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4 Determine the Strength of People’s Character

The Law of Compulsive Behavior

When choosing people to work and associate with, do not be mesmerized by their reputation or taken in by the surface image they try to project. Instead, train yourself to look deep within them and see their character. People’s character is formed in their earliest years and by their daily habits. It is what compels them to repeat certain actions in their lives and fall into negative patterns. Look closely at such patterns and remember that people never do something just once. They will inevitably repeat their behavior. Gauge the relative strength of their character by how well they handle adversity, their ability to adapt and work with other people, their patience and ability to learn. Always gravitate toward those who display signs of strength, and avoid the many toxic types out there. Know thoroughly your own character so you can break your compulsive patterns and take control of your destiny.

The Pattern

To his aunts, uncles, and grandparents who watched him grow up in Houston, Texas, Howard Hughes Jr. (1905–1976) was a rather shy and awkward boy. His mother had nearly died giving birth to him and consequently could not have other children, so she completely doted on her son. Continually anxious that he might catch some illness, she watched his every move and did all she could to protect him. The boy seemed in awe of his father, Howard Sr., who in 1909 had started the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company, which would soon make the family a fortune. His father was not home much, always traveling for business, so Howard spent a great deal of time with his mother. To the relatives he could seem nervous and hypersensitive, but as he got older he became a remarkably polite, soft-spoken young man, completely devoted to his parents.

Then in 1922 his mother, at the age of thirty-nine, suddenly died. His father never quite recovered from her early death and passed away two years later. Now, at the age of nineteen, young Howard was alone in the world, having lost the two people who had been his closest companions and who had directed every phase of his life. His relatives decided they would have to fill the void and give the young man the guidance he needed. But in the months after the death of his father, they suddenly had to confront a Howard Hughes Jr. they had never seen before or suspected. The soft-spoken young man suddenly became rather abusive. The obedient boy was now the complete rebel. He would not continue college as they advised. He would not follow any of their recommendations. The more they insisted, the more belligerent he became.

Inheriting the family wealth, young Howard could now become completely independent, and he meant to take this as far as he could. He immediately went to work to buy out all of the shares in the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company that his relatives possessed and to gain complete control of the highly lucrative business. Under Texas law he could petition the courts to declare him an adult, if he could prove himself competent enough to assume the role. Hughes befriended a local judge and soon got the declaration he wanted. Now he could run his own life and the tool company with no interference. His relatives were shocked by all of this, and soon both sides would cut off almost all contact with each other for the rest of their lives. What had changed the sweet boy they had known into this hyperaggressive, rebellious young man? It was a mystery they would never solve.

Shortly after declaring his independence, Howard settled in Los Angeles, where he was determined to follow his two newest passions—filmmaking and piloting airplanes. He had the money to indulge himself in both of these interests, and in 1927 he decided to combine them, producing an epic, high-budget film about airmen during World War I, to be called Hell’s Angels. He hired a director and a team of writers to come up with the script, but he had a falling-out with the director and fired him. He then hired another director, Luther Reed, a man who was also an aviation buff and could relate better to the project, but soon he quit, tired of Hughes’s constant interfering in the project. His last words to Hughes were “If you know so much, why don’t you direct it yourself?” Hughes followed his advice and named himself the director.

The budget began to soar as he strove for the utmost in realism. Month after month, year after year went by as Hughes ran through hundreds of crewmembers and stunt pilots, three of whom died in fiery accidents. After endless battles, he ended up firing almost every head of a department and running things himself. He fussed over every shot, every angle, every storyboard. Finally Hell’s Angels premiered in 1930 and it was a smash hit. The story was a mess, but the flying and action sequences thrilled audiences. Now the legend of Howard Hughes was born. He was the dashing young maverick who had bucked the system and created a hit. He was the rugged individualist who did everything himself.

The film had cost a whopping $3.8 million to make and had lost close to $2 million, but nobody paid attention to this. Hughes himself was humble and claimed to have learned his lesson on the production: “Making Hell’s Angels by myself was my biggest mistake. . . . Trying to do the work of twelve men was just dumbness on my part. I learned by bitter experience that no one man can know everything.”

