Integrity Matters
February 8, 2006

Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it

Question: (E-222)

Dear Jim:

What builds character?


Disappointment and failure are atop the list of character-builders. A wise executive observed that he learned more during one nearly disastrous year than during five years of relatively uncomplicated success. "Adversity does not build character," goes the adage. "It reveals it."

Such observations suggest that problems are little more than occasions to rejoice, for no other reason than the marvelous character-building learning curve such circumstances provide. Therefore, individuals ought to welcome problems because they confirm they are still alive and able to continue learning and growing.

But being hit by multiple hurricanes (literally or figuratively) in rapid succession represents character-building moments that may also present significant tests of physical strength and emotional endurance. Responsible risk-taking, including learning from failures, is the beginning of character-building wisdom. Providing an appropriate context for addressing disappointments and failures by caring parents facilitates their children's endurance, better enabling them to prosper in hard times.

Character is a byproduct of many stresses, and it seems reasonable then that more challenges must be better. This logic works, but only up to a point. When the waters of challenge and frustration get neck high, threatening death, relief is essential. Yes, developing character requires enough strength and fortitude to tread water until either the floods subside or a lifeguard offers assistance. The waiting game with its ambiguity, even when accompanied by hope and faith, still takes a toll. Threatened, by a variety of challenges, humans need time to rebuild strength and confidence.

Slowing down long enough to think and plan often turns out to be the most efficient way, at least in the long run, to respond. Harried lives should never be guided by hurried decisions and actions. Character - forged in the fires of fear, uncertainty and doubt - requires courage to risk and the willingness to learn from failure.

Character requires strength and optimism. Exhaustion makes cowards of many. To live at the ready means taking adequate time for rejuvenation, reflection and preparedness.

Vacations provide welcome relief, sanctuary from emergencies - including some of the excruciating demands even of daily routine. Those unable or unwilling to "idle their engines" risk burn out and poor decision-making, missing golden opportunities to leverage insights that build character.

Quiet space reduces stress for some while others seek a hideaway that provides a change of pace, whether nearby or far from home. Even powerful engines are allowed to cool down. Should humans operate differently?
Contingency planning increases confidence and optimism, building character, an attribute of integrity.

Because character is the ability to carry out the resolution long after the initial burst of enthusiasm is gone, then disappointments and failures are stepping stones to success with character.

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