Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Newton's Third Law

Sir Isaac Newton
Ok, if you know me, you know I am not a physics buff. I also hate math. Typical girl. Sorry, STEM, you weren't around when I was in middle school. Anyway, Newton's Third Law of Motion, for those of you who avoided physics right along with me, is "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". (I didn't even have to look that up!) What woke me up in the middle of the night last week was the limitations of this law. Sure, it's true in physical sciences, but it definitely fails to hold up in social science. That's where character comes in to fill in the gaps left by Newton.

Consistency breeds character. Whatever your religious or nonreligious view might be, we can probably all agree humans are imperfect. It's who we are, and I have not yet met anyone without flaws. Thank God, or I would look pretty silly because I am definitely under that imperfect category! While many philosophers and great minds have pinned moral character to works, I see this as a flawed view of character. Perhaps we could call this more reputation-building than character-building. (Side note, read this great blog by Donald Miller on character vs. reputation here.) I think one's character is from the consistency in one's reactions. Whether this is reaction to something that happened to them or something that they did, people show their true nature when people look to them for answers, comfort, or friendship.  Since we all make mistakes, it stands to reason that we could be compassionate and empathetic when people do something we don't agree with or something which is deemed unethical. But what stings more than someone doing something to hurt you is how they are after the hurtful action. Think about a breakup from your past. Don't you want the other person to be sad by the termination of the relationship? The same is true for other situations. Are they apologetic and remorseful? Are they humbled and shamed? Or, do they ignore the hurt? Do they show callousness and heartlessness? In marketing, we learn the best repair in public relations for a wrong against the consumer is to admit the wrong and issue an immediate and heartfelt apology (see this story about Tom's Shoes). So when people don't do that, we begin assessing the true character of the person or company.

I am currently in an ethics and legal class for my master's degree (don't be jealous). While the text is quite awful to plow through, there was an assignment from the text which seemed to link to this topic (don't you hate it when school actually has real-world application?). We had to choose one of six ethical approaches to business. The text called the one I chose the least popular in modern times. Virtue theory. This approach talks about judging ethics by the character built rather than the action performed. There again, we are looking at the bigger picture. The motive for the action and the reaction after it is done. The book that immediately sprung to my mind was The Book of Virtues by William Bennett. Were you thinking the same thing? If not, don't worry. It's a hefty 821 pages of text and stories all centered around building virtue in various areas of life. The reason I thought about it comes from my childhood. As a kid, I read that book in its entirety. Twice. And then I reread my favorite stories as I felt the urge. I don't know why I was ever drawn to read that, but I do hope it had some influence on me.

I would side with the wise Donald Miller (seriously, read his blog) and say it is far more important and so much more difficult to build character over reputation. Your reputation is the actions you do that others witness. Your character stems from the internal workings surrounding that action or the actions of others. When something terrible happens in the world, do you immediately think of how that could affect you or how that might have been you? Or, do you think of the pain others are going through. Be honest, becase I have known people on both sides of those reactions. When you wrong someone, do you immediately swallow your pride and beg forgiveness? Or do you shy away, assumming that is the right thing to do?

Character. It's not easy. It's not always popular. No one will congratulate you. People might not even notice. It's rarely fun. But, in the end, it's all that really matters.