The Most Important Thing in Life: Character
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions?
What is the most important thing you can work on to have a good, happy, and successful life?
What is the most important thing to teach our children?
If you were looking for a life-long partner, what is the most important thing to look for?
If you were choosing a leader to follow, what is the most important thing to look for?
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.
Five Virtues for Good Character
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.
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
“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:
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.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says,
“Among a hundred virtues, filial piety is the first.”
There are two meanings to that proverb:
Filial piety is the first virtue humans need to learn.
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:
When my parents call me, I will respond right away.
When my parents ask me to do something, I will do it promptly.
When my parents criticize me, I will listen respectfully.
No matter how small the matter, I mustn’t act unethically.
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.
If I get hurt, my parents will worry. If my virtues are bad, my parents will be ashamed.
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.
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.
Examples of Carefulness in Practice
Have you ever spilt a glass of water? Have you ever walked into a glass door? Have you ever tripped on your shoelace? Have you ever eaten too much? Have you had a pot of soup overflow with bubbles because you were busy chopping vegetables? Not that last one? Then you’re doing better me…I’ve done all of those!
If I had learned and practiced Di Zi Gui earlier, I could’ve saved myself from so many mistakes…Anyway, here are examples of carefulness from Di Zi Gui:
I ought to cherish time, for time passing quickly and old age comes easily
I ought to button up my clothes and tie my shoelaces properly
When it comes to food, I should eat enough, not in excess, and not be picky.
I should hold an empty cup as if it were full.
When turning a corner, I should leave ample space.
I mustn’t do many things at the same time, for it’s easy to make mistakes that way.
I ought to avoid bad influences.
I should ask for permission first before using anything that isn’t mine.
From these matters, we can see that carefulness applies especially to the smallest things, such as tying up your shoelaces and holding an empty cup. As the common expression goes,
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
Matters #4-5 emphasize the importance of being calm and careful. Accidents and mistakes are often made when our mind is rushing with thoughts, and cleaning up after our mistakes ends up taking a lot more time than if we had just been slow and careful to begin with. As the common Navy SEAL expression goes,
"Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast."
Notice how all of these matters can fall under filial piety (matters #4 and #6) as well. When we’re careful, our parents won’t be worried about us. Furthermore, these matters form the foundation for the virtue of trustworthiness. If someone is not careful with daily matters, how can you trust them with any responsibility?
Short Stories on Carefulness
Here are some short and inspiring stories on carefulness:
Virtue 3: Trustworthiness
Society is built on relationships, and relationships are built on trust. Therefore, a person who cannot be trusted cannot plant roots in society. No one will want to engage with them.
It's important to not confuse trustworthiness with honesty. Trustworthiness means that I trust you have my best intentions in mind. You definitely do not have any harmful intentions towards me, you don't want to take advantage of me, and you're not uncareful such that you'd say something wrong. When we understand the meaning of trustworthiness, we can clearly see why it comes after filial piety and carefulness. A person with filial piety will have a loving and respectful heart. A person with carefulness won't make mistakes in their speech or tasks.
Honesty, on the other hand, is just saying the truth. Honesty is important, but it must be balanced with love and carefulness. Otherwise, it's easy to damage relationships. A person who always says whatever they think under the reason of "I’m just being honest" is not trustworthy because they lack respect and carefulness.
Examples of Trustworthiness in Practice
Here are some examples of trustworthiness from Di Zi Gui:
Whatever I speak, trustworthiness comes first.
Whatever I don’t know for sure, I will not say.
When I speak, I will speak clearly and calmly.
To speak less is better than to speak more.
I will not participate in gossip.
If I see others’ virtues, I will diligently follow their example. If I see others’ vices, I will vigilantly guard myself against that vice.
If I get angry when others tell me my faults, good people will leave me and bad people will come. If am I appreciative when hearing criticism and cautious when hearing praise, good people will come.
If I can correct my faults, then they are gone. If I hide my faults, that’s adding a further fault on top.
Matters 1-5 are all about carefulness in speech, for speech has big consequences. As Julian Treasure once said,
"The human voice: It's the instrument we all play. It's the most powerful sound in the world, probably. It's the only one that can start a war or say 'I love you.'"
Matters 6-8 are all about humility. If someone is arrogant, how can you trust them to have your best intentions at heart? If they don't have your best intentions at heart, how can you trust them with responsibility?
Short Stories on Trustworthiness
Here are some short and inspiring stories on trustworthiness:
Virtue 4: Loving-Kindness
What do you think of when you hear the word “love”? If you’re like most people, you probably think of a passionate Hollywood kind of image. Since Hollywood kind of owns the definition of the word “love” right now, we’ll use the word "loving-kindness."
