This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

Applying Character Counts to My Life

Date: February 1, 2012
Age: 29
Location: Austin, TX
Subject: Character Counts

Hi Hannah,

A month ago, I got into two major fights with my closest friends, Ira and Carl. The fights were independent of each other, but both occurred within the span of a week. One heated argument with Ian broke out of nowhere at karaoke. Another one broke out with Ira while we were driving to dinner. Harsh words were exchanged like, “You’re not my friend anymore. You’re my enemy!” 500-word emails were forged with spite in the aftermath. And for a week, I laid awake in bed for hours, replaying these fights in my mind in despair, alternating between righteous justification and sour regret.

Two weeks later, though, I’ve not only resuscitated both friendships, but the incidents have brought me closer to them. And I owe it all to one simple idea: character. At 4 a.m. on one of these sleepless nights, I did what I often do in moments of despair: I Googled. I randomly typed in the word “character,” and one of top results was this site, charactercounts.org, which mentioned the Six Pillars of Character:

Trustworthiness

Respect

Responsibility

Fairness

Caring

Citizenship

(It sort of spells the word “terrific.”)

Was this what was I looking for? I was pissed at Ira, so I guess I typed in “character” because I wanted to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with him. So I took the Character Counts rubric, and rated his behavior on every dimension. I then got out of bed, pulled out my iPad, and started writing a screed to Ira.

But as I was typing, it dawned on me, “What if I rated myself along the same dimensions?” I asked myself to be brutally honest, and I realized that I had been guilty of the similar things. I was disrespectful in how I yelled at Carl and Ira. My positions were way too stubborn and unfair. And not once did I show empathy by putting myself in their shoes. An hour later, I wrote an epic apology letter to Ira. While I didn’t fully take blame for the conflict, I owned up to my share and promised to make amends. A few days later, I wrote a similarly epic apology to Carl, and both friends have told me in person how much they appreciated what I said.

The fact that I was able to redeem these two friendships amazes me. The old Phil, the one who didn’t meditate daily, would have been so wrecked with stress that he would have just stopped speaking to these friends for months, maybe years.

I know character is a corny concept, but I don’t know how I would’ve survived these conflicts without it. You always said that self-improvement literature–and all literature for that matter–is about learning how to build character. I never understood what you meant at the time, but now I think I do. I know who I have to become.

- Phil

I like to say that the simplest, most effective tool for self-improvement is measurement. If you’re trying to lose weight, the most important tool is the scale. Likewise, the Character Counts philosophy codified a measurement that I hadn’t considered before, and it keeps me in check anytime I come out swinging at someone.


This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

Before Philip wrote his first line of code, he tried to re-program his mind. For his 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Follow Philip over 82 letters as he re-tells his journey from winning ThinkQuest, to quitting Stanford, to dealing with dating, happiness, and direction, to eventually making it as an indie iOS app developer. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.

PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.