Content of Character

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King Jr.

What is the content of your character? Is it the money you make? Is it your success? Is it your ability to game the system? Is it your propensity to do what is right or what is easy? Is it your honesty? Is it your tenacity in the face of adversity? Is it your patience? Is your character strong or weak?

Above all, a person’s character is who the person truly is. This is different from reputation, which is what others think a person is. Character is constantly formed, broken down, and rebuilt throughout the course of a life. The stronger a person’s character, the more confident a person will be in their true self. The weaker the character, the easier it will be reshaped by external forces.

Character is made up of virtues, or the lack thereof. Plato listed four cardinal virtues: Prudence (Wisdom), Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude (Courage). There are also the virtues of Love (Empathy), Integrity, and Faith (Humility). These can be broken down into more specific character traits, many of which are combinations of the virtues or interchangeable. For example, loyalty is a product of integrity and honesty. It is also a product of a sense of justice, the idea that keeping your word is right and fair.

The flip side of virtue is negative character traits. A person driven by greed and not easily dissuaded has a strong character. However, the character is based on poor content. This is because all character is based on a system of beliefs and the conviction to those beliefs.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “walk it off; it builds character.” What is this really saying though? Beneath the surface it means that what you think you are capable of is less than what you are truly capable of. It teaches the virtue of fortitude, that it is good to push through pain and hardship to attain a goal. When this belief is formed it provides the courage to face future adversity, and every obstacle overcome reinforces the strength of the conviction.

One who is easily dissuaded can be said to have weak character. They hold the same belief, namely that their goal is desirable. However, they lack the character trait to push through adversity. Take the example of a marathon runner who quits halfway through the race. It is not because they believe that finishing the race is undesirable, it is because they lack the inner ability to push them as far as is necessary. These people are lukewarm, and their beliefs are easily influenced by others. They are easy to manipulate and will generally follow the path of least resistance.

On the other hand, a person may have all the character in the world, but if their goals lack virtue, then they cannot be said to have good character. Take an executive type who will do anything to further their career. Their belief is that money or success is desirable, and they have the fortitude to achieve that goal despite adversity. However, without corresponding virtues, the way they achieve their goal is not limited. Without a sense of Justice, they may lie about who was really responsible for that successful project. Without self-discipline and endurance they may take shortcuts at the expense of others. Without empathy, they may hurt people on their climb to the top.

Character is influenced by their environment and upbringing from the moment of birth. That being said, ultimately character comes from within. It lies in the choices we make, the things that make us the person we choose to be. So what content will you chosen for your character?

Additional Resources

Character and Traits in Leadership:

PBS, Quotes on Character:

Character Counts, A person of Character:

The Chronicle, Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?

Scholastic, Building Character:

Academic Medicine, Building Character:

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