During the 1930s the Hughes legend only seemed to grow as he piloted planes to several world records in speed, courting death on several occasions. Hughes had spun off from his father’s company a new business venture called Hughes Aircraft, which he hoped to transform into the biggest manufacturer of airplanes in the world. At the time, this required procuring large military contracts for planes, and as the U.S. entered World War II Hughes made a big play for such a contract.

In 1942 various officials in the Defense Department, impressed by his aviation feats, the meticulous attention to detail he revealed in his interviews, and his tireless lobbying efforts, decided to award Hughes Aircraft an $18 million grant to produce three enormous transport planes, called the Hercules, which would be used to ferry soldiers and supplies to various fronts in the war. The planes were called flying boats and were to have wingspans longer than a football field and stand over three stories high at the hull. If the company did a good job on this, bringing the planes in on time and on budget, they would order many more and Hughes could corner the market in transport planes.

Less than a year later, there was more good news. Impressed with the beautiful and sleek design of his smaller D-2 plane, the air force put in an order for one hundred photo-reconnaissance planes for $43 million, to be reconfigured along the lines of the D-2. But soon word began to spread of trouble at Hughes Aircraft. The company had started as a sort of hobby for Hughes. He had placed various Hollywood friends and aviation buddies in high-level positions. As the company grew, so did the number of departments, but there was little communication among them. Everything had to flow through Hughes himself. He had to be consulted on the smallest decision. Frustrated by all of his interference in their work, several top-notch engineers had already quit.

Hughes saw the problem and hired a general manager to help with the Hercules project and straighten the company out, but the general manager quit after two months. Hughes had promised him carte blanche in restructuring the company, but only several days into the job he began vetoing his decisions and undermining his authority. By the late summer of 1943, $6 million of the $9 million set aside for the production of the first Hercules plane had already been spent, but the plane was nowhere near completion. Those in the Defense Department who had endorsed Hughes for the job began to panic. The photo-reconnaissance order was a critical one for the war effort. Did the internal chaos and delays with the Hercules bode problems with the more important reconnaissance order? Had Hughes duped them with his charm and his publicity campaign?

By early 1944, the order for the reconnaissance planes had fallen hopelessly behind schedule. The military now insisted he hire a new general manager to salvage something from the order. Fortunately one of the best men for the job was available at the time: Charles Perelle, the “boy wonder” of aircraft production. Perelle did not want the job. He knew, like everyone in the business, of the chaos within Hughes Aircraft. Now Hughes himself, feeling desperate, went on a charm offensive. He insisted he had realized the error of his ways. He needed Perelle’s expertise. He was not what Perelle had expected—he was completely humble and made it seem as if he were the victim of unscrupulous executives within the company. He knew all the technical details of producing a plane, which impressed Perelle. He promised to give Perelle the authority he needed. Against his better judgment, Perelle took the job.

After only a few weeks, however, Perelle regretted his decision. The planes were further behind schedule than he had been led to believe. Everything he saw reeked of a lack of professionalism, down to the shoddy drawings of the planes. He went to work, cutting wasteful spending and streamlining departments, but nobody respected his authority. Everybody knew who really ran the company, as Hughes kept undermining Perelle’s reforms. As the order fell further behind and the pressure mounted, Hughes disappeared from the scene, apparently having a nervous breakdown. By the end of the war, not a single reconnaissance plane had been produced, and the air force canceled the contract. Perelle himself, broken by the experience, quit his job in December of that year.

Hughes, trying to salvage something from the war years, could point to the completion of one of the flying boats, later known as the Spruce Goose. It was a marvel, he claimed, a brilliant piece of engineering on a massive scale. To prove the doubters wrong, he decided to test-fly the plane himself. As he flew over the ocean, however, it became painfully clear that the plane did not have nearly enough power for its enormous weight, and after a mile he gently set it down on the water and had it towed back. The plane would never fly again and would be dry-docked in a hangar at a cost of $1 million per year, Hughes refusing to take it apart for scrap.

