quiz
• VIA Character Strengths Survey
• Atomic Habits by James Clear
• Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Andrew Gilley: How do you think character is related to habits?

In today’s self-help podcast episode, we explore how building character is worth revisiting today in the context of habits, we then examine the nature of personal character and how it’s an important factor in our lives.

Lastly, we share insights we have compiled on how to effectively handle the difficulties we all may encounter when building our characters.

Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast, where we shift your perspective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

We are Wesley Jackson and Andrew Gilley, and we hope to foster a sense of connection and community over our common struggles while providing you with tools to overcome them.

As always, our FacebookSubreddit, and Twitter are the best places to go for community, connection, and support. Links to these are in the show notes.

Let’s get started.

So, Wes, let’s start off basic. Let’s talk definitions, what is character?

[00:00:43] Wesley Jackson: I’d say that character is defined by somebody’s mental and moral qualities.

It pretty much constitutes how we present ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. So, this character of ours is built up through a series of habits or behavior patterns over time. This forms the core of who we are as a person and how we identify ourselves.

As we’ve mentioned in last month’s episodes on routines, habits are largely performed on autopilot. So, if we’re intentional and disciplined in our approach, we can change these habits and thus, as a result, we can actually change who we are and our character.

[00:01:23] Andrew Gilley: That’s a good summary there. I do wanna clarify. We don’t really mean all of the kind of idiosyncracies somebody has. We’re not saying like, “Oh, she’s a character.”

We’re not talking about it really in that way. There’s nothing morally wrong with certain personality traits. Some people are more upbeat, there’s not a right or wrong with somebody being introverted or extroverted, it’s just ways people are different. But when we’re talking about moral character, we’re talking about something a good person does. And not only that, we’re talking about them doing actions that let you know. We mean that they act in the way they should act. Character is, it’s not a feeling or action. It’s something, it’s an attribute you have that makes you do the right thing. Now, of course, that’s what a good character is.

We also might have bad, or what the Greeks called vicious character. But, broadly we’re looking at what makes somebody do the right thing in the right circumstances.

[00:02:12] Wesley Jackson: And so when it comes to doing the right thing in character, why is this relevant then today, Andrew?

[00:02:17] Andrew Gilley: I think we put too little emphasis on it. This isn’t a particularly hot take or anything, but I always think about how many times I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. But, what we’re talking about when we talk about that is we’re talking about somebody’s occupation, putting the real emphasis on occupation as what do you wanna be when you grow up, I think that’s not the way we ought to go about it.

And a lot of people just believe that their character is what they think. You can believe all the right things, you could have a perfect moral code – if such a thing existed – and you could still just choose to break it.

Or, you could imagine some guy who becomes a hero completely unintentionally, like he trips over and knocks over a bank robber…

Anyway, you could see all of these different angles where our beliefs aren’t our character. These aren’t identical things. Just because you think the right things, or the things you think are the right things, doesn’t mean you’re a good person. It’s about building up habits of good action inside of yourself that make you do those things without thinking.

That’s good character.

[00:03:11] Wesley Jackson: I really like how you mentioned people ask you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” or when they say, “What do you want to be?” They don’t actually mean who you want to be. They’re talking about what do you want to be.

What job title do you want to assign to yourself when you grow up? Not who do you want to become? . This is actually something that’s also mentioned within the book back in the middle of the 1970s actually called Type A Behavior and Your Heart.

And it’s the same thing: don’t think about things worth doing, think about things worth being. I think it’s really important to focus on that because a lot of people’s character is formed as of late, merely by their opinions on current events.

You were saying just because you think something does not mean you are something.

I think the problem is that these opinions are also largely shaped nowadays by whatever news network or political view that people personally subscribe to, especially here in the US. So, rather than forming character ourselves, we instead serve as essentially mouthpieces for news networks.

And we create these echo chambers where we’re just regurgitating what we heard essentially rather than becoming an actual individual person. So, the individual here just fades away into this abyss of groupthink and mob mentality.

