What Builds Character?

By January 9, 2016Generations

builds character

The dirty chores at home on the farm were always “character-building.” My dad always used to say that shoveling out the hog barn “builds character.” What I knew at the time is that the only thing it built was a healthy smell that lingered way too long.

No different than you, just different activities at different times. Those words of “it builds character” echo through our lives. When we get dumped or ignored by someone we think we love, we hear the whisper of “it builds character.” When we are way behind on writing a term paper or preparing for a test, we hear the chant of “it builds character.” When we have the horrible boss experience again, we cling to the words of “it builds character.”

It builds character.

“It” is really just a fill-in-the-blank space to add in:

  • Conflict
  • Hard work
  • Civil debate
  • Solving problems
  • Parenting
  • Managing
  • Leading

Each builds character. Just plug it in.

What Is Character?

Character. We know it when we see it. Maybe more importantly, we know it when it is missing.

Headlines fill us in with the individuals lacking character. The headlines feature more than the common criminals. Politicians and business leaders make the front page with many counts of bad character. Bad character knows no boundaries.

The good news is good character knows no boundaries, too. Good character is exemplified every day and too often goes unnoticed. Media attention gets attracted to the obvious places too often.

But character is more than visual. Character is engraved within us. The engraving isn’t always planned and clean. The word “character” comes from the Greek kharakter that means “engraved mark.” The character trace goes back to another definition of “to scrape or scratch.” For me, the combination of engrave, scrape, and scratch fit well with what character really means. Here are my thoughts on why:

  • Engrave – An active art of determining what builds our character – honesty, courage, and the like.
  • Scrape – Learning from the challenges that come our way (or those we create) and then proving what we learned by doing much better than before.
  • Scratch – The act of working our way back when we fall down and gaining strength of integrity from what we experience.

Character is all the good traits we think it is. However, character is much more. Character is a verb, demonstrated in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Character is also how we recover.

Character Over Time

Character builds over time. Character is additive. We cannot waste our youth pursuing things that neuter or subtract from our character. Equally true, we cannot spend our older years tearing down the character we built. In both cases, we are wasting time and, most importantly, damaging relationships. Legacy and trust carry a high lifetime value.

Each choice and action we take adds or detracts from our character. Any given day, we should have more positive character choices and actions than negative ones. Getting character right is not a balance exercise. Not even close. We should build character through our good choices and actions as often as we can. We are imperfect. How we respond in our imperfect choices and actions can add to or subtract from our character. This is the choice of our character.

No matter our age, we should never dig a big hole in our character in which we spend a lifetime trying to recover. The younger we are, the longer the lifetime of recovering. And this is why trying to make the best choices possible and take the most appropriate actions as often as possible early in our lives can make a very big difference in the quality of our overall life.

Time-Tested Character

Time matters. Time tests. Character erodes or grows.

Our character is developed through time. More accurately, our character is developed through our experiences and what we choose to learn and do from them. Trials and tribulations are tough. We all have them in some way. We can mask them, pretending they are not really there. We can tackle them, risking relationships and results. What I know is we cannot ignore them, and we must face them.

Character in many ways is a combination of our mind, soul, and backbone. We need to work through our thoughts and pick the ones that matter. We need to understand how the trials are impacting our soul and take the necessary steps to protect and grow. We need to know when to stand up, move on, or protect. Character is tested. How we respond and learn will determine the legacy of our character.

In times of success and prosperity, our character is at risk as well. Just because everything seems to be going very well and we are rich in what we have in our abilities and worth, too often character falters in these good times. Laziness creeps in. Thinking we are above what is normal and right invades our actions. Character loses our attention because we think we have it all.

The only time we have it all is when our character remains intact and grows in strength.

In good times, we need to continue to add to our character by what we say and do. We need to pass on our lessons learned and share our wealth of experience along with whatever else we give. People will remember your stories of character, and these stories deliver much more meaning than a name on a building. Legacy of character carries forward like folklore.

What Builds Character?

Each year, we begin with a ritual with little lasting impact: Resolution-making. Instead of making resolutions, maybe we should do things to build our character every day. Imagine what a year’s worth of character-building could produce.

We should never ignore our habits, though. Habits effect character. Eating right. Exercising frequently. Reading often. All these elements provide the nutrients for a clear mind, activating spirit, and strong backbone. Good habits feed our inner goodness.