By 1948 the owner of RKO Pictures, Floyd Odlum, was looking to sell. RKO was one of Hollywood’s most profitable and prestigious studios, and Hughes was itching to get back in the limelight by establishing himself in the film business. He bought Odlum’s shares and gained a controlling interest. Within RKO there was panic. Executives there knew of his reputation for meddling. The company had just brought in a new regime, headed by Dore Schary, that was going to transform RKO into the hottest studio for young directors. Schary decided to quit before being humiliated, but he agreed to first meet Hughes, mostly out of curiosity.

Hughes was all charm. He took hold of Schary’s hand, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I want no part of running the studio. You’ll be left alone.” Schary, surprised by his sincerity and agreement with Schary’s proposed transformation of the studio, relented, and for the first few weeks all was as Hughes had promised. But then the phone calls began. Hughes wanted Schary to replace an actress on the latest film in production. Realizing his mistake, Schary immediately resigned, taking with him many of his own staff.

Hughes began filling positions with men who followed his orders, hiring exactly the actors and actresses that he himself liked. He bought a screenplay called Jet Pilot and planned on making it the 1949 version of Hell’s Angels. It was to star John Wayne, and the great Josef von Sternberg was to direct. After a few weeks Sternberg could not endure one more phone call and quit. Hughes took over. In a complete repeat of the production of Hell’s Angels, it took nearly three years to finish, mostly because of the aerial photography, and the budget soared to $4 million. Hughes had shot so much footage he could not decide how to cut it down. It took six years before it was ready, and by then the jet scenes were completely out of date and Wayne looked considerably older. The film subsequently fell into complete obscurity. Soon the once-bustling studio was losing substantial sums, and in 1955, with stockholders furious at his mismanagement, Hughes sold RKO to the General Tire Company.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, the U.S. military decided to adapt some of its fighting philosophy to the times. To wage war in places like Vietnam it needed helicopters, including a light observation helicopter to help in reconnaissance. The army searched out potential manufacturers and in 1961 selected two of them that had submitted the best proposals, rejecting the design of Hughes’s second aircraft company, which he had spun off from Hughes Tool (the original version of Hughes Aircraft was now run completely independently from Hughes himself). Hughes refused to accept this setback. His publicity team went on a massive lobbying campaign, wining and dining army brass, much as they had done some twenty years earlier with the photo-reconnaissance planes, spending money lavishly. The campaign was a success and the Hughes entry was now in the running along with the other two. The army decided that the company that came in with the best price would win.

The price Hughes submitted surprised the military—it was so low it seemed impossible for the company to make any money on the manufacture of the helicopters. It seemed clear that his strategy was to lose money on the initial production in order to win the auction, get the contract, and then raise the price on subsequent orders. In 1965 the army finally awarded the contract to Hughes, an incredible coup for a company that had had so little success in airplane production. If they were made well and on time, the army could potentially order thousands of helicopters, and Hughes could use this as a springboard into the production of commercial helicopters, an expanding business.

As the Vietnam War heated up, the army was certain to increase its order and Hughes would reap the bonanza, but as they waited for the delivery of the first helicopters, those who had awarded the contract to Hughes began to panic: the company was falling way behind the schedule they had agreed upon, and so they launched an investigation to find out what was going on. To their horror, there seemed to be no organized production line. The plant was too small to handle such an order. The details were all wrong—the drawings were unprofessional, the tools inadequate, and there were too few skilled workers on site. It was as if the company had no experience in designing planes and was trying to figure it out as it went. It was the exact same predicament as with the photo-reconnaissance planes, which only a few in the military could remember. It was clear that Hughes had not learned a single lesson from the earlier fiasco.

As they now could predict, the helicopters only trickled in. Feeling desperate, army brass decided to conduct a new auction for the much larger order of the 2,200 helicopters they now needed, hoping a more experienced company would come in with a lower price and force out Hughes. Hughes went into panic mode. To lose this follow-on bid would spell ruin. The company was counting on raising its price for this new order to recoup the enormous losses it had incurred with the initial production. That was the bet Hughes had placed. If he tried to come in with a low price for the additional helicopters, he could not return a profit, and yet if his bid was not low enough, he would be underbid, which was what eventually happened. The loss to Hughes in the end for the helicopters he produced was an astronomical $90 million and had a devastating effect on the company.

