The Superior Character

This law is simple and inexorable: you have a set character. It was formed out of elements that predate your conscious awareness. From deep within you, this character compels you to repeat certain actions, strategies, and decisions. The brain is structured to facilitate this: once you think and take a particular action, a neural pathway is formed that leads you to do it again and again. And in relation to this law, you can go in one of two directions, each one determining more or less the course of your life.

The first direction is ignorance and denial. You don’t take notice of the patterns in your life; you don’t accept the idea that your earliest years left a deep and lasting imprint that compels you to behave in certain ways. You imagine that your character is completely plastic, and that you can re-create yourself at will. You can follow the same path to power and fame as someone else, even though they come from very different circumstances. The concept of a set character can seem like a prison, and many people secretly want to be taken outside themselves, through drugs, alcohol, or video games. The result of such denial is simple: the compulsive behavior and the patterns become even more set into place. You cannot move against the grain of your character or wish it away. It is too powerful.

This was precisely the problem for Howard Hughes. He imagined himself a great businessman, establishing an empire that would outdo his father’s. But by his nature, he was not a good manager of people. His real strength was more technical—he had a great feel for the design and engineering aspects of airplane production. If he had known and accepted this, he could have carved out a brilliant career as the visionary behind his own aircraft company and left the day-to-day operations to someone truly capable. But he lived with an image of himself that did not correlate with his character. This led to a pattern of failures and a miserable life.

The other direction is harder to take, but it is the only path that leads to true power and the formation of a superior character. It works in the following manner: You examine yourself as thoroughly as possible. You look at the deepest layers of your character, determining whether you are an introvert or extrovert, whether you tend to be governed by high levels of anxiety and sensitivity, or hostility and anger, or a profound need to engage with people. You look at your primal inclinations—those subjects and activities you are naturally drawn to. You examine the quality of attachments you formed with your parents, looking at your current relationships as the best sign of this. You look with rigorous honesty at your own mistakes and the patterns that continually hold you back. You know your limitations— those situations in which you do not do your best. You also become aware of the natural strengths in your character that have survived past adolescence.

Now, with this awareness, you are no longer the captive of your character, compelled to endlessly repeat the same strategies and mistakes. As you see yourself falling into one of your usual patterns, you can catch yourself in time and step back. You may not be able to completely eliminate such patterns, but with practice you can mitigate their effects. Knowing your limitations, you will not try your hand at things for which you have no capacity or inclination. Instead, you will choose career paths that suit you and mesh with your character. In general, you accept and embrace your character. Your desire is not to become someone else but to be more thoroughly yourself, realizing your true potential. You see your character as the clay that you will work with, slowly transforming your very weaknesses into strengths. You do not run away from your flaws but rather see them as a true source of power.

Look at the career of the actress Joan Crawford (1908–1977). Her earliest years would seem to mark her as someone extremely unlikely to make it in life. She never knew her father, who abandoned the family shortly after her birth. She grew up in poverty. Her mother actively disliked Joan and constantly beat her. As a child she learned that the stepfather she adored was not really her father, and shortly thereafter he too abandoned the family. Her childhood was an endless series of punishments, betrayals, and abandonments, which scarred her for life. As she began her career as a film actress at a very young age, she examined herself and her flaws with ruthless objectivity: she was hypersensitive and fragile; she had a lot of pain and sadness she could not get rid of or disguise; she wanted desperately to be loved; she had a continual need for a father figure.

Such insecurities could easily be the death of someone in a place as ruthless as Hollywood. Instead, through much introspection and work, she managed to transform these very weaknesses into the pillars of her highly successful career. She decided, for instance, to bring her own feelings of sadness and betrayal into all of the different roles she played, making women around the world identify with her; she was unlike so many of the other actresses, who were so falsely cheerful and superficial. She directed her desperate need to be loved toward the camera itself, and audiences could feel it. The film directors became father figures whom she adored and treated with extreme respect. And her most pronounced quality, her hypersensitivity, she turned outward instead of inward. She developed intensely fine antennae tuned to the likes and dislikes of the directors she worked with. Without looking at them or hearing a word they said, she could sense their displeasure with her acting, ask the right questions, and quickly incorporate their criticisms. She was a director’s dream. She coupled all of this with her fierce willpower, forging a career that spanned over forty years, something unheard of for an actress in Hollywood.

This is the alchemy that you must use on yourself. If you are a hyperperfectionist who likes to control everything, you must redirect this energy into some productive work instead of using it on people. Your attention to detail and high standards are a positive, if you channel them correctly. If you are a pleaser, you have developed courtier skills and real charm. If you can see the source of this trait, you can control the compulsive and defensive aspect of it and use it as a genuine social skill that can bring you great power. If you are highly sensitive and prone to take things personally, you can work to redirect this into active empathy (see chapter 2), and transform this flaw into an asset to use for positive social purposes. If you have a rebellious character, you have a natural dislike of conventions and the usual ways of doing things. Channel this into some kind of innovative work, instead of compulsively insulting and alienating people. For each weakness there is a corresponding strength.

Finally, you need to also refine or cultivate those traits that go into a strong character—resilience under pressure, attention to detail, the ability to complete things, to work with a team, to be tolerant of people’s differences. The only way to do so is to work on your habits, which go into the slow formation of your character. For instance, you train yourself to not react in the moment by repeatedly placing yourself in stressful or adverse situations in order to get used to them. In boring everyday tasks, you cultivate greater patience and attention to detail. You deliberately take on tasks slightly above your level. In completing them, you have to work harder, helping you establish more discipline and better work habits. You train yourself to continually think of what is best for the team. You also search out others who display a strong character and associate with them as much as possible. In this way you can assimilate their energy and their habits. And to develop some flexibility in your character, always a sign of strength, you occasionally shake yourself up, trying out some new strategy or way of thinking, doing the opposite of what you would normally do.

With such work you will no longer be a slave to the character created by your earliest years and the compulsive behavior it leads to. Even further, you can now actively shape your very character and the fate that goes with it.

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