Archive for June, 2012

When Character Battles Reputation

We believe good character leads you do doing what is right. It does not mean you don’t make mistakes, do things that are wrong, or even harmful. What it means is that in the end you are able to navigate yourself to the best solution that takes care of your concerns.

Efforts by parents, teachers, and others to instill values are important, but ultimately, character is both formed and revealed by how one deals with everyday situations as well as extraordinary pressures and temptations. Like a well-made tower, character is built stone by stone, decision by decision.

Of course, our assessment of a person’s character is an opinion, and it isn’t always right. An assessment of one’s own character is still just an opinion.

Abraham Lincoln once made the analogy that character is like a tree, while reputation is like the shadow of the tree. The shape of the shadow is not a perfect image of the tree. It depends on the tree, but is affected by other things, not the least of which is the perspective of the observer. In the same way, reputation is not always an accurate reflection of character. Some people derive more benefit from their reputation than they deserve; others are better than their reputations.

Thus, an assessment of anyone’s character is ultimately just our own perception — a reflection of ourselves in a way. The assessment happens through the filters (biases) of whatever the we already believe about the way the world looks and works. We tend to notice and find things that support our beliefs. If you believe politicians are liars then you’re likely going to assess anything questionable as a lie. If you believe a person is of poor character you will probably find ways to validate that perception for yourself. Worse, you may treat them accordingly, which can sometimes negatively influence their behavior in a manner that further supports your belief.
Still, reputation matters. It determines how others think of us and treat us and whether we are held in high or low esteem.

We’ve often seen cases where an individual has manipulated facts to augment public perception of his character. Always shocking when the truth is revealed. Sometimes what gets revealed is just the tip of an even more disturbing iceberg. At other times someone of high character may be the victim of circumstances that make him look bad. Or maybe makes a mistake that appears more egregious than it really is if all of the details could be known.

To most of us both (character & reputation) are deeply personal and important, a big part of how we identify who we are. So when we find our character (reputation) called into question, or appearing to be compromised, we feel a need to defend ourselves. This can on occasion present a significant personal struggle because sometimes defending one’s reputation can also damage it. Things can get complicated. One of the more difficult situations in life is when one finds his character and reputation on opposite sides of an issue, in a dual with each other. Consider the following…
  • Suppose you are blamed for something that’s not your fault, but proving it will cause harm to someone else? Do you allow your reputation to be sullied and spare the other person?
  • A tricky set of circumstances conspire to foster a condition in which you appear to look bad. Defending yourself against a set of what appear to be facts (however incomplete they may be) can make you look worse. Do you push for the truth or let it go?
  • Suppose someone you trust and care about allows you to be thrown under the bus, or worse, throws you under the bus, out of necessity. You can defend yourself, but it may produce negative consequences for your friend. Is the high character move to try to right that wrong in the spirit of the truth, or at least full disclosure of the facts? Or is it a position of higher character to spare your friend and allow your reputation to be compromised?
  • What if you are on the other side of it? Is the high(er) character move to allow your friend to be thrown under the bus in the interest of some greater good? Or should you fight for the truth to the end even at the risk of personal harm to yourself?
  • Or what if a friend finds herself in a tough spot where you have inside information that might help, but revealing the information causes other significant problems (not the least of which is damaging your reputation)? Do you forge ahead and take the consequences or stand by and let the situation sort itself out?
Morality, the very thing many people think character is based on, doesn’t help us here. Morality is black and white and often doesn’t do well informing these kinds of internal conflicts. Sure, you could say, “always go for the truth, no matter what.” But if the consequences of the truth are dire enough is that really still the right thing to do? These are tough ethical questions, which, depending on the details of the circumstances don’t have clear right or wrong answers. The “pure” way to look at it would be to ignore the relative consequences and just go for what is “right,” to the extent that it can even be determined, but the practical, and arguably higher character way to look at it considers those consequences and accepts the role of choosing the least wrong, or harmful course.
And thus we must live in that gray area where we try to take the best care of everything that’s important to us as best we can. Add to the mix one’s relative willingness to endure confrontation and discomfort (versus being polite and shrinking away) when necessary and it can become quite a test. It’s imperfect. Sometimes there is no good answer, and it is sometimes dreadfully painful.
Such is life. An ability and dedication to navigating complex and nuanced issues such as these is ultimately where your character lies. Just know that your reputation may not be able to follow you there.