Loving-kindness has two parts. First, it’s about wanting the best for others. How do we know what’s best for others? We have to use our heart to feel what the other person needs, just like how a mother is able to feel what her infant needs without the infant saying a word. We start practicing this at a young age by using our hearts to feel what our parents need, then we can extend our hearts wider to other people.
Second loving-kindness is love without conditions. Most of our love is conditional: You have to be good to me; only then will I love you. That’s not loving-kindness. Mother Earth nurtures all plants equally without conditions. That’s loving-kindness.
Examples of Loving-Kindness in Practice
Here are some examples of loving-kindness from Di Zi Gui:
I should love all people, for we all live on the same Earth and under the same sky.
People naturally respect those of high virtues and abilities, not those who speak and act big.
Whatever I ask of others, I must first ask myself if I would be willing.
Whatever abilities I have, I mustn’t be selfish with them.
If a person is busy or not peaceful, I mustn’t bother them.
I should praise other people’s virtues and not broadcast their faults.
When treating servants, I should be dignified and kind.
If I force others, their hearts will not be with me. If I can get their hearts with me, they will have no objections.
Nowadays, many people's hearts are narrow: They only think of themselves. Rather than trying to make others happy, people want others to make them happy. If everybody was considerate of everybody else, imagine how pleasant and peaceful society would be. That's the importance of loving-kindness.
Notice how these 8 matters tell us to widen our hearts, to love all people, to treat others the way we want to be treated, to be sensitive to other people's feelings, to praise others, and to appeal to people's hearts. Loving-kindness is a high road, and the high road leads to world peace.
Short Stories on Loving-Kindness
Here are some short and inspiring stories on loving-kindness:
Virtue 5: Humility
Humility is about seeing yourself as a learner. A humble person does not look down upon anyone, but instead respecting everyone and viewing them as teachers.
A big part of humility is learning. Learning requires carefulness and loving-kindness to support it. If you are not careful in your learning, it's easy to misunderstand teachers. If someone lacks loving-kindness, then they may end up using what they learned to hurt others.
Examples of Humility in Practice
Here are some examples of humility from Di Zi Gui:
If I get angry when others tell me my faults, good people will leave and bad people will come. If am I appreciative when hearing criticism and cautious when hearing praise, good people will come.
If I see others’ virtues, I will diligently follow their example. If I see others’ vices, I will vigilantly guard against that vice.
Whatever extra time I have, I should use it to study and learn from Sages (people of highest virtues)
If I learn but do not act on the learnings, then I’m growing vanity. If I act but do not learn, then I’m growing ignorance.
If I get confused when learning, I ought to ask a suitable expert.
If I can get close to people of high virtues, then my virtues will grow and my faults will decrease everyday.
When my diligent efforts mature, obstacles will naturally fall away.
I mustn’t give up on myself, for greatness can be trained.
Matters 1 and 2 are about being open to criticism and feedback. Often times, people get defensive and argumentative when criticized. It's always admirable and pleasant when someone receives criticism with appreciation.
Matters 3-8 are about diligently learning and applying those learnings in life to improve your character. Application is extremely important because if you don't apply what you learn, you don't get any benefits, and your understanding might even be wrong. We also need to be diligent and patient with the learning process and not give up too early before results can be reaped.
Short Stories on Humility
Here are some short and inspiring stories on humility:
Emperor Zhao's New Minister: A story on how yielding is superiority.
In conclusion, the quality of your character determines the quality of your life. Why? Because your character determines your thoughts, which determines your speech and actions, which then determines the results you get in life.
When our thoughts, words, and actions are aligned with virtues, then we have good character. This article looked at five major virtues: filial piety, carefulness, trustworthiness, loving-kindness, and humility. There are many virtues one can list, but if you can remember and practice these five, you will be able to live an excellent life, get near excellent people, and teach others to be excellent.
Now that you’ve learned about these five virtues, it’s important that you take action to practice them in your own life! I started by picking 10 lines from Di Zi Gui and inspecting myself at the end of every day. I was shocked at how many times I acted against Di Zi Gui's teachings. Once I started correcting my actions, my life improved, and I started having more peace and happiness. These results keep me motivated to keep following Di Zi Gui. It's been many months now, and I'm still improving.
I encourage you to pick 5-10 lines that resonate with you and to reflect on those lines every day for one week and see what happens. If you get good results, try it for a month. It might feel like hard work at the beginning, but improving your character is definitely worth it. As Di Zi Gui says, with diligent effort and patience, you will surely reap great results!