In 1976 Howard Hughes died in an airplane en route from Acapulco to Houston, and as the autopsy was performed on his body, the public finally became aware of what had happened to him in the last decade of his life. For years he had been addicted to pain pills and narcotics. He had lived in tightly sealed hotel rooms, deathly afraid of the slightest possible contamination by germs. At the time of his death he weighed a mere ninety-three pounds. He had lived in near-total isolation, attended to by a few assistants, desperately trying to keep all of this out of the public eye. It was the ultimate irony that the man who feared more than anything the slightest loss of control had ended up in his last years at the complete mercy of a handful of assistants and executives, who oversaw his slow death by drugs and wrested essential control of the company from him.

• • •

Interpretation: The pattern of Howard Hughes’s life was set from very early on. His mother had an anxious nature, and after learning she could have no more children, she directed a great deal of her anxiety toward her only son. She smothered him with constant attention; she became his closest companion, almost never letting him out of sight. The father placed tremendous expectations on his son to carry on the family name. His parents determined everything he did—what he wore, what he ate, and who his friends were (although they were few). They shuttled him from school to school looking for the perfect environment for their son, who had shown himself to be hypersensitive and not easy to get along with. He was completely dependent on them for everything, and out of a tremendous fear of disappointing them, he became supremely polite and obedient.

The truth, however, was that he bitterly resented his total dependence. Once his parents died, his true character could finally emerge from beneath the smiles and obedience. He felt no love toward his relatives. He would rather face the future alone than have the slightest bit of authority above him. He had to have complete control, even at the age of nineteen, over his fate; anything less would stir up the old anxieties from childhood. And with the money he inherited, he had the power to realize his dream of total independence. His love of flying reflected this character trait. Only in the air, alone and at the helm, could he really experience the exhilaration of control and release from his anxieties. He could soar high above the masses, whom he secretly despised. He could brave death, which he did many times, because it would be a death under his own power.

His character came out even more clearly in the leadership style that he evolved in Hollywood and his other business ventures. If writers, directors, or executives came forward with their own ideas, he could only see this as a personal challenge to his authority. This would stir up his old anxieties about being helpless and dependent on others. To combat this anxiety he would have to keep control of all aspects of the business, overseeing even the spelling and grammar of the smallest publicity notice. He would have to create a very loose structure within his companies, making all of the executives fight among themselves for his attention. Better to have some internal chaos as long as everything flowed through him.

The paradox of this was that by trying to gain such total control he tended to lose it; one man could not possibly keep on top of everything, and so all kinds of unforeseen problems would arise. And when projects fell apart and the heat became intense, he would disappear from the scene or conveniently fall ill. His need to control everything around him even extended to the women he dated—he scrutinized their every action, had them followed by private investigators.

The problem that Howard Hughes presented to all those who chose to work with him in some capacity was that he carefully constructed a public image that concealed the glaring weaknesses in his character. Instead of the irrational micromanager, he could present himself as the rugged individualist and the consummate American maverick. Most damaging of all was his ability to portray himself as a successful businessman leading a billion-dollar empire. In truth, he had inherited a highly profitable tool business from his father. Over the years, the only parts of his empire that ran substantial profits were the tool company and an earlier version of Hughes Aircraft that he had spun out of the tool company. For various reasons, both of these businesses were run completely independently of Hughes; he had no input on their operations. The many other businesses he personally ran—his later aircraft division, his film ventures, his hotels and real estate in Las Vegas—all lost substantial amounts that were fortunately covered by the other two.

