Sunday, October 6, 2013

Developing Character: The Impression You Make

Written and published originally for the September Issue of Bright Ideas by the National FFA Orgnization

A Man of Truth
In 1936 a motivated, 21-year old black man walked onto the only residential center where blacks could receive a higher education in his home country. Earning a degree at the University College of Fort Hare meant living among the African elite, and for this young man, it meant supporting his widowed mother and sisters and the dream of one day realizing national rights for justice.

Just a year later, the blossoming sophomore was elected to represent the student body. However, many students charged the administration with particular injustices in campus life and had boycotted the mandatory election. Thus, this young man saw the boycotted election—his election—as unjust. While it would have given him both favor with administration and a position of influence, he declined the elected position. Twice.

Wanting to reassert authority over the growing student rebellion, the university headmaster gave the young man an ultimatum: accept the position or be expelled from Fort Hare. And, that day, the young Nelson Mandela packed his bags and walked out the door of the only place which could give him a real future in South Africa. The education doors closed on Mandela that day, and so did the odds of his family’s prosperity and the realization of his personal dream for national justice faded.

Nelson Mandela based his life on what was right. Time and time again, the eventual President would continue choosing to adhere to the truth, no matter the suffering he would endure. He could have accepted the election, seeing it as a means to the end of influencing the administration for justice and setting himself up for greater justice activities later.

He didn’t. He stood up for the truth.

So, Mandela was expelled, and later imprisoned, persecuted and alienated. Eventually, elected President, he became one of the most influential men for the cause of justice in our age—and among the strongest examples of character.

Everything we do speaks of who we are: big, small, totally private or blatantly public. All of what we do becomes part of our character. Mandela understood this. Nelson Mandela built his character around the truth.

What is Character?
The English term character comes from the Greek kharakter, meaning an “imprint” or “impression” as on a coin. Another translation is “an engraved mark on the soul”. Your character is the impression you make on others, what they take with them of you when you depart one another. These impressions are made every time we interact with others or even when others speak of us to people we don’t even know. You don’t know Mandela, but you do have an impression of him. I’d bet it’s positive.

Our actions form our character. Others perceive your character by encountering you in person, from your activity online, and via others even when you aren’t present. What do you think advisors, teammates, and students say of you? What impression are you making?

Today, our lives are more public than ever: telling others who we are, what we believe, and where we are heading. As state officers, we are in the public eye more than most, and students see us as role models. You were elected, like Mandela, and others are watching your decisions.

Online & Real-Time Impressions
We make “impressions” in two realms. Online, we send thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and photos soaring through cyberspace and onto the screens of anyone who follows or has friended us. In fact, most who read this article grew up communicating these and many other things online as part of daily life.

However, unlike the online aspect of our lives, our real-time actions merit real-time responses. We don’t get as much time to weigh what we say before we click “post”, nor do we get to look at something and thereafter pretend we didn’t see it. Real-time responses reveal a little more of our natural inclinations, and not only is real-time more revealing, it’s also a more significant realm.

In his new book Contagious, Jonah Berger reveals that only 7% of communication happens online. Not 47. Just 7. The other 93% is real-time, in-person. However, all 100% creates impressions. Both are real. We ought to be just as concerned about our actions real-time as our actions in cyber-space. Both form our character, because both are us: the impressions we make based on our choices.

Forming Our Character
Nelson Mandela left Fort Hare, and he never received his degree. But he built his character upon truth. Because his choices were grounded in timeless truths, we speak of him still today.

Everything you do makes an impression and forms your character. At a time—and during an officer year—when your life is so public, why worry so much about the walls of the web haunting or harming when the impressions of all of our actions are “engraved marks on the souls” of others? When only a fraction of our time is spent online, why not take a few minutes to consider what your life is communicating in person? And, at an infinitely more important level, why not consider who you are and whether that version of you is based on what is timelessly true?

In the November article, we will look at virtues that constitute action and form character. Then, we will look more at how we can begin living virtuously like the inspiring saints of our time.

One way to reflect on how our choices are forming our character is to take a few minutes each night to list some choices we have made and the impressions that resulted. When we see these causal relationships, we become aware and motivated for change—or for continuing in virtue. We can also contemplate acting better tomorrow.
Online and/or real-time choices I made (today)
The reason/truth that decision was grounded in (today)
The impressions my choices made (today)
1.) Though tired, I finished my 4.5 mile run with Mary.
I didn’t want to give up, because I had committed.
I appeared strong. I finished with her. Turns out, she was tired, too. We helped each other!
2.) I avoided Sam at lunch and in class, again.
I don’t like him. Maybe I’m jealous that others think he’s “soooo cool.”
 Other didn’t see my dislike for Sam. But, personally, it’s not good for me to live like this.
3.) I did not eat extra sweets.
I want to be more healthy—taking care of myself is good.
People may have seen me struggle or maybe being disciplined.
Impressions I want to make (tomorrow)
The reason/truth that impression is grounded in (tomorrow)
Online and/or real-time choices I should make (tomorrow)
1.) I want to let my running partner know how much I appreciated her continuing to run.
I need her to help me stay motivated to finish. I don’t want to become proud or arrogant that I am stronger than her.
I will thank Mary for continuing to run with me this afternoon. Maybe I should also avoid posting anything on Facebook about how much I ran today, so I don’t build my own ego, and since I can get proud sometimes.
2.) I want Sam to know I’m jealous—because I respect his gifts, but without risking getting too vulnerable or angry with him.
I know I am not Sam. I have different gifts and a unique mission. Sam has people he admires, too. I need to acknowledge his gifts and mine, too.
I will make eye contact with Sam tomorrow. Even if I cannot start a conversation with him, I will at least acknowledge his presence. It will be a start.
3.) I want to let others see that they can be disciplined, too.
Doing the right thing is easier when others are with you in the fight.
I will avoid desert at one meal tomorrow or maybe avoid a snack—whichever one presents itself.

Image sources 1, 2, 3, 4