Character is for when it counts

The NYT can’t understand corporate finance [link to come; post underway], but they can do headlines: “Hijacker Overpowered on Norway-Turkey Flight.”

I guess we did all learn from the heroes on United 93. “Never again” is as good a motto as “let’s roll.” It stands to all of us to do something, perhaps not everyday, all the time, but absolutely when it counts. For a time, it seemed like I opened nearly every essay I wrote with Hemingway’s definition of character as “grace under pressure.” It sure is true, and if you disagree with that definition, you better find me another word to carry that meaning.

Just as courage is action in the face of fear, character is action in the face of everything, of the hard right vs. the easy wrong. That’s why we call it character, to show that it’s the deep inside, our own soft underbelly of fear, selfishness, blame, and vanity, that we’re supposed to conquer at the moment it matters, not when it doesn’t. I’ve quoted him before, and I’ll do it again: Milton in the Areopagitica: “I will not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.”

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of someone who let me down when it mattered most, and also thinking about a case I’m involved in. In the lawsuit, one business partner ended up embezzling about $7 or $8 million from the company’s clients. His partner was a high school friend, who is now almost certainly liable for the losses, and they will certainly fall on the company and theoretically put it out of business.

I think about that guy, and his longtime friend, and think about how awful it would be to have that happen. I think of it because I’ve been in business with a longtime friend, Mike Princi, and I have no fears of this ever happening. Not only do I not fear Mike doing this to me, but I don’t fear ever doing this to Mike. I know that whatever awful thing might happen in my life, such as the embezzler’s fear of not giving his wife a luxurious lifestyle, I could go to Mike for help rather than break our trust.

Small failures are different; or maybe I think they are because those are the kind I’ve made, day after day, even year after year sometimes. But small failures shouldn’t cause us to lose faith in someone, to doubt their actions in face of the most important decisions we could imagine. Small failures are readily correctable, if not so easily corrected.

In my personal life, the other person didn’t choose the path of stopping before breaking the trust. And that leads me to wonder what happens next? If there’s only one test, maybe only one time in your life, does it matter if you failed since you’ll never get asked again? Or does that failure really take the measure of a person?

I know the choice I made on that front. Let me know your thoughts about character and the really big choices.