In fact, Hughes was a terrible businessman, and the pattern of failures that revealed this was plain for everyone to see. But this is the blind spot in human nature: we are poorly equipped to gauge the character of the people we deal with. Their public image, the reputation that precedes them, easily mesmerizes us. We are captivated by appearances. If they surround themselves with some alluring myth, as Hughes did, we want to believe in it. Instead of determining people’s character—their ability to work with others, to keep to their promises, to remain strong in adverse circumstances—we choose to work with or hire people based on their glittering résumé, their intelligence, and their charm. But even a positive trait such as intelligence is worthless if the person also happens to be of weak or dubious character. And so, because of our blind spot, we suffer under the irresolute leader, the micromanaging boss, the conniving partner. This is the source of endless tragedies in history, our pattern as a species.

At all costs, you must alter your perspective. Train yourself to ignore the front that people display, the myth that surrounds them, and instead plumb their depths for signs of their character. This can be seen in the patterns they reveal from their past, the quality of their decisions, how they have chosen to solve problems, how they delegate authority and work with others, and countless other signs. A person of strong character is like gold—rare but invaluable. They can adapt, learn, and improve themselves. Since your success depends on the people you work with and for, make their character the primary object of your attention. You will spare yourself the misery of discovering their character when it is too late.

Character is destiny.

—Heraclitus

Keys to Human Nature

For thousands of years, we humans believed in fate: some kind of force—spirits, gods, or God—compelled us to act in a certain way. At birth our entire lives were laid out in advance; we were fated to succeed or fail. We see the world much differently now. We believe that we are largely in control of what happens to us, that we create our own destiny. Upon occasion, however, we might have a fleeting sensation that approximates what our ancestors must have felt. Perhaps a personal relationship goes bad or our career path hits a snag, and these difficulties are uncannily similar to something that happened to us in the past. Or we realize that our way of working on a project needs some improvement; we could do things better. We try to alter our methods, only to find ourselves doing things in exactly the same way, with nearly the same results. We might feel for a moment that some kind of malignant force in the world, some curse, compels us to relive the same situations.

We can often notice this phenomenon more clearly in the actions of others, particularly those closest to us. For instance, we see friends continually fall for exactly the wrong person or unconsciously push away the right person. We cringe at some foolish behavior of theirs, such as an ill-considered investment or career choice, only to see them repeat the foolishness a few years later, once they have forgotten the lesson. Or we know someone who always manages to offend the wrong person at the wrong time, creating hostility wherever he or she goes. Or they crumble under pressure, always in the same way, but blaming others or bad luck for what happens. And of course we know the addicts who get out of their addiction, only to fall back in or find some other form of addiction. We see these patterns and they don’t, because nobody likes to believe that they are operating under some kind of compulsion beyond their control. It is too disturbing a thought.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit there is some truth to the concept of fate. We are prone to repeat the same decisions and methods of dealing with problems. There is a pattern to our life, particularly visible in our mistakes and failures. But there is a different way of looking at this concept: it is not spirits or gods that control us but rather our character. The etymology of the word character, from the ancient Greek, refers to an engraving or stamping instrument. Character, then, is something that is so deeply ingrained or stamped within us that it compels us to act in certain ways, beyond our awareness and control. We can conceive of this character as having three essential components, each layered on top of the other, giving this character depth.

The earliest and deepest layer comes from genetics, from the particular way our brains are wired, which predisposes us toward certain moods and preferences. This genetic component can make some people prone to depression, for instance. It makes some people introverts and others extroverts. It might even incline some toward becoming especially greedy—for attention or privilege or possessions. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who studied infants, believed that the greedy and grasping type of child came into the world predisposed toward this character trait. There might be other genetic factors as well that predispose us toward hostility or anxiety or openness.

The second layer, which forms above this, comes from our earliest years and from the particular type of attachments we formed with our mother and caregivers. In these first three or four years our brains are especially malleable. We experience emotions much more intensely, creating memory traces that are much deeper than anything that will follow. In this period of life we are at our most susceptible to the influence of others, and the stamp from these years is profound.