With this disclaimer now complete, we return to what can build character every day. I have thought about my own life work experiences, and these seven character activities came to mind:

1 – Work hard to build, create, survive, and excel (in purpose).

Laziness achieves nothing. Work for work’s sake creates little. Whatever our responsibilities, we need to do the work. Whatever our purpose, we need to do our important work. Getting our tempo right will take time. Through doing the work, our time will rise up, and our character will show its strength in purpose. Keep focused on your purpose horizon and do the work.

2 – Engage in tough conversations with empathy and action (don’t put them off).

The easy thing is to sidestep the tough conversations. We need to take deep breaths and determine how to engage in meaningful conversations that make a difference in what we say and what happens next. We cannot control what may happen next, but our character will be stronger if we interact with empathy.

3 – Nurture relationships that matter through good and challenging times (staying power, the power of love).

Too often, the first thing to go when times get challenging are our relationships. They have become almost disposable. Relationships that are damaging physically or psychologically are different. In those, safely leaving is the first step, and these times take strong character as well. Absent the damaging relationships, we need to try hard to make them work, no matter the place. Whether in our homes, neighborhoods, or workplaces, we need to nurture our relationships and find better paths forward.

4 – Exhibit humility in achievement and success (giving credit, giving back).

Be humble in all you do and say. Humility is not permission to be run over. Quite the opposite. See number 2. Humility is knowing we are stronger together than apart. Humility is giving all we have and doing it again.

5 – Be nice when everything tempts you not to be nice.

Being nice is not permission to be run over either. A quiet strength of character exists in being humble and nice. Build this character strength. One of the best professors I had was one of the nicest, kindest guys, but you did not want to skip the work. Being nice doesn’t mean low expectations. Too often, we want to play to the crowd and say outrageous things to incite or fit into one. Instead, we need to stand out by saying and doing things that are helpful.

6 – Always get up, no matter what, to create something better than the day before.

We will get knocked down and stepped on. Two things to remember. First, there is an old political adage that says “what goes around, comes around.” If someone is stepping on us, holding us back, or ignoring us, nature has a way of dealing with this, so focus on what you can do and do so with a strong sense of character. Second, keep getting up and creating what you are meant to do. After all, this is the only way your purpose will take root and begin to bloom.

7 – No task is too small and no person is too ordinary or extraordinary to extend a hand and help.

Never think or do things that make others feel small. Always pitch in no matter the task. Our hands are meant to be extended in a helpful way; it is why we have arms and elbows! We are designed to do the work, hug each other, and extend a helpful hand.


These are the things I know will build character. Each come from my experiences on the farm, school, college, work in politics and business, and family. How you build character may differ, which is okay. The point is to understand what builds your character and go do those things as often as you can.

David Brooks wrote an important book, The Road to Character, and I recommend it highly. I like this telling statistic and point he made in this NPR interview:

“My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.”

We need to remember to be big in our character and reduce the size of our personality. Personal brand chatter focuses too much on superficial things and too much on self-importance. If you want to build a sustainable personal brand, focus on your personal character early and often. Determine what will stand.


Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Manish says:

    I am a writer in exile from my craft because I am currently selling my soul in advertising. Your article is a nice reminder of the universal beliefs we all share at some deep level. I just wanted to add something. Relationships such as the ones I shared with my grandfather, the one I share with my wife have shaped me, so have the many, many mistakes that I have made and still do. These have built my character too. Make mistakes but in the pursuit of the right course of action and in that never fear making mistakes. That is what I believe builds character.

    • Jon Mertz says:


      Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. The relationships you highlight are very essential in helping build our character and sustain it. Mistakes will happen. What we learn from them and how we apply those learnings will strengthen our character.

      Appreciate your perspective.


  • Jon,

    Great Post! To me, character is directly related to humanity. Without character, we are not better than animals (though they have character of their own).

    Sad part is that we learn character-building much later in life. Break-up of family system may have something to do with this. How can we instill this knowledge to our youth who would benefit the most? I believe that Social Sciences/Behavior Management must be a mandatory subject from middle school through college. Any thoughts?

