Working in a public accounting firm, the opportunities to be expressive are somewhat limited. Dress codes have loosened in recent years. When I started out, most men wore a business suit, tie-optional, with some variation of a blue check shirt. Work processes were standardized throughout the organization. We all used the same computers and software.
The one place my coworkers and I had some freedom to express ourselves was the background on our computers. Some people had photos of cool art, their families or favourite sports teams, or a picture from nature.
A colleague who worked in our tax group had a picture of Steve Nash shooting a free throw in a dark gym. As a Canadian and someone who likes basketball, this picture caught my attention. What I remember most about the picture, though, was the text inscribed at the top.
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
It is not hard to imagine Steve Nash in that dark gym, putting up shot after shot, working on his game. These sessions also help to build a more important quality – his character.
Sometimes a person is described as having or being of ‘good’ character. What does this mean? It is harder to define, but I think of it as the ‘stuff’ we are made of. It is the foundation upon which we act, particular in challenging situations. When a moment calls for more, our character will determine if we have what it takes to rise to the occasion and do the difficult thing.
Most of us have also experienced moments when we have lacked character. I certainly have. Those moments can be big, but more often they are small – perhaps even undetectable. Sometimes it is being passive when the situation calls for action.
I believe that any person who is being honest with themselves would like to see themselves as a person of character. If we are aware of the gaps, how then do we adjust and build character in ourselves? In my experience there are three important practices that can help in the quest for character.
1. Identify Character in Others
Before working towards something, I need to know where I am aiming. It is easy to want to be a person of character, but unless I can define what this is, it will be impossible to build. Sometimes it is easier to see in others than to define it in terms. When I surround myself with good people – people that I respect, admire, and look up to – I give myself the opportunity to learn.
For example, one thing I consistently struggle with is getting home from work by the time I committed to. It’s usually 10-15 minutes later. There is always one more email or task I can complete, and it is easy to get caught up in it and find myself incrementally delayed.
It is easy to dismiss this. I can say it is no big deal if I am a few minutes late. The truth is that when it is done consistently, it sends a message. When talking about this with a friend recently, he called me out. He pointed out that I am making a choice when I do not live up to my commitment to my family in terms of getting home by the time I committed to. The message that choice sends, whether conscious or not, is that the task at work is more important than my commitment to my family.
By surrounding myself with people of the character that I aspire to, it will naturally help sharpen me. As it says in Proverbs: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Pr 27:17).
2. Build Small
Whenever I hear about big financial frauds, I can’t help but think that the perpetrator did not start out with the goal of defrauding people of millions of dollars. I am open to being wrong, but it is hard to imagine that Bernie Madoff set out with a goal to run the largest Ponzi scheme in history. My guess is that he, like many convicted of fraud, saw an opportunity to make a profit by taking a shortcut. As the shortcuts start to pile up, the way to avoid getting caught is to take more risks and shortcuts.
Whether in finance or in life, when we take shortcuts, we will eventually get caught out. Sadly, many of these paths that led to scandal and loss could have been avoided. The solution is simple – to say no to the scheme at the first opportunity. Admittedly, this is easier said than done when the perceived windfall is high enough.
When that moment arrives, if we are not prepared, we may be vulnerable to its temptations. Like an athlete prepares for a race, we need to train our character. By exercising it in the small things, we build strength. The hope is that in doing so, we will have enough strength to stand strong in the big moments.
The act of building character does not have to be complicated. It is about making commitments to ourselves and then honouring them. For someone who struggles with this, it could be as simple as making a promise to go to bed at a certain time and then doing it.
Lately, I have been aspiring to read more, but my phone often becomes a distraction and I end up scrolling instead of reading a book. To help me in my goal to read more, I made a commitment to myself to put my phone away at 8pm. It is a small promise to myself, but every time I keep that promise it builds character. I feel better about myself when I keep my promises. The more I do it, the more confident I am that when life challenges me with something big, I will be able to stay true to the person I am called to be.
3. Root Out Weakness
When need to be ruthless in rooting out and eliminating behaviours that are holding us back from growing.
Each night before I go to bed, I pray the Examen prayer. It is a prayer that was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. The prayer is essentially one of reflecting on the day and asking God to guide me through my day. I replay the day in my mind, being aware of the blessings that were present throughout the day. I also identify the moments I fell short or wish to change. I ask for forgiveness for these moments.
Finally, I resolve to be better tomorrow. I usually commit to one action or focus for the next day.
The prayer is not overly complicated, but it does help me see both the good that is happening in my life and the challenges and opportunities to improve. If I notice a particular behaviour emerging that is hurtful towards myself or another, it brings clarity and renewed focus to change it.
Unless we are willing to constantly look for the weeds that choke the growth of our character, they will continue to fester. They choke out the good parts of us, sometimes undetected until something major happens.
Though it is more difficult, engaging in these places will ultimately result in strengthening of character.
To me, possessing good character means that at the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I have what it takes. Not because of my own strength and will, but because I am growing in God’s grace and becoming the man He created me to be. I get to participate in this process and each day I have the choice between trying to live as a man of character and to grow that character or to not.
Knowing that I want to end each day feeling good about the man looking back at me in the mirror helps me to make good decisions in the day-to-day. These are the moments that prepare us for the big battles we know will eventually come. The more times we say yes to character, yes to the version of ourselves that God created, the better off we and all those we interact with will be.
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