John Bowlby, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, studied patterns of attachment between mothers and children and came up with four basic schemas: free/autonomous, dismissing, enmeshed-ambivalent, and disorganized. The free/autonomous stamp comes from mothers who give their children freedom to discover themselves and are continually sensitive to their needs but also protect them. Dismissing mothers are often distant, even sometimes hostile and rejecting. Such children are stamped with a feeling of abandonment and the idea that they must continually fend for themselves. The enmeshed-ambivalent mothers are not consistent with their attention—sometimes suffocating and overinvolved, other times retreating because of their own problems or anxieties. They can make their children feel as if they have to take care of the person who should be taking care of them. Disorganized mothers send highly conflicting signals to their children, reflecting their own inner chaos and perhaps early emotional traumas. Nothing their children do is right, and such children can develop powerful emotional problems.

There are, of course, many gradations within each type and combinations of them, but in every case the quality of attachment that we had in our earliest years will create deep tendencies within us, in particular the way we use relationships to handle or modulate our stress. For instance, children of the dismissing parent will tend to avoid any kind of negative emotional situation and to wall themselves off from feelings of dependency. They might find it harder to commit to a relationship or will unconsciously push people away. The children of the enmeshed variety will experience a great deal of anxiety in relationships and will feel many conflicting emotions. They will always be ambivalent toward people, and this will set noticeable patterns in their life in which they pursue people and then unconsciously retreat.

In general, from these earliest years people will display a particular tone to their character—hostile and aggressive, secure and confident, anxious and avoidant, needy and enmeshing. These two layers are so deep that we have no real conscious awareness of them and the behavior they compel, unless we expend great effort in examining ourselves.

Above this a third layer will form from our habits and experiences as we get older. Based on the first two layers, we will tend to rely on certain strategies for dealing with stress, looking for pleasure, or handling people. These strategies now become habits that are set in our youth. There will be modifications to the particular nature of our character depending on the people we deal with—friends, teachers, romantic partners—and how they respond to us. But in general these three layers will establish certain noticeable patterns. We will make a particular decision. This is engraved in our brains neurologically. We are compelled to repeat this because the path is already laid. It becomes a habit, and our character is formed out of these thousands of habits, the earliest ones set well before we could be conscious of them.

There is a fourth layer as well. It often is developed in late childhood and adolescence as people become aware of their character flaws. They do what they can to cover them up. If they sense that deep inside they are an anxious, timid type of person, they come to realize that this is not a socially acceptable trait. They learn to disguise it with a front. They compensate by trying to appear outgoing or carefree or even domineering. This makes it all the more difficult for us to determine the nature of their character.

Some character traits can be positive and reflect inner strength. For instance, some people have a propensity toward being generous and open, empathetic, and resilient under pressure. But these stronger, more flexible qualities often require awareness and practice to truly become habits that can be relied upon. As we get older, life tends to weaken us. Our empathy is harder to hold on to (see chapter 2). If we are reflexively generous and open to everyone we meet, we can end up in a lot of trouble. Confidence without self-awareness and control can become grandiosity. Without conscious effort, these strengths will tend to wear down or turn into weaknesses. What this means is that the weakest parts of our character are the ones that create habits and compulsive behavior, because they do not require effort or practice to maintain.

Finally, we can develop conflicting character traits, perhaps stemming from a difference between our genetic predispositions and our earliest influences, or from parents who stamp in us different values. We might feel both idealistic and materialistic, the two parts fighting within us. The law remains the same. The conflicted character, which is developed in the earliest years, will merely reveal a different kind of pattern, with decisions that tend to reflect a person’s ambivalence, or that swing back and forth.

As a student of human nature your task is twofold: First you must come to understand your own character, examining as best you can the elements in your past that have gone into forming it, and the patterns, mostly negative, that you can see recurring in your life. It is impossible to get rid of this stamp that constitutes your character. It is too deep. But through awareness, you can learn to mitigate or stop certain negative patterns. You can work to transform the negative and weak aspects of your character into actual strengths. You can try to create new habits and patterns that go with them through practice, actively shaping your character and the destiny that goes with it. (For more on this, see the last section of this chapter.) Second, you must develop your skill in reading the character of the people you deal with. To do so, you must consider character as a primary value when it comes to choosing a person to work for or with or an intimate partner. This means giving it more value than their charm, intelligence, or reputation. The ability to observe people’s character—as seen in their actions and patterns—is an absolutely critical social skill. It can help you avoid precisely those kinds of decisions that can spell years of misery—choosing an incompetent leader, a shady partner, a scheming assistant, or the kind of incompatible spouse who can poison your life. But it is a skill you must consciously develop, because we humans are generally inept when it comes to such assessments.