[00:04:28] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, and this isn’t unique to any particular group or anything.

It’s really just about the human social connection we get from just hearing things we already think repeated back to us. It feels good. Primally, you get that dopamine, you get that social bonding, but it’s not how you make a better person, it’s how you goof off with your friends.

That’s where we wanna draw that kind of line.

So, I would like you to talk a little bit, because it’s obvious that character is important to our lives, but in what ways specifically do you think having good character and knowing what that is can benefit us?

[00:04:57] Wesley Jackson: I think it’s best said by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. It goes, “Knowing others is intelligence. Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.”

So, if we don’t know ourselves, how can we ever consider ourselves wise in this case? How can we ever take our own power into our own hands and really take control of our own destiny and become who we want to be?

So, if we don’t do this, how can we ever think for ourselves? It’s not possible, unless we’re intentional about building our character. And if we don’t do this, we leave ourselves really open to manipulation. What do you think?

[00:05:36] Andrew Gilley: I think there’s an even simpler answer: you should do the right thing. That’s what those words mean. Put together like that.

There’s a question I got a lot when I was teaching philosophy. People are like, “Why should I do the right thing?”

To me, it just seems like it’s in the definition of the word “right”. Now, you could argue that this is a concept or whatever, but I think that there’s a really good truth to it that is not more complicated than that, because it just means that if something’s right, we should do it.

Now, of course, major caveat here, we’re not all gonna agree on what that is, and that’s why we’re gonna talk more about how to build character and where character comes from later. But, that’s how we build up our engagement with the world. That’s how we understand ourselves by engaging in the world, living the way we think we should live, checking that, seeing if it’s aligning with our values and keeping going.

That to me seems to be the root of it, because you should just do the right thing because that’s what the right thing is for, but also much of the time, doing the right thing also makes you feel good. Not always, but I don’t think a lot of really evil people are happy.

[00:06:32] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, sometimes doing the right thing also means doing the hard thing.

[00:06:36] Andrew Gilley: Very true.

[00:06:36] Wesley Jackson: So, what’s the reason then, for the urgency here?

[00:06:40] Andrew Gilley: I think what I said earlier about what we say to kids is really important here, because we’re giving a lot of lip service to concepts. We teach our kindergartners and such, kindness, compassion, generosity, teamwork, courage, respect.

These are all good things. I’m a big fan of all these things, but that’s not really what real life is like. We give this kind of simplified image to kids and, it gets more complicated over time, but we never really get good explanations for a while. It’s not the nicest or the smartest person who becomes the CEO of a place, usually. It’s not generosity the rest of the world knows from America – what we export a lot is bombs. As a kid looking at that, looking at all the greed being celebrated in many cases, getting taught that war is bad and that it’s okay when we do it – these things are confusing for a kid.

And I’m not just pointing out moral hypocrisy, I just mean they’re very confusing and as such, we need to get clear. We need to teach this to kids and adults who don’t really understand it, it just leaves us all very confused when we grow up around all this hypocrisy and the world doesn’t really work like we’re taught it’s supposed to, and we don’t really get anything else from that.

So, you just latch onto your nearest explanation and can be bad. So it’s good to figure out what you think and maintain your own independence, but also use that new knowledge of yourself as a person to give back. That’s what a good character is.

[00:07:54] Wesley Jackson: Man, there’s a lot to unpack there. It’s really interesting, because it’s like the lifesaving device you were talking about something to like to grab onto.

So, I imagine you’re thrown this lifesaving device, but more often than not that’s a scapegoat of some sort to blame your own problems on and not actually take the opportunity to build character in response to certain events in your life.

Another interesting thing that you mentioned too is this macrocosm -microcosm dichotomy here, where we’re talking about the character of a nation as opposed to individual character and what we’re taught, like you said, in kindergarten for example.

And the difference between those two things probably creates a lot of cognitive dissonance in most young adults minds, I would assume, growing up when you see this stark difference between what you’re taught and then what is actually happening out there in the real world.

