The Most Important Thing in Life: Character

Updated: Apr 22

Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions?

  1. What is the most important thing you can work on to have a good, happy, and successful life?

  2. What is the most important thing to teach our children?

  3. If you were looking for a life-long partner, what is the most important thing to look for?

  4. If you were choosing a leader to follow, what is the most important thing to look for?

  5. If you were choosing employees, what is the most important thing to look for?

If you haven’t yet, you probably should. These are deep and powerful questions! You can probably guess the answer by the title of this article. The answer to all five questions is character.

Here is a clickable table of contents to help you navigate this article.

What is Character?

Why is Character Important?

Five Virtues for Good Character

  1. Filial Piety

  2. Carefulness

  3. Trustworthiness

  4. Loving-Kindness

  5. Humility


What is Character?

Now you might be wondering, what is character anyway? Put simply, character is our moral qualities of virtues and vices. Someone with good or strong character thinks, speaks, and acts in accordance with virtues such as respect, kindness, and humility. Someone with bad or weak character thinks, speaks, and acts in accordance with vices such as disrespect, selfishness, and arrogance.

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Why is Character Important?

Character is arguably the most important thing in life because it determines how we think, which then determines how we speak and act, which then determines the results we get in life. If we want to have a good, happy, and successful life, we need to build our character.

In the book, Ethics 101, John Maxwell talks about success and character:

“There are really only three kinds of people: Those who don’t succeed, those who succeed temporarily, and those who remain successful. Character is the only way to sustain success.” – John Maxwell

In the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about happiness and character:

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” – Steven Covey

If we want to surround ourselves with good people, whether that’s a partner, leader, or follower, we need to evaluate the quality of their character.

In an interview, relationship scientists John and Julie Gottman talk about how we need to look for partners with good character for a long and happy relationship. Julie says,

“How do they treat somebody who’s serving them? How do they treat a waiter, or a server, or a waitress? How do they treat a clerk? If the helper is delayed for some reason or can’t immediately give them what they want, how do they respond to that? Are they understanding? Are they patient? Are they courteous? Are they kind? Or are they pulling a superior punch basically and cutting them down? That is a great way to know the nature of somebody’s inner being.” – Julie Gottman

John says,

“There’s just those moments where you can tell when your partner is a person of substance and character.” – John Gottman

That brings us to the next question: How can we evaluate people’s (and your own) character?

Five Virtues for Good Character

We mentioned earlier that people with good character think, speak, and act in accordance with virtues. There are many, many virtues that one could list, but my goal with this article is to give you a powerful list that you can name on one hand:

  1. Filial piety

  2. Carefulness

  3. Trustworthiness

  4. Loving-kindness

  5. Humility

Here is an infographic to summarize the five virtues:

These five virtues naturally encompass other virtues such as loyalty, courtesy, integrity, yielding, moderation, and wisdom. The more a person embodies these five virtues, the better their character (and the more you should want to have them in your life!).

It's not enough to know the virtues in theory; we have to be able to apply them into every life! How can we do that?

The Confucian classic, Di Zi Gui: Guide to a Happy Life, talks about cultivating these five virtues from childhood by providing many examples of everyday actions we should take to be aligned to these virtues. I'll be sharing many examples in this article. The book also states that filial piety must come first, then carefulness and trustworthiness, then loving-kindness, in that order.

Book PDF Link (free for distribution)

Virtue 1: Filial Piety

Filial piety means being respectful and dutiful towards parents. It can be extended to mean being respectful to all elders and being caring towards all siblings.

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There’s a Chinese proverb that says,

“Among a hundred virtues, filial piety is the first.”

There are two meanings to that proverb:

  1. Filial piety is the first virtue humans need to learn.

  2. When people develop filial piety, all other virtues naturally develop after.

People start developing their character as children, and the first virtue they ought to learn is to be respectful to their parents. Why? Because we owe our lives to our parents, so the least we can do is respect them and take care of them.

Filial piety naturally encompasses all other virtues because our parents want us to live a good life and have a positive impact on the world. In other words, having good character is being filial.

Examples of Filial Piety in Daily Life

Here are some examples of filial piety that we can practice from Di Zi Gui:

  1. When my parents call me, I will respond right away.

  2. When my parents ask me to do something, I will do it promptly.

  3. When my parents criticize me, I will listen respectfully.

  4. No matter how small the matter, I mustn’t act unethically.

  5. What’s good for my parents, I’ll do my best to provide. What’s bad for them, I’ll do my best to keep away.

  6. If I get hurt, my parents will worry. If my virtues are bad, my parents will be ashamed.

  7. If my parents have faults, I will tell them in a kind and gentle way. If they don't listen, I will try again at a time when they are happy and open to listen.

  8. Respecting loving parents is easy. Respecting harsh parents is true filial piety.

Note: Even though it says "parents", parents are just the starting point. Our respectful heart needs to expand out to teachers, leaders, partners, friends, and eventually all people.

Matters 1-3 also show humility. How many times do leaders get upset at followers for simply not responding right away or for not following instructions? How often do followers refuse to listen to feedback and even argue back? Hence we can see the importance of filial piety.

Matters 4-6 also show carefulness. A small mistake can lead to big consequences, such as physical injury or ruining relationships.

Matter 7 and 8 also shows loving-kindness. Urging others to improve even at the risk of being scolded at is showing true care for them. Furthermore, being respectful and kind to those who aren't respectful and kind to us is true respect and true kindness.

We can extend out the definition of filial piety to include respecting teachers and elders and being loving towards siblings.

9. When I can maintain harmony with siblings, I am being filial.

10. Serve all elders as my parents. Serve all brothers and sisters as my brothers and sisters.

Matter 10 is the widest loving-kindness. It implies that a filial person will respect all elders as much as their own parents, and they will take care of all peers as their own brothers and sisters. Perhaps now it’s clear why Confucius put such a high emphasis on filial piety!

Short Stories on Filial Piety

Here are some short and inspiring stories on filial piety:

Virtue 2: Carefulness

Carefulness is important for preventing harm and mistakes.