Our character is our north star, guiding us to our hopes and ambitions. “It is the inner strength to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons,” says Linda Kavelin-Popov, acclaimed author and founder of The Virtues Project (TVP), a global movement that has won praise from the Dalai Lama and the United Nations for its teachings. More important than talent, beauty or reputation, developing our character leads us to success and happiness. Ultimately, it takes us places that money can’t.
So how do we discover our best self? “Some are already soul-searching, others may hit a wall,” says Kavelin-Popov, whose character building strategies encourage individuals to live meaningful lives. Generally, there are two pathways that can awaken our character. The well-being path—through mindfulness, self-awareness and spiritual practices—or the adversity path, which can be via a catastrophe or death that is thrust upon us. Crisis calls for character, and a meeting with unexpected tragedy or trauma forces us to look inwards, which is the first step towards developing a strong sense of self. Having recently overcome a nine-month-long period of bed rest due to a debilitating pregnancy involving chronic pains and vomiting at least 20 times a day, I learnt that strength of character can pull us through even the darkest days. In my case, it took the form of calling on my inner strength and harnessing courage, acceptance, self-compassion and resilience in my daily life.
“If we are alive, we will face tough times. But it is how we deal with adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how our life’s story will develop,” says renowned resilience and well-being expert, Dr Lucy Hone. In her TED Talk, The three secrets of resilient people, she shares three powerful strategies for building character and resilience when faced with adversity. First, the need to accept that suffering is a part of life. When we accept, we move forward. Instead of dwelling on things we can’t change, we should focus on what we can. Secondly, Hone says we should ask ourselves: “Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?” If it doesn’t serve our growth, let it go. Finally, she encourages us to find the benefit in every situation. By consciously choosing to direct our thoughts in a positive direction, we can reject a victim mentality when things go awry. Benefit finding allows us to adopt an attitude of gratitude, which is another foundation of strong character.
Hone’s own character was tested after losing her 12-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident. She says these three go-to strategies saved her during that devastating time. “We can help ourselves to endure and cope with unimaginable things through self-awareness and mind-training,”she says, explaining that the latter involves training our minds to think and react positively, enabling us to transform the negative into opportunities to develop our character.
Moreover, scientific studies support the idea that practising mindfulness consistently increases self-awareness and potential for change, bringing our existing positive character traits and inner qualities to the forefront of our minds. When we assess ourselves and discern areas for growth through self-reflection, we realise what we need to develop.
It could be qualities such as confidence, empathy or perhaps integrity. “Those who don’t may experience deep unhappiness and can get utterly lost,” says Kavelin-Popov, who casts her mind to celebrities lost to suicide. “They had all the fame and money in the world, but they didn’t know who they were authentically.”
Practising mindfulness can make a huge difference. TVP advocates daily self-reflection, meditation, journaling, and techniques like breathing, yoga and qigong. These bring us to the present moment, and can also boost our mood, memory and overall mental health. When we engage our virtues of self-discipline and wisdom through mindfulness, we not only strengthen these character-building traits but symbiotically also improve our ability to be more mindful. “Wholeheartedly committing to becoming students of our character empowers us to live our best life,” says Kavelin-Popov.
When starting the journey of self-reflection, the bestselling author urges us to find the humility to reach out to those who can help us on our character-building journey. It is crucial to build positive relationships with people who will support our growth. In turn, we should limit contact with those who pass judgment or are unnecessarily critical of us. This act of self-respect can boost self-esteem and cultivate confidence.
When we face our adversities with a strong sense of character, we can find the message in our misfortunes and transform our lives. Take Oprah Winfrey, born into poverty, sexually abused at nine and fired from her first job. Defying the odds, she went on to own a television network and eventually became the first black woman billionaire. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban at age 15, is now a powerful activist, Oxford University graduate and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. While our own circumstances may not be as extreme, we will all experience turbulence in life. Yet once formed, our character is incredibly resilient. Like a phoenix, even when burnt, it rises once again. Similarly, we can pick ourselves up and push ourselves to soar to new heights. That’s the magnificent thing about character. Regardless of what happens to us, we can awaken it at any age or stage of life. So why wait to hit rock bottom when the well-being path awaits?
Truth be told, mastering our character is a lifelong pursuit. But the power to manifest our best self is within us and it’s a high road worth taking—probably the best journey we will make. Our character is our destiny and ultimately our legacy. It’s who we are, not what we are, that will matter most in the end.