But to segue it, away from that more depressive take I suppose, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is just another word for realizing and manifesting our authentic self, or becoming who we were “meant” to be. And so if we’re not ourselves, then who are we, exactly? More often than not, we’re actually just attempting to live someone else’s life.

We have the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Everyone wants to be a millionaire.

I will be happy when I get something and then just fill in the blank. Or we’re living someone else’s idea of how we should live our life more often than not, what our parents think we should do. Go be a doctor, go be a lawyer, work a nine to five, punch in, punch out, save for retirement, and then that’s it.

That’s what a lot of people are expected to do. And doing this feels deeply wrong for a lot of people, myself included. And it causes chronic cognitive dissonance within someone’s mind because your true self never goes away. It’s always there no matter what you do to try to fight against it, or no matter what you take into your mind from other people’s input that may modulate it. The true self is always there. Maybe it’s imprisoned and rattling the cage, fighting to get out more often than not.

So, I think the reason for urgency here at the end of the day is that we’re only at our best when we are ourselves. We’re best able to help people when we are also at our best on an individual level.

But I wanted to ask, where do you feel this whole problem around character comes from, Andrew?

[00:10:19] Andrew Gilley: I think in general, we just don’t really think about character. Teaching philosophy – I taught mostly freshman – was always really interesting because a lot of them were coming out of high school with no philosophical background at all.

Just like I did, I never got taught philosophy at high school. I think some of the character stuff I was talking about at kindergarten stays at kindergarten a lot of the time, so we’re not really talking a lot about what does it mean to be a good person. We’re looking for rules and they’re abstracted and logical, and I don’t think that’s the way we ought to think about these things, because there’s no abstract concept for a person.

There’s no “person” that just exists independent of any individual. The concept of person is in all of us, and these are all grounded in things that we want, our emotions, our bodies, our desires, our minds.

All of these things tie together in a way that’s completely unique to you, but also in common with everyone else. I love the logic puzzles and philosophy, but I’ve never thought it was a good way to do moral instruction, because we don’t live in a black and white world where we can do all of the same rules, because we don’t have all the same values; every attempt to universalize that has never really worked.

And I think it’s because of this reason, because we all are embodied individuals living in the world. So, when we talk about character, this just isn’t the way we’re used to thinking about it, and so we just don’t a lot of the time.

[00:11:31] Wesley Jackson: I think what’s really interesting, you touched on it there, I’ll take a quantum physics approach to it and metaphysics, yeah. The universe is a dynamic system, right? So, it’s always changing. So is the mind. As a result, there’s this interesting kind of parallel between, the fact that we’re always changing, but then as human beings we also really appreciate and naturally seek out patterns and consistency.

So, when it comes to character, in this case, it’s really interesting because you’ll have phrases like, “Oh, they acted really out of character that wasn’t like them.”

Then you have this concern about there being something wrong with somebody.

But I think having this kind of perspective where you expect somebody to always be the same as you met them or as you knew them is not really realistic and like you were saying there’s no logical ruleset” to being a person. There’s no set of definitions that you have to check off in order to consider yourself a person of character. It does change, because like you said, we all also have different values, so we can also have different characters as a result.

But to tie it back to where we think this problem comes from… I’ll give a simple answer this time as opposed to what I just said: society.

I think it’s just society at the end of the day. Trying to fit into the societal mold despite who we actually are is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Not only does it not work, but if you keep trying to hammer that peg into the hole, what do you think is gonna happen?

Something’s gonna break either the peg or the hole. More often than not in this case, it’s the peg, which is you.

So, while society serves some purposes, obviously, self-actualization is not one of them. I don’t really see any case, honestly, out there in the real world right now where self-actualization of the individual is a goal of a society as a whole.

We’re not really given any explicit guidance outside of like you said, kindergarten, basically, on how to build our character and be a good person. It’s not something that’s taught in schools. The end result is we’ve got countless people out here feeling stuck, lost or broken, which ironically does not lend itself well to productivity, which seems to be the end goal of modern-day society, so I find that really weird.

