Action is Character

20 January 2011 · 5 comments

Back when I worked at Custom Box Service, Nick and I would often have philosophical discussions. Or psuedo-philosophical discussions. Well, we’d share our Deep Thoughts with each other at any rate.

On more than one occasion, I’d be lamenting that X was a priority in my life — where X could be exercise or getting out of debt or reading more books — but that I never seemed to have time for it. Instead, I did a bunch of other stuff.

Nick would always tell me, “Then X isn’t a priority.” If I tried to argue, he’d point out that the things we actually do are the priorities in our life. What we say doesn’t matter; it’s what we do that counts.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson. I used to be what I call a Talker: I talked about all the things I wanted to do, and I felt like I had the solutions to everything, but I never actually took action. I was full of hot air.

Somehow, I’ve turned into a Doer. Most of the time, I get things done. Instead of lamenting about the man I want to be, I’m working hard to be that man. I’ve built a new life out of doing the things I used to only talk about before. (Note that I’m not always a Doer. I still spend plenty of time Talking, but my ratio of action to words has increased sharply in recent years.)

I’ve written about this subject several times in the past, both here and at my personal finance blog. For example, in August I wrote a piece about the difference between Talkers and Doers for GRS. It may be my favorite article from last year. And longer ago at Folded Space, I shared Action Girl’s Guide to Living from Sarah Dyer. (Action Girl’s #1 tip is awesome: “Action is everything! It really doesn’t matter what you say or even what you think; it’s what you do that matters.”)

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about this subject quite a bit lately because of a single quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his notes on The Last Tycoon, he wrote, “Action is character.

I’d never heard this phrase until Kris and I watched An Education, an interesting little film from 2009. In it, a bored English schoolgirl spends a few exciting months hanging out with an older man. At one point, she says, “”Action is character, our English teacher says. I think she means that if we never did anything, we wouldn’t be anybody.”

Or to up it another way, we are what we repeatedly do. (This is Will Durant’s interpretation of an idea from Aristotle, though many people mistakenly attribute it to the latter.)

This is brilliant, and it goes back to what I said earlier: We are not what we think or say; we’re what we do.

  • You can say that health is important to you, but if you don’t eat and act healthfully, it’s just not so.
  • Thinking about writing doesn’t make you a writer; writing makes you a writer, and if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.
  • You can say your life’s too busy and you want to slow down, but so long as you keep scheduling things, you’re showing that you value the busy-ness more than the downtime.
  • You can profess a belief in Christianity, but it’s your actions that actually make you Christian, not your words. (I know, I know: We could argue this point of doctrine for days. Or years. Or centuries. But I believe it. Faith without works is dead.)

Action is character. We are what we repeatedly do.

All of this was tied together by a quote from Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, which we just read for book group. In it, the author writes:

There is what you believe and there is what you want and these things are fine. But they’re just ideas, in the end. History, like any single life, is made up of actions. At some point, the thinking and believing and deciding fall away and all that’s left is the doing.

So, my friends, what is important to you? No, I mean really: What is important to you? Stop hiding from it, stop being afraid of it, stop waiting for it to come. Go act. By doing so, you’ll reveal your true character.

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my first blogging love… j.d. « seashells by the seashore
24 January 2011 at 08:54

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paul Williams 20 January 2011 at 14:36

Sounds like your time in the Mennonite church stuck with you in terms of doctrine, J.D. :)

I was actually thinking about that before you mentioned Christianity because it fits so well with your point here. But it applies to many more areas than just religion.

I find that I do more of the things I say I want to do if I actually set aside time for them and force myself to focus on accomplishing specific goals. This approach has worked for me so far in trying to learn to play the guitar a bit.

I don’t think we should take our entire view of our character from what we do. It’s a little more complex than that. But our actions certainly do show what is truly important to us. And I think other people see this in us more than we do ourselves. I can say I love my wife, but if I don’t make time to talk with her and share life with her then she’ll never know it.

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2 Mike Holman 21 January 2011 at 13:58

I really like this post.

It’s so easy to talk and think – just do it!!

One thing I’d like to add – it’s important to remember that “you are what you do” is not the same as “you are what you did”. I find myself continually thinking of myself as being in good shape, not overweight etc. Which used to be true, but isn’t true anymore.

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3 Megan 21 January 2011 at 22:47

Yes. Just yes. Actions speak louder than words. I have always believed this and I want to live this. ( I almost wrote “I try” to do this but I never forget the immortal words of Yoda..”do or do not. there is no try”.

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4 Kevin 23 January 2011 at 19:28

JD, I know you are not religious, but I love your comment that “faith without works is dead.” That’s core Catholic teaching right there. As a Catholic, I can never understand how some Protestants believe that faith is all that is required. It makes no sense to me at all.

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