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Armstrong Williams On Success And Character


Media representatives tend to roll their eyes about their cynical heads whenever they glimpse a "success coach" preaching life skills and hawking product. Something about the sheer hokiness of the standard presentation-hand on a stack of self-help books, voice bellowing reductive formulas for centering your chi and making lots of money-reminds them of P.T. Barnum's famous assessment of the American public: "one born every minute."

On the other hand, the fact that us media types tend to use our intelligence to deconstruct probably explains why most of us reflexively overlook the plain fact that the broker of self-help adopts a certain theatrical vocabulary for strictly pragmatic reasons.

Lurking beneath the gaudy packaging are certain life skills that really ought to be taught from a young age. After all, in terms of strict intelligence, most people are separated by only a few degrees. They succeed and fail largely according to their own expectation of other possibilities.

Such expectations are fueled by a host of intangibles that might be loosely grouped together under the heading of "character." It is this sublime trait that causes some of us to focus under pressure, while others among us simply crack up.

What exactly do I mean by character? The trait involves personal responsibility; thrift; a strong work ethic; an essential optimism that things will work out for the best; hope in the future and in each other; valuing families, education and the love of learning; ambition; enthusiasm; a healthy dose of pride; determination and perseverance. All these are the essential ingredients of success in all aspects of life.

Character also implies a certain consistency of values. That means holding fast to our beliefs, despite the adversities we face. Often, when things look the most hopeless is when we need to rely the most on the strength of our convictions. We must have faith in our families and trust them to do what is in their best interests.

As one of ten children growing up on a farm, the importance of a firm character was learned early on. At the break of every dawn, my 10 brothers and sisters and I tilled soil, slopped pigs, and cropped tobacco. We knew that our farm would fall apart, if we failed to live up to our responsibilities.

To this day, hard work and personal striving remain central to my sense of sense-and to any successes I have achieved.

Even if our predisposition toward success and failure is somewhat biological, genetics can be fooled. As I mentioned, these lessons were learned, as opposed to being hardwired into my DNA, and they continue to form the foundation that helps me navigate adversity.

Of course, the qualities of hard work and individual responsibility-what I deem a firm character-were bound up in the advancement of this country. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Sociologist Max Weber shows how the Protestant work ethic nurtured the spirit of capitalism. He maintained that the Protestant belief of predestination created chronic angst amongst that religion about their fates. Consequently, they channeled that free-floating anxiety into a commitment to hard work. This Protestant work ethic was the embryo of America's capitalist spirit and was consequently sewn into our national identity.

Two centuries later, America enjoys the highest standard of living and the greatest production that the world has ever known. We have survived the world wars and now we are heirs to the longest period of peacetime expansion in this country's history. But let us not allow this success to lull us into a dull complacency.

For, indifference to individual character will be the slow undoing of all we have gained.


Armstrong Williams

Monday, April 23, 2001

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