What’s your take on that?

[00:13:43] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, I agree. The purpose of education is in theory supposed to be to make good citizens, but, a good citizen in this context means a good worker, a productive worker.

And I’m not saying productivity is bad or anything like that – I am saying we shouldn’t prioritize it above everything else. But a lot of stuff like meditation will make you more productive, because it’s also improving other things. It’s improving your connection to your own body and spirit and things like that.

It’s difficult because that kind of productivity, not everybody can do it. Like people who are disabled or people who are beaten down so hard by the system. They barely have any time to survive, black, indigenous people, basically anybody already oppressed in America. I know I keep harping on this point, but it’s always important to realize how these things compound on each other because as soon as you get punished once for deviating, you’re gonna either fall in line, which is what they want you to do, or you’re going to rebel and it gets just much crueler.

You didn’t do anything wrong.

You just weren’t born in the place that fits with who you are. And that’s unfortunate, but it happened to a lot of us.

[00:14:40] Wesley Jackson: You touched on it just now, but do you want to expand more on who do you feel this is a problem in particular for?

[00:14:46] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, the biggest issue, across all of these groups, beyond any kind of individual circumstances, it is harder to be a better person if you have to scramble for poverty or if you’re homeless or something like that.

So, obviously not everybody has the same opportunities to indulge in this sort of thing and build character. If somebody’s feeling lost like this, they don’t know what they think. They don’t know what they think is right, and they don’t know who they are.

And I can’t tell you what’s right. I think I’ve made this point clear already. I am not in the business of telling you what the rules for life are. I think later philosophers had it wrong, and I think the ancient Greeks had it right: you’re figuring out what you believe are your core values and acting based on that.

And I can’t tell you what those are.

But, philosopher Michael Sigrist points out thinking at this level, at the level of core values, requires thinking with your feelings, desires, motivations, and so on.

You can’t isolate it. You have to approach it with your whole self. That’s a difficult thing to ask somebody to do. It’s an important thing to do, but it’s a difficult thing. And even if you try a lot, it’s still hard, but you gotta keep trying, anyway.

So, how about you, who do you think this is a problem for?

[00:15:49] Wesley Jackson: Before I go into that, I really wanted to comment on how you mentioned the ancient Greeks not giving a prescription to what makes character and defining like a set of values.

[00:15:59] Andrew Gilley: Some did, I’m just speaking more broadly.

[00:16:01] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, in general they don’t. But, I think it’s interesting though, because it just made me think about the Tao Te Ching and there’s something known as the three treasures that’s prescribed as let’s call them higher values, so to speak.

[00:16:12] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, Aristotle gives lists of different virtues, but the point is they’re all context dependent. Something that’s brave for one person could be foolish for another, just like the same action can’t be brave in all circumstances because not all circumstances are the same.

[00:16:26] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, I think that’s a really important thing too, adding context to things like that.

So, who do I feel this is a problem in particular for? I would say anyone who, as a child, experienced abuse or neglect from an authority figure in their lives.

And unfortunately, this is most often one’s own parents, so I’m gonna read out a very long quote here: “According to a study in 2014, undertaken by the Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, Policy, and Practice, children who have experienced abuse and neglect are therefore at an increased risk for a number of problematic developmental health and mental health outcomes, including learning problems.

For example, problems with inattention and deficits in executive functions (that means ADHD here) problems relating to peers such as peer rejection, internalizing symptoms, depression and anxiety, externalizing symptoms such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, aggression, and lastly, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And so, as adults, these children continue to show increased risk for psychiatric disorders, substance use, serious medical illnesses, and lower economic productivity as an end result.”

[00:17:34] Andrew Gilley: There it is again. I can’t believe that’s in there, that’s fantastic.

[00:17:37] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, right there, the final cherry on top.

It’s like, yeah, if you treat children badly, they are going to be very messed up and thus unproductive. What do you expect from them? It’s kind of sad.

