MONEY THOUGHTS: Self-discipline and our character

February 11, 2018 @ 2:01PM
By Rajen Devadason

HAVE we lost our way in how we assess ourselves and others? It isn’t fashionable nowadays in job interviews and social gatherings for even older people like me to dwell too much on the innate character of the younger person with whom we’re interacting.

Instead, more often than not, we make our assessment of the quality of the jobseeker or fresh acquaintance in front of us based on superficial external criteria such as looks and grooming. This laziness on the part of

those who are more mature and ought to know better results in bad hires, early terminations and, sometimes, grave personal hurt.

Of course, this tendency isn’t new. We Homo sapiens have long tended to judge the human equivalent of a book by its cover. But this trend’s worsening...

Throughout the three-plus decades of my career thus far, working in England, the US, Singapore and now Malaysia, I have noticed a growing tendency for people everywhere of all ages to take dangerous shortcuts in assessing the quality of others. I believe this is occurring more frequently for two reasons:

1. The drop in our attention spans; and

2. The rise of the cult of personality.

Three years ago, researchers at Microsoft claimed the average attention span of a person had fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. (It is supposedly 9 seconds for a goldfish!) They attributed that massive 33 per cent drop in human attentiveness to the effects of an ‘increasingly digitised lifestyle’ on the (human) brain. That’s interesting but you should know the validity of that finding has been disputed ( on the grounds of insufficient rigour.

Nonetheless, when I talk to seasoned teachers in schools and lecturers at universities they do often bemoan the fall in students’ attention spans.

The Golden Rule

As for allowing personal charisma to eclipse character composition, the late Stephen Covey’s masterpiece, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, has much to say. The book grew out of Dr Covey’s earlier doctoral thesis, which involved a comprehensive study of two centuries of American success literature beginning in 1776.

In The 7 Habits, Covey wrote:

“As my study took me back through 200 years of writing about success, I noticed... that much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial... filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes-with social Band-Aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.”

If we go further back, though, a markedly different focus is evident. Covey explained:

“... almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so (from 1776) focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success-things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.”

(The Golden Rule was taught to common people in Judea by Jesus Christ two millennia ago: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While that has morphed into sound common sense advice today, it was a wild departure from the worldview of the Roman Empire and behavioural standards of the first century AD.)

Character strengthening

In truth, what is inside us eventually boils over from the depths of our character. So it makes sense for us to focus on becoming better inside by strengthening our character. We may do so by exercising self-discipline in each key area of life:

When we hold our tongue and choose NOT to blurt out something hurtful to another person even when it’s justified, we add a robust fibre to the fabric of our character.

The same thing happens when we roll out of bed or off the couch to go for a run or walk or swim or bike ride.

And when we choose to save some money instead of spending all of it the moment we get paid or are given a cash gift; when we make delayed gratification a core life principle; when we nurture curiosity by taking time to learn the basics of investment, economics, business and financial planning; we then go against the flow of society, nurture self-discipline and bolster our innermost self.

All parts of our life are interconnected. Ideally, we should aim to be nice and polite with no ulterior motive; we should exercise regularly; we should read, study and think deeply; and we should certainly save and invest consistently. Such disciplines toughen the disparate elements that make us who we are deep within the core of our being.

Even focusing on one area of life is beneficial. Consider the sombre words of W. Clement Stone, a famous insurance magnate, philanthropist and author who died in 2002 at the age of 100:

“If you cannot save money, the seeds of greatness are not in you.”

Tough words!

Yet even if you haven’t been saving your money or exercising your body or been polite and kind, the good news is that you may choose instantly to begin altering any substandard behaviour on your part through self-discipline to jumpstart the systematic process of building (perhaps rebuilding) your character today into a stronger, sweeter, shinier version of you tomorrow.

© 2018 Rajen Devadason

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