The general source of our ineptness is that we tend to base our judgments of people on what is most apparent. But as stated earlier, people often try to cover up their weaknesses by presenting them as something positive. We see them brimming with self-confidence, only to later discover that they are actually arrogant and incapable of listening. They seem frank and sincere, but over time we realize that they are actually boorish and unable to consider the feelings of others. Or they seem prudent and thoughtful, but eventually we see that they are in fact timid at their core and afraid of the slightest criticism. People can be quite adept at creating these optical illusions, and we fall for them. Similarly, people will charm and flatter us and, blinded by our desire to like them, we fail to look deeper and see the character flaws.

Related to this, when we look at people we often are really seeing only their reputation, the myth that surrounds them, the position they occupy, and not the individual. We come to believe that a person who has success must by nature be generous, intelligent, and good, and that they deserve everything they have gotten. But successful people come in all shapes. Some are good at using others to get where they have gotten, masking their own incompetence. Some are completely manipulative. Successful people have just as many character flaws as anyone else. Also, we tend to believe that someone who adheres to a particular religion or political belief system or moral code must have the character to go with this. But people bring the character they have to the position they occupy or to the religion they practice. A person can be a progressive liberal or a loving Christian and still be an intolerant tyrant at heart.

The first step, then, in studying character is to be aware of these illusions and façades and to train ourselves to look through them. We must scrutinize everybody for signs of their character, no matter the appearance they present or the position they occupy. With this firmly in mind, we can then work on several key components to the skill: recognizing certain signs that people emit in certain situations and that clearly reveal their character; understanding some general categories that people fit into (strong versus weak character, for instance), and finally being aware of certain types of characters that often are the most toxic and should be avoided if possible.

Character Signs

The most significant indicator of people’s character comes through their actions over time. Despite what people say about the lessons they have learned (see Howard Hughes), and how they have changed over the years, you will inevitably notice the same actions and decisions repeating in the course of their life. In these decisions they reveal their character. You must take notice of any salient forms of behavior—disappearing when there is too much stress, not completing an important piece of work, turning suddenly belligerent when challenged, or, conversely, suddenly rising to the occasion when given responsibility. With this fixed in your mind, you do some research into their past. You look at other actions you have observed that fit into this pattern, now in retrospect. You pay close attention to what they do in the present. You see their actions not as isolated incidents but as parts of a compulsive pattern. If you ignore the pattern it is your own fault.

You must always keep in mind the primary corollary of this law: people never do something just once. They might try to excuse themselves, to say they lost their heads in the moment, but you can be sure they will repeat whatever foolishness they did on another occasion, compelled by their character and habits. In fact, they will often repeat actions when it is completely against their self-interest, revealing the compulsive nature of their weaknesses.

Cassius Severus was an infamous lawyer-orator who flourished in the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He first gained attention with his fiery speeches that attacked high-ranking Romans for their extravagant lifestyles. He gained a following. His style was bombastic but full of humor that pleased the public. Encouraged by the attention he received, he began to insult other officials, always raising the tone of his attacks. The authorities warned him to stop. The novelty wore off and the crowds grew thinner, but this only made Severus try harder.

Finally the authorities had had enough—in AD 7 they ordered his books to be burned and him to be banished to the island of Crete. To the dismay of the Roman authorities, on Crete he simply continued his obnoxious campaign, sending copies to Rome of his latest diatribes. They warned him yet again. He not only ignored this, but he began to harangue and insult local Cretan officials, who wanted him put to death. In AD 24 the Senate wisely banished him to the unpopulated rock of Serifos in the middle of the Aegean Sea. There he would spend the last eight years of his life, and we can imagine him still concocting more insulting speeches that no one would hear.

It is hard for us to believe that people cannot control tendencies that are so self-destructive, and we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, as the Romans did. But we must remember the wise words in the Bible: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly.”