[00:17:48] Andrew Gilley: It is.

[00:17:49] Wesley Jackson: So, why should we care then, in this case? I find it hard to say that we can’t now after what you and I both just said.

[00:17:56] Andrew Gilley: Yeah. There’s a guy at UC Riverside, his name is Eric Schwitzgebel. He’s a philosophy of mind professor, who conducted a survey of ethics professors trying to figure out are ethics professors more ethical than the average person. And the answer is no, much to the disappointment of ethics professors. It is pretty funny.

So, that’s what I feel the thrust of my comment earlier was about getting stuck in that abstract level of thinking. It stops you from actually being able to implement those things because you’re thinking of it as an intellectual activity. But, it’s much more integrated than that, it’s also an emotional activity, and however you identify spiritually, that’s integrated, too.

So, building character is really just like any other habit. Just as you play the violin more, you get good at it. It’s just over and over again, and we have to make sure we’re aimed in our right directions.

Aristotle has a metaphor of an archer, here. You have to aim correctly with your values or you’re doing the wrong things; and we have to apply the right amount of pressure: too much and the string snaps, too little and you miss the target. So, it’s really about finding what you are comfortable with – you don’t want to be so generous that you give away all your money and lose your house, but, you don’t wanna be stingy and miserly to people.

So, finding that spot for each kind of person is important. To help each other with that is really important, too. Aligning ourselves that way with our core values means that we can really make a difference with other people when we find people who share our values and we can discuss with them how we feel we need to develop our characters to be people who live up to those.

[00:19:19] Wesley Jackson: I really like that metaphor of the archer with the bow and arrow. That’s a good one, in this case in particular, yeah, it’s all about balance, right?

We can intellectually understand the concept or what it takes to build character and we can walk away from this episode even and be like, “Okay, I know now that in order to really build a solid foundation of character, it comes down to habits.”

You can intellectually understand that, but like you just said, you have to do it. You have to become it, and that requires showing up every single day and putting effort and intention into doing this. You can’t just intellectually understand a concept, one that is especially as deep as this and personal, then just walk away saying, “Okay, I’m a better person now because I intellectually understand how to build character.”

It doesn’t work like that just like you said, and so, if we want the next generation to be better than the last, then we must do better. And we must be better.

And this is why we should care. We’re failing our children by not providing them with a framework on how to build character; at least some sort of guidance outside of kindergarten. We’re also failing them by trying to force them to be something that they’re not. By laying expectations upon them – telling them what they can and cannot do, or who they can and cannot be this only furthers this cycle of trauma and abuse that so many have already fallen victim to. We have to stop viewing our children as our possessions and start treating them as individuals, as fellow humans.

Until then, generational suffering is going to continue.

We’re gonna continue furthering that cycle that was cited in the 2014 study where we’re just creating ultimately unhappy and unproductive humans as a byproduct of this kind of character abuse, basically, is what it is.

[00:21:06] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, absolutely. So, through all of that struggle that we go through over our characters, how are we tying this back to our larger topic of habits? What are we doing with our habits when we build character?

[00:21:17] Wesley Jackson: I think it’s really important to zero in and focus on the word ” build” here. So, building takes time, it takes planning, and it takes patience. Building character is no different.

It’s similar to building habits, and since up to 40% of our lives are performed on habitual autopilot, by putting our habits under the microscope here, we can better figure out if the direction we are heading and thus who we are becoming is who we really want to be. I think that’s how it ties back to habits in a nutshell.

What about you?

[00:21:49] Andrew Gilley: Yep, I agree. I like this metaphor from Atomic Habits by James Clear. He says that any habit is like casting a vote for who you want to be. So, when you’re doing a good habit, you’re casting a vote for a good character and vice versa with a bad one.

