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Character is Fate: 10 Habits That Will Help you To Live and Be Better

By June 6, 2024June 13th, 2024Principal's Blog

As we approach the end of the school year, many students are taking stock of the year that was. Many students are looking towards next year and they are wondering how to improve. There is a preoccupation in our society with achieving more, with acquiring more, and with doing more.

Rather than offer a Principal’s Blog for the May Newsletter, I would like to share a powerful and succinct article from author Ryan Holiday. Ryan Holiday suggest that rather than achieving more, acquiring more, we simply need to do good, to be good, and to find the good in the world.

Character is Fate: 10 Habits That Will Help you To Live and Be Better

There aren’t too many of us who are satisfied with the person we currently are.

That is, we know we could be better. We know we should be better.

And by better, we don’t mean at our jobs, at lifting weights, or looking better, or having more money.

We know we could be better people–that is to say, kinder, more generous, more patient, more thoughtful, more reliable.

But how many of us actually do anything about this? How many of us are as focused on being good?

“A better wrestler?” Marcus Aurelius asked himself, rhetorically, referring to the time he spent improving at one of his hobbies. “But not a better citizen, a better person, a better resource in tight places, a better forgiver of faults?”

What is your most important job? he emphasizes. “To be a good person.”

When the Stoics talked about the virtue of justice, they weren’t talking about a legal system of rules and codes. They were talking about what Marcus was talking about—actively working to be a better citizen, a better person, a better resource, a better forgiver of faults.

That’s what I spent a lot of time thinking about as I wrote my newest book, Right Thing, Right Now. It’s about this key Stoic virtue, the virtue that challenges us to put in the work to be good, not just to be great. You know, values, character, deeds.

So here, riffing on some ideas from Right Thing, Right Now are 10 habits that will make you better at your most important job—being a good person:

  1. Tell the truth. “I’m going to be honest with you…”. How many times have you heard this phrase or said it yourself? It seems casual or like a way to establish trust. But beginning a remark by claiming we’re going to give it to you straight is of course implying that most of the time we’re not doing that. Honesty should not need a preface, Marcus Aurelius would say. An honest person should be like a smelly goat in the room—you know when they’re there. In matters big or small, public or private, convenient or inconvenient, tell the truth. Don’t be a jerk about it. Don’t give everyone your unsolicited opinion about how they should live or look or act. “Speak the truth as you see it,” Marcus reminded himself, “but with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.” Be honest, not hurtful. Be a bastion of truth in a time of lies. This is more than just the right thing to do, it’s your job. As a friend. As a parent. As an employee. As a human being.
  2. Respect others. Clementine Churchill once left a note for her husband. “My Darling Winston,” she wrote, “I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.” Yes, he had power, she noted, but if you keep disrespecting people, “You won’t get the best results.” The way you treat others sets off a chain reaction that shapes your life in profound ways. Disrespect, rudeness, pettiness, jealousy—these things repel. But dignity, equanimity, politeness, calm—they attract. They draw people in. They bring the best out of others. Choose wisely.
  3. Give, give, give. When Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book, he avoided procrastination and overthinking. His only ritual before starting was to make a small donation to a charity he and his wife supported. Like ancient sacrifices to gods before battle, the rabbi waged the war of art by first striking with an act of kindness. Generosity is admirable, and many of us wish we could be better at it. There’s only one way to improve, and it happens to be the same way one gets better at writing or any other craft: by doing it. Not later, once we’re better off or once somebody reallyneeds it. But consistently, regularly, habitually. Money is not the only currency of generosity. You can give your time, your energy, your words of encouragement, your patience, your kindness. Seneca reminds us that every person we meet is an opportunity for kindness. For expressions of generosity. How are you doing? Do you need anything? Can I help you with that? These opportunities are everywhere, every day. Start to seize them. Make a habit of it.
  4. Find the good. During one of his many stints in prison, Gandhi made a pair of sandals for General Jan Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, who put Gandhi in jail. Somewhere in Smuts, despite his complicity in a racist and exploitative system, there was goodness, Gandhi believed. Smuts wore the sandals and thought of Gandhi’s grace and goodness as he did. Smuts eventually tried to return them, saying he felt unworthy to stand in the shoes of such a great man. To his credit, he made an effort to fill those shoes. He contributed to the founding of the League of Nations, drafted the UN Charter, and helped find a homeland for Jews after the Holocaust. He said Gandhi inspired him to redeem himself. Each of us, the Holocaust survivor Edith Eger would later write, has both a Hitler and a Corrie ten Boom (one of the Righteous Among the Nations honorees) inside us. Which one are you letting out? Which one are you seeing in others?
  5. Choose a north star. I watched Dov Charney go from a hero in the fashion business to one of its villains. In the early days, he was focused on challenging the broken assumptions of the business. He cared about his workers. He cared about the environment. Later, it became all about him, all about his urges, all about his power. This is the power of a north star. It can take you on an amazing journey or get you hopelessly lost. Your values, your aspirations, the things pushing and pulling you—whatever they are, they foretell a prophecy. They determine where you’ll end up…and who you’ll be when you get there. Cash is a bad but easy north star to default to. Same with ego, fame, power, a desire for revenge or dominance—they will lead you astray. Loyalty, mastery, a love of the game, a desire to keep your hands clean, to be an open book, have a clear conscience. These things take you north. They lead you forward. They cut through the noise. Of the cardinal directions, justice is the clearest, the Stoics said—it points you north, shows you where to go. Follow it, and you’ll end up in a good place…and you’ll be a good person when you get there.
  6. Hold the line. Your north star will illuminate a line in your life. That is, the line between good and evil, right and wrong, ethical and unethical, fair and unfair. Couragerequires you to put your ass on that line. Self-discipline tells you to get your ass in line. Justice is holding that line. It’s what you will do and what you won’t. What you will stand for and what you won’t stand for. It’s the decisions you make, the actions you take. Indeed, all the philosophical and religious traditions–from Confucius to Christianity, Plato to Hobbes and Kant—are best preached not with words but with actions. Each action is like a lantern that hollows darkness and uncertainty. Each decision to do the right thing is a statement that our peers, children, and future generations will hear. So draw the line and hold it.
  7. Develop competence. Keeping your word, taking responsibility, having compassion, good intentions, and good values are great. So is wanting to change things, to take on evil or injustice. But these feelings are worthless without competence. Florence Nightingale is often portrayed as an angelic nurse gliding through the halls of hospitals. The reality is much more impressive. She was a tireless seeker of knowledge, a stern teacher and trainer of a generation of talented nurses, a fierce advocate for resources, a diligent fundraiser, and a skilled steward of that money. If a problem is to be solved, it must be studied. If progress is to be made, if positive change is to happen, it will be paved not with good intentions but rock-hard competence. It will require courage, discipline, and wisdom. Of course it will. If change, if being of service, if developing smarts, capability, and competence were easy, everyone would do it and no one would be impressive.
  8. In the struggle against injustice, it’s easy to let bitterness and hatred harden your heart. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” When we close ourselves off to love and hope, we naturally experience less love and hope. The Bible reminds us that “whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.” And James Baldwin, that “hatred…has never failed to destroy the men who hated.” Hatred corrodes. It takes you south, backward, down, down to depths. Love, on the other hand, protects, trusts, hopes, preserves. Love does not fail. It takes you north, it leads you forward. It always wins. Which way are you going? Is your heart growing or shrinking? Is your love and compassion and connection for other people, your hope for a better future, growing or shrinking?
  9. Just be kind. How did Hadrian know that Antoninus would be a worthy mentor to Marcus Aurelius? That he could give his absolute power to another man with only a promise that Antoninus would protect and guide Marcus to one day rule in his place? Because he felt he had glimpsed into Antoninus’ true character when he had once watched Antoninus help his elderly stepfather up a flight of stairs. He didn’t know anyone could see. It wasn’t a performance. It wasn’t ‘virtue signaling’ as we call it today. It was actualvirtue—what Antonius brought to his twenty years as Marcus’ guardian and to the Roman people as their leader. Character is fate, the Stoics said. Small acts are no small thing, they said. A helping hand, a smile, a door held open, a favor rendered—you never know who might be watching. You never know what low moment you might be rescuing a person from. You never know the ripple effect your small gesture can have. But that’s not why we do it. We do it because it’s right—because people deserve kindness and because kindness makes us better. We do it because it’s the discipline we practice.
  10. Leave this place better than you found it. There’s a sign at the track I used to run at in Austin that reads: “Leave This Place Better Than You Found It.” It was put up by the Hollywood Henderson, who paid for the track (and made the neighborhood better). You don’t have to save the planet. You don’t have to save someone’s life. Can you make sure you pick up a piece of trash when you see it? Can you do something nice for a stranger? Can you just make things a little bit better every day?

Life is short.

Be good. Do good. Find the good.

Draw the line and hold it. Be respectful, kind, competent. Love and be loved.

Do the right thing.

Right now.

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