Giving Up

In music production (making records specifically) it is not uncommon for an artist to become so close to her work that objectivity is lost. The project goes in circles for days/weeks/months, even years sometimes with little forward movement. People who mix records often say that the mix is never finished. At some point you simply become too tired or annoyed to push on. You decide it is good enough, and you give up. The record becomes complete and it marks a point in time.

Knowing when to give up is critical. Too soon and you put out something half-baked. Too long and you’ve wasted a lot of time and energy…and if my experience is any indication you have possibly made the product worse, not better. Listening back to records I’ve done sheds a lot of light on my relative objectivity at the time they were in process. Some have held up much better than others, and those were not necessarily the ones I spent more time on.

In sports the mindset usually being taught is to NEVER give up. Fight all the way to the end, until the gun sounds. In a failing business, however, the common wisdom — though often not followed — is to give up sooner than most people want to, so as to avoid taking more of a loss and hurting yourself (and others) more.

Relationships also have to grapple with this. Quitting too soon risks missing an opportunity to fix it. Do you push on and slug it out, with hopes of things getting better, or do you cut ties and avoid a lot of discomfort?

Left to our own desires we will pursue a lot things beyond a point where they are productive, especially things we have our identity wrapped up in, or have a strong emotional tie to. Sports don’t work that way because they have a deadline. Business doesn’t generally work that way because it also has a deadline — when the money runs out, you’re done. Many records even have deadlines (contracts, tours, budgets, etc.) that help move things along. Relationships, on the other hand, do not.

Maybe they should.


It may all be going on in your head, but it’s emotional. Whatever you may be cogitating on, or whatever decisions you are trying to make. No matter how seemingly rational the subject matter and your approach is, it’s still emotional. Unless your name is Spock you can’t disconnect yourself from what you’re working on. Therefore knowing your Self and your emotions are vital.

Emotionally we all move through the roles of victim, rescuer, and persecutor. Knowing which is happening and/or needed in a particular circumstance can provide an excellent (if not always comfortable) sense of direction for your thinking. Asses your emotional literacy. If you have a good ability to understand emotions, can listen to others and empathize with their emotions, and can express emotions productively you have a high degree of emotional literacy, which in turn will help you be more effective in all of your relationships, whether personal or business…because, after all, business is still personal to those directly involved and affected.

Self Conflict

Everything important we do is a result of conflict. Not necessarily a conflict between us and the world, but a conflict within us.

We want to eat dessert, but we want to be healthy and skinny as well. We want to stand up and make difference, but we’re afraid. We want to help and be good to others, but we want to satisfy ourselves too. Who is we? Who is the self in self control, and who is being controlled?

We don’t have one mind, we have competing interests, all duking it out.

This conflict is at the heart of being human. One side sells the other. Like all kinds of marketing, it’s far more effective if you know your audience. You will do a better job of telling a story (to yourself) if you understand who you are marketing to — yourself.

Battle of the Unknown

Fear of the unknown is commonly documented. It relates to fear of change. The unknown triggers anxiety.

Seduction of the unknown isn’t discussed as much, but in many cases it is in a dual with the fear.

  • Fear = Trepidation over what can go wrong.
  • Seduction = Wonder over what the possibilities might be.

Epic battles between these light and dark forces wage within each of us from time to time. Unfortunately fear wins most of those. We stay put, and are left to reflect on what might have been had we been brave. The people we look up to, the ones who seem to get ahead with happy and fulfilled lives, find ways to push the fear aside just enough to let the seduction capture their imaginations and take hold to the extent that they will act on it.

It’s almost never a landslide. You’re uncertain either way. A winner emerges in the actions we take, but there is trepidation throughout. This is the fear continuing to work on you. Uncertainty has much more experience working with fear in most of us.

Ultimately we get exactly what we really think we deserve. No more, and no less. If you believe you deserve more, then you have to find enough faith in yourself to know you can get it. Make the seduction win; let it give you the courage to try.

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