I think that’s an important way to think about it, because it doesn’t really matter individually, but it’s a scale thing. This is also how people fall out of habits too. If you just stop meditating for a day and you don’t pick it back up, now you’re developing a new habit of not doing something, and that’s not good either. So, I think when you align those votes for your character with your core values and with your goals, then you’re on the path.

[00:22:22] Wesley Jackson: I read recently from an app called Virtue Map, that you can skip one day of a habit, but never two. Because once you do two, then, like you just said, you’ve now created a habit of not doing it.

It’s scary how slippery that slope is, right?

[00:22:38] Andrew Gilley: It is, it’s real slippery. James Clear says basically the same thing. You can take one day off, but not two.

[00:22:43] Wesley Jackson: So, what can then we, as individuals, do about this problem?

[00:22:46] Andrew Gilley: Again, I can’t answer what you, the viewer should be doing. That’s gonna depend on your circumstances, who you are as a person… I can’t tell you if you should have kids or not, because that’s based on what I think about me having kids and that’s if kids align with your core values.

There’s so many things, there’s lots of tests and surveys online you can take for core values. I think these are helpful. Probably the most helpful thing is once you familiarize yourself with it, just really sit with the concepts and think and write about them.

But, it’s a highly individual process, and Wes points out not all of our habits or our character are ours or influenced by ours. We don’t pick all of our character. I think we pick our flaws the least a lot of the time really, those come from trauma, or misinformation, or hate.

So, I can’t give you a rundown of a list. I think understanding values is what you can do individually to start this process and then from there figure out what habits go with that. I’ll give you a couple of practical tips from Aristotle. Basically, if you’re not sure what to do, pick the lesser of two evils, kinda lean in the direction that’s normally better.

So, if you’re trying to decide whether to be generous or not, you should probably just be generous. Just lean toward the good option. Being brave is usually better than being cowardly in most situations and things like that, it’s like a tiebreaker.

Also, be aware of your own flaws. If you like cigarettes a bunch, don’t put yourself in a situation where you wanna smoke, basically. If you know your own flaws, you can work around that. It doesn’t bug me now, but I did used to have to step away from my friends when they started smoking after I first quit.

And also just be careful of anything that already feels good. If you already like doing it, be careful not to do it too much. There is too much of a good thing and it’s really easy to get carried away if you already enjoy something, even if it’s good for you and often what it isn’t. So there’s a little practical advice.

[00:24:20] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, I think that’s a really good one, the last part. Working out, for example, let’s take that. There is such a thing as working out too much, believe it or not, everybody out there. Or playing video games with your friends for an hour each day, that can easily become four and it becomes unproductive and you’re losing sleep and stuff like that.

Just like you said, yeah, too much of a good thing. Be on the lookout and I think most importantly, hold yourself accountable for your own character building at the end of the day. People will try to build it for you, they’re gonna try to force you, the square peg, into that round hole.

As adults, we can’t go back in time. We can’t instill these frameworks that are necessary for building character and nobody’s gonna do it for us now. And here’s my practical advice on where to start. We’ve already talked a lot about it during this episode, but it’s with values.

Once we have identified our core personal values, through both in-depth introspection and I would say rigorous testing – so, go out there and take quizzes, take tests, and really define these you can really start to realize the core of your character. I think this is the first step to becoming who we truly are and returning to our inner child of sorts before all this societal conditioning.

We’ll add a link in the show notes to a personal values quiz that I found to be particularly helpful because it makes you pit your values that you have chosen head-to-head, and ultimately you will have a list of 10 core values on top.

After this first step has been completed, I then recommend moving on to determining one’s strengths. This process is also really valuable, because it really helps with empowering our self-confidence and reminding us what we’re good at. Or, if we don’t happen to really know or have an idea of what exactly we’re good at, this will tell you.

So, it also enables us to develop faster, because it’s better to double down on one’s strengths rather than trying to cover up or make up for any weaknesses that one has.

The best test for determining your key strengths, in my opinion, is from the VIA Character Strengths Survey, and that can be found on viacharacter.org.

So, there’s our practical advice, everybody. Thank you for listening.

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