    • Jon Mertz says:


      Thank you. Character does build over our lifetime, but I believe we can generate more focus on it through conversations in school and other learning settings. Mentoring also plays a role, although the old model needs to be refreshed. Tomorrow’s post will introduce a new mentoring model.

      Talking about the news and where bad decisions were made and how they got to that point generates greater awareness of character. At a minimum, this is a place to begin, and that may fall into the Social Sciences area.

      What have you seen that works to generate earlier conversations on character?



  • Jon,

    Awesome article! I am about 20,000 words into writing a book on character. I love the farm reference because I grew up hauling hay, feeding and caring for the livestock, etc. The mucking of the barns was probably the least desirable of all the chores. And yes it did build character. I like the statistic about the percent of kids that think of themselves as a VIP. That speaks volumes about our society. A quote by Emerson got me thinking about writing the book. Emerson said, “Men of character are the conscience of the society in which we live.” I hope to encourage others to recognize and improve good character traits in themselves and others.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    • Jon Mertz says:


      Congratulations on writing a book! It is a fun, longer-than-you-think, rewarding process. Enjoy it!

      Thinking back, it is always important to understand what built our character. Leading forward, we need to think more about why we are doing things and how it impacts our character. We need to spend time developing a solid conscience of our society. Emerson was right, and we need to undertake this purpose with more diligent effort and thought.

      Thank you for your comment and feedback. It is always good to meet someone who has farm experience!


  • Alli Polin says:

    Excellent, Jon. Inspiring and one I’ll not only be sharing online but offline too. What struck me in the middle of it was “Character is a verb” it’s found in what we do, how we think, feel, act… We describe character as if it’s tangible, a series of nouns but that’s not how it grows – how we become a person with integrity, respect, trust, etc. We build our character and our legacy and each turn is our choice.



    • Jon Mertz says:


      Thank you for your feedback and support! Really appreciate both. I agree. In many ways, we think character is a noun, and the action is in our personality. The reality is, if we don’t act with character, our personality will just get us off track or into trouble. We need to think and act more with a legacy in mind…. what do we want to stand when we are gone? Thanks again.

      Very grateful,


  • Dr. Riaz Sahi says:

    I believe that without a character personality is meaningless and lacks the core leadership quality.

    • Jon Mertz says:

      Agreed. Character is the necessary foundation… need the empowering nature of character to stay grounded with our personality, words, and actions. Thank you.

  • Jon,

    A really terrific post. I just shared with my children and all my nieces and nephews since they have so much to gain from it.

    With them, I added one additional piece that I thought I should share. One of the key elements of “character” that I believe in is that character = trust. Stephen Covey Jr. has a book “The Speed of Trust”. In it, it helps show the “real” measurable value trust affords. It comes from all the points of “character” that you state. In essence, it quantifies the value of “character”.

    Thanks again .. Gary

    • Jon Mertz says:


      A great add. Character does equal trust. Stephen Covey does a great job in showing how this delivers real value. Character lasts a lot longer and delivers greater value than just focus on personality or other superficial elements of someone’s person brand. Character creates a legacy.

      Really appreciate your feedback and comments. Thanks for sharing this, too. Very grateful, Jon

  • Great post Jon. Much appreciated. I most resonate with the statement, “our character is developed through our experiences and what we choose to learn and do from them.” Character is the sum of our choices. It is who we are. When we choose to make the most of our situations or circumstances and not let them define us, we build character. Thanks for a great and energizing post. I appreciate you.

    • Jon Mertz says:

      Thank you, Mike, for your feedback and insights. You have set such an excellent example, and I appreciate you and all you do. Very grateful, Jon

      • Jon,

        I love this because character is such a big part of how I decide who I want to work with/be friends with, where I want to work and, who works with and for me. I need to feel good at the core of my being about where I spend my time everyday in my career. I hope your company knows how lucky they are to have you! Good luck to you in bridging the gap between Millennials and the two generations of leaders. It proves to be one of my biggest challenges in figuring out why and how this group of folks thinks the way they do.

        Thank you for writing this, I hope many others are impacted by it and truly live by it.

        Rachel H.

        • Jon Mertz says:


          Thanks so much for your comments and feedback. We need to do like you are and make character an essential part foundation for work and relationships. Personality reasons alone create potential character challenges. Again, thank you for your kind and insightful comments! Jon

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