How I Finally Found the Right Topic to Write About

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“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.” — Heraclitus

Over the past year or so I’ve written on a number of topics. I don’t write because I think myself knowledgable. In fact, I often worry I’m not knowledgeable about any one topic in particular. This worry comes from a focus on the resume virtues, rather than the eulogy virtues. Most of the time I am focused on improving my “marketable skills,” all along the way worrying that I’m not smart enough, talented enough, or ambitious enough. I’m afraid this has led to a life focused more on what I’m going to do, rather than who I’m going to become.

I’ve realized that in focusing on the resume virtues I’ve squandered opportunities to develop inner moral character. That I’ve been struggling to climb a ladder, only to find it’s been resting against the wrong wall. In other words, that true success in life doesn’t stem from outward achievements, but from inward progress. Success doesn’t come from self-promotion, but from quieting the self. It doesn’t come from a focus on one’s self, but from losing one’s self in the service of others.

For this reason I’ve decided to focus my writing on the life struggle to develop an inner moral character. We often write about the topics we know best—the topics for which we have gained the most knowledge and experience. Perhaps it’s better sometimes to write about the things we’d like to understand, but are lacking.

I don’t believe myself to be a person of deep moral character, and that is precisely why I want to write about character. My hope is that after years of studying, writing about, and emulating people who have succeeded in developing moral character that I’ll eventually become a person of some level of depth myself.

So who is a person of moral character? We all know a select few of these types of people in our personal lives. They never boast of their own achievements, or give subtle hints as to their own greatness. You often catch them in the service of others, but they never speak of their selfless acts of service. As David Brooks puts it:

“They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.
These are the people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. After a life of seeking balance, Adam I bows down before Adam II. These are the people we are looking for.”

These are the people I am looking for. These are my heroes. Admittedly, my heroes in the past have consisted mainly of entrepreneurs, musicians, and athletes who have reached great heights of accomplishment, wealth, and fame. Slowly, I am converting my heroes from people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, David Gilmour, and Michael Jordan to people like Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln, George Marshall, and Johnny Unitas.

Notice that the latter list consists mainly of people from the past, and the former list mainly of people from the present. The reason for this is that it is harder to find heroes of true moral character today. I believe they exist, and I hope to find some modern exemplars of these virtues throughout my writing on character, but they are not as common as they used to be. Stephen Covey’s research has shown that in the past century we have shifted from what he calls the character ethic to the personality ethic. The success literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on things like humility, service, love, kindness, and integrity. The success literature of our day is permeated with things like personality, tactics, skills, wealth, and power.

Moral character is what will provide deep meaning in this life. My hope is that when I reach the end of this life, my eulogy won’t be sparse and thin because I spent my time only filling a resume full of interesting skills and accomplishments. A resume will disappear, but a eulogy will leave a lasting impression on those we love.