You can see eloquent signs of people’s character in how they handle everyday affairs. If they are late in finishing simple assignments, they will be late with larger projects. If they become irritated by little inconveniences, they will tend to crumble under larger ones. If they are forgetful on small matters and inattentive to details, they will be so on more important ones. Look at how they treat employees in everyday settings and notice if there are discrepancies between the persona they present and their attitude toward underlings.

In 1969 Jeb Magruder came to San Clemente for a job interview in the Nixon administration. The man giving the interview was Bob Haldeman, chief of staff. Haldeman was very earnest, completely devoted to the Nixon cause, and impressed Magruder with his honesty, sharpness, and intelligence. But as they left the interview to get in a golf cart for a tour of San Clemente, Haldeman suddenly became frantic—there were no carts available. He railed at those in charge of the carts, and his manner was insulting and harsh. He was almost hysterical. Magruder should have seen this incident as a sign that Haldeman was not what he appeared, that he had control issues and a vicious streak, but charmed by the aura of power at San Clemente and wanting the job, he chose to ignore this, much to his later dismay.

In everyday life people can often do well at disguising their character flaws, but in times of stress or crisis these flaws can suddenly become very apparent. People under stress lose their normal self-control. They reveal their insecurities about their reputation, their fear of failure and lack of inner resilience. On the other hand, some people rise to the occasion and reveal strength under fire. There’s no way to tell until the heat is on, but you must pay extra attention to such moments.

Similarly, how people handle power and responsibility will tell you a lot about them. As Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” On the way to gaining power, people will tend to play the courtier, to seem deferential, to follow the party line, to do what it takes to make it to the top. Once at the top, there are fewer restraints and they will often reveal something about themselves you had not noticed before. Some people stay true to the values they had before attaining a high position—they remain respectful and empathetic. On the other hand, far more people suddenly feel entitled to treat others differently now that they have the power.

That is what happened to Lyndon Johnson once he attained a position of ultimate security in the Senate, as Senate majority leader. Tired of the years he had to spend playing the perfect courtier, he now relished the power he had to upset or humiliate those who had crossed him in the past. Now he would go up to such a senator and make a point of talking only to his assistant. Or he would get up and leave the floor when a senator he did not like was giving an important speech, making other senators follow him. In general there are always signs of these character traits in the past if you look closely enough (Johnson had revealed such nasty signs in the earliest parts of his political career), but, more important, you need to take notice of what people reveal once they are in power. So often we think that power has changed people, when in fact it simply reveals more of who they are.

People’s choice of spouse or partner says a lot about them. Some look for a partner they can dominate and control, perhaps someone younger, less intelligent or successful. Some choose a partner they can rescue from a bad situation, playing the savior role, another form of control. Yet others look for someone to fill the mommy or daddy role. They want more pampering. These choices are rarely intellectual; they reflect people’s earliest years and attachment schemas. They are sometimes surprising, as when people select someone who seems very different and outwardly incompatible, but there is always an internal logic to such choices. For instance, a person has a tremendous fear of being abandoned by the one they love, reflecting anxieties from infancy, and so they select a person who is noticeably inferior in looks or intelligence, knowing that person will cling to them no matter what.

Another realm to examine is how people behave in moments away from work. In a game or sport they might reveal a competitive nature that they cannot turn off. They have a fear of being overtaken in anything, even when they are driving. They must be ahead, out in front. This can be channeled functionally into their work, but in off hours it reveals deep layers of insecurities. Look at how people lose in games. Can they do so graciously? Their body language will say a lot on that front. Do they try whatever they can to circumvent the rules or bend them? Are they looking to escape and relax from work or to assert themselves even in such moments?

In general, people can be divided into introverts and extroverts, and this will play a large role in the character they develop. Extroverts are largely governed by external criteria. The question that dominates them is “What do others think of me?” They will tend to like what other people like, and the groups they belong to frequently determine the opinions they hold. They are open to suggestion and new ideas, but only if they are popular in the culture or asserted by some authority they respect. Extroverts value external things—good clothes, great meals, concrete enjoyment shared with others. They are in