Character: What You Have When You Have Nothing Else – #MisterImpact
Character. This bedrock of success can be defined as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.”
Let’s be clear here. “Mental”, in this case, is totally separate and distinct from intellect or intelligence. Brilliant people have orchestrated genocides. Brilliant people have driven off cliffs while distracted, been mugged while unaware of their surroundings, and invented idiotic and dangerous contraptions. More than one brilliant person has won a Darwin Award.
Mindset is not intellect, but you must have a strong mindset to survive entrepreneurship. You must have a solid foundation. And one of the most brilliant men in history, Albert Einstein, said that “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.”
Similarly, “moral” does not mean the God or gods or no-god you subscribe to, or whether it’s okay to be gay in your club’s view of the universe. Moral, here, is the totality of your understanding of right and wrong, your internal compass, the little cricket on your shoulder that you usually / sometimes / rarely heed.
To tie it all together, in the words of H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (the writer, not the other one), “Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”
You’re an entrepreneur. You’ve got vision. You’ve also got chutzpah, moxie, sass, grit and probably a healthy dose of pizazz.
But what do you do when you think no one is looking? Have you got a spine?
Have you got that quiet, not-flashy, not-temporary, essential quality of character? If you truly have any experience as an entrepreneur, you know you’ll need it. Character is the spine of your successful business and anything else you aim to accomplish. It’s the spine of any successful life.
You can have an okay career, and an okay life, without it — but why would you want to?
The best character, like the best spine, is strong and flexible. It bends under pressure, to accommodate and find solutions to survive, but it does not break. It will give you the strength to work until 4:00 a.m., when necessary, and the flexibility to pivot on your product or service at a time when hanging on too tightly would mean disaster.
Like a weak spine, a weak character will never bear up under the immense pressures of the independently responsible entrepreneur’s lifestyle. Working for others is far easier, no matter how employees in every industry might bitch about it.
We hear Take This Job And Shove It or the weekly refrain of Thank God It’s Friday… but very few employees ever actually make the terrifying leap to business ownership. Because business ownership is very difficult and very risky. My close friend and InfoSec guru Gal puts it into perspective like this: “As a consultant, I only get to eat what I kill.”
The cost of character (or lack thereof)
In the SEAL Teams, there is one simple key performance indicator to assess inadequate investment of discipline and commitment to training—we die.
Your risks may not be quite so severe in app development or social media optimization, but make no mistake; businesses, relationships, and self-respect die without investment, too. A weak character tries to take shortcuts. A strong character tends to be built through the realization that shortcuts nearly never work and a long sit down with Reality.
In the SEAL Teams, we were introduced to this Reality early in the program, by another close friend and SEAL Teammate. Shaun would torment us during PT (physical training) with the phrase “Pay me now, or pay me later!”
That’s the way it is with character, and success. There are no discounts on success. You have to pay retail.
Balancing power – with character
There is only one thing more damaging to the entrepreneurial mindset than a weak character. In contrast to a ‘weak’ character, consider the twisted one, like a thug waiting in the alley to bash in your brains and take your wallet.
This is not the exclusive domain of people who wait in alleys to bash other people’s brains in. Bernie Madoff is the economic equivalent of a thug, and he managed to bash in brains and take wallets to the tune of billions of stolen and mishandled dollars.
As someone who has built a career and life on protecting others, I’ve perhaps grown a little oversensitive to thug behavior, that misuse of strength and power. I recently learned that Bernie Madoff is happier now, living out a life sentence in prison. He has said he feels safer inside the big house and that he lived in fear on the outside for 20 years.
When Bernie Madoff came crashing down as the inevitable outcome of thinking he could work out a shortcut to success, he lost everything he had ever built. His adult son committed suicide. His wife told him she never wanted to see him again. And yet at this stage, he has found contentment and acceptance and, strangely, some form of happiness. His character was forced to grow through absolute loss and he now declares that he deserves everything he is getting.
Helen Keller could have told him so. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” (I would add to this the incredible stress of rolling the dice in borrowing against your home.)
In the end, it all comes back to the question of what it is that you do when no one is watching. Would you mind ‘getting caught’ in whichever act it is you’re in, at any given moment? Do you live in fear of getting caught or do you look forward to your work being discovered?
A word of advice for today’s connected world. Cameras are everywhere. In 2018 you will sometimes have someone looking when you least expect it — your behavior in that moment will drive whether that observation represents a net gain or loss on your business, or your marriage, or your membership in the upright citizens’ brigade, or your freedom to walk around in society without an electronic ankle monitor, or your investments which, played smartly, could set you up for the rest of your natural life.
America has just lost Billy Graham, pastor and teacher over a nearly 100-year lifespan. Whether you agree with him on details of divinity and practice, his observation in this area is hard to refute: “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.”
In #MisterImpact articles to follow, we’ll begin to tease out and study the components of which character is comprised: integrity, accountability, and humility, to name a few. For now, though, I’ll leave you with the simple guideline offered by the tough old SEAL Team SIX veteran (we’ll call him R.R.) who first welcomed me into the unforgiving life and purpose of the Teams many years ago: “If you take the right way, every time, you’ll always be right with me.”
Work – and live – like someone is watching. And strive to always be right with yourself and your team.