A Return to Character: Will You Say Yes?

Between a globally-shamed woman’s pleas to stop cyber-bullying, and a conservative pundit’s article about a moral bucket list, it would seem that some of us want to return to humanity’s ‘build strong character’ roots. So why are we criticizing these messengers in the same breath?

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden

I can’t help drawing parallels between Monica Lewinsky’s recent TED talk about the price of shame, and David Brook’s recent thought-provoking article about cultivating virtues that are worthy of an eulogy.

You see, both of them are defining the line between one’s reputation and one’s character.

Monica Lewinsky

In Monica’s case, those of us who lived through her 1998 scandal with President Bill Clinton will remember the swift and worldwide condemnation of her behavior. In the blink of an eye, Monica’s name was splashed across the headlines and she became the object of brutal online shaming. As she puts it, “I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” Her TED talk is a courageous walk out of the shadows of that past, into the spotlight of owning what had happened to her, and of using that painful time in her life to now take a stand against public shaming. Her TED talk was moving, her pain still visible at times. But that room applauded her with a mighty roar of support.

Which is what made the reaction to the video recording of her TED talk all the more perplexing and ironic. According to this article, her video attracted hundreds of hideous comments that “exposed a side of humanity that felt so vicious, unfeeling and unrelenting that my sense of existential aloneness was brought into high definition.” Many weren’t ready to hear her new words, and insisted on perpetuating the shame that Monica is so fiercely determined to eradicate for herself and countless others.

David Brooks

Then there’s David’s eloquent article about his quest to lead a more moral life, one that will help him emulate the people he meets who “radiate an inner light”, who are deeply good because of their specific moral and spiritual accomplishments. He goes on to suggest a bucket list that might help us become deeply good as well, with items like cultivating humility and confronting your weaknesses. His gift for erudition is clear, as is his sincerity for wanting to complete his own bucket list. And he’s the first to admit that he’s achieved a decent level of career success, but hasn’t achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

So what do I see in the comments? Yes, there are glowing words from readers who took the time to reflect on the intent of David’s prose, which is heartwarming.

Then there are the ones who are equally intent on pointing out the holes in his argument and questioning his credibility. For instance, if he insists on supporting an intolerant US Conservative Party, how can we place any faith in what he says about morality?

 My take

My take on all this? Don’t miss the forest for the trees. If you can help it, don’t get so lost in the weeds of your own sense of right and wrong that you miss a chance to hear the insights that someone else might be sharing.

And if you delight in tearing someone down, particularly in a forum where you can remain anonymous, what if something you did tomorrow turned you into the next Monica Lewinsky, the person who’ll be (social) media’s next ‘most hated person of the day’? If your bravado makes you say “Oh, I’ll be just fine. I can take it as well as I give it. And I’m (wo)man enough to handle it.” Are you? Are you really? And do you really want to have to deal with all that hate if there was some way to avoid it altogether?

No matter what the haters say, I believe that Monica and David are stepping out and stepping up to embody John Wooden’s quote. They’re choosing to transcend the reputations that their critics have bestowed on them, and taking bold steps to create a life forged on character.

That is exemplary self-leadership.

To that I say bravo. And more power to you both.

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About the author

Maya Mathias

Maya Mathias is a global leadership veteran, with a life and career spanning 3 continents and 5 job transitions. She is a peaceful leadership advocate and mentor, bringing her unique blend of East & West to her leadership development and innovation management practice. Maya’s life began with a lower-middle class upbringing in Asia, surrounded by poultry & vegetable farms and the ‘simple life’. She doesn’t forget her humble roots, and her body of work seeks to bring more equality, justice and personal purpose in troubling times. Learn more about Maya here.

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