Character is More Important than Reputation

karen - water

Photo credit: Andrew Phillips

One thing I have learned over the years is this: character is more important than reputation. I’m not the only one who holds this stance. I think those who know what it’s like to endure hardship relate to me.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

Our reputation is based on what people think of us. Did you know we only have 3-5 seconds to make a first impression? Does it have to do with our character or reputation? It has to do solely with our reputation. How we treat an individual will determine their opinion of us. How we conduct ourselves publicly will influence the onlookers’ view of who we are.

When I went through my divorce in 2010, I immediately began to feel shame for having a failed marriage. Will people think I’m not good with relationships? Will people think I don’t place a high value on commitment? Will people think I quit? Will people think I did something wrong? Have I disqualified myself from continuing to coach people in their business or personal lives? These are big topics, and these questions are fueled by how my reputation may have been affected.

Reputation is viewing someone’s environment with partial knowledge. As humans, we are presented with an immediate story and therefore make a quick assessment. This is normal human behavior, and will remain this way today and in the future to come. This assessment is based on what we see and how we perceive the situation. The majority of humans want to think the best of others. We want to give individuals the benefit of the doubt. We ward off negative opinions and potential judgments, and we try very hard to not perceive wrongly. That takes conscious effort.

When time is on our side, we have the opportunity to establish stronger bonds with people and, in so doing, we learn more about the individual because we have the privilege of walking alongside their journey with them. This is when reputation morphs into character.

Going back to my divorce as an example, I had a small circle of friends where I found my refuge. It was a circle of eight people. I closed out the world and “disappeared” into my family, my eight friends, my therapist Dr. Kirk Austin, and my work. I was overwhelmed with pain and, well, I was a broken person. One of my closest friends, Tanya Cassidy, said: “you’re like a fragile bird.” My mom and dad were huge supporters and I found great comfort in their encouragement and love. My sister would listen to me process through countless hours of sorrow. Dr. Kirk Austin was an incredible gift to me as he helped me unpack, first, my behaviors and dysfunctions; and then he helped rebuild my true identity. These pillars were my oasis, my haven and my voice of hope. My career was my place of escape. I immersed myself in work I love that had nothing to do with my hardship. I wanted to keep giving; it was a place where I knew I could grow and regain my strength and confidence. My colleagues saw my shortcomings, my anxieties and my tears. My management team was the ones I’d celebrate with, build business with, experience success, and where I could listen and support their work.

My children walked through the deepest valleys with me, and I went through profound grief knowing they were victims of the tearing apart of a traditional family unit. This, by far, was the biggest pain I had to overcome. There is nothing that will ever separate my children from my love. And although we had to work through a painful process, we are stronger for it; we are closer for it; and our love is deeper for it. Healing is a beautiful gift. And it enriched our relationship.

When you experience the pangs of a negative reputation, you will get over it. Don’t fear. It is fleeting. People are kind enough to forget. People are kind enough to give you a second chance. Don’t despair. We all have a story in our lives that we’re reluctant to share, in fear that it will affect our reputation. No need to be reluctant. It is the very story that you wish to bury that will be a tremendous gift to others. When we overcome an event in our lives, we instantly become a carrier of hope.

What people see on the surface is fleeting. It is not raw reality; it is the perception of reality. Observing someone momentarily can only produce one result: a reputation.

It’s in the journey we walk with people where we engage with the richness of one’s character. (Allow me to be poetic for a moment, please). In the depth of your soul, in the warmth of your heart, in the contemplations of your mind is where character abides. With each story, we can choose how it will influence who we’re becoming. This life is a continual journey of becoming. Who we are becoming can only grow in powerful ways when we engage our character.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

What does Abraham Lincoln mean by ‘character’?

Using three different English dictionaries, character is defined as (1) “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” (Oxford) (2) “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person.” (Merriam Webster)  (3) “the quality of being determined and able to deal with difficult situations.” (Cambridge)

I have a new phrase I try to say often: this is my story.

This is my story is my commitment to invest in my character no matter what curve ball is thrown my way. When I choose to allow each chapter of my life to be a new opportunity for growth, I am only left with one outcome: a richer character. This conviction creates immeasurable hope inside me. It tells me “all will be well.”

If I want to grow in the area of trust, then today is the perfect day to grow this character trait of trust. If I want to grow in the area of kindness, then today is the perfect day to grow this character trait of kindness. Character is choosing moral, ethical and mental outcomes regardless of the circumstances.

Today will either be an effortless day or a challenging day. Either way, my character has an opportunity to delve deeper. Every day matters.

In reading 30 Lessons For Living by Karl Pillemer, the people highlighted in this book, in my opinion, exude tremendous character and wisdom that comes from experience. They have journeyed life, and as they reflect back, they see how it helped develop their character.

For character to truly be enriched, it requires events where we have the privilege to grow and learn. Regardless of the circumstances, your character is ready and available to be enriched.

Reputation is fleeting. Character is long lasting. Always choose character first and foremost. Good repute will follow.

– Karen Thrall

*also published on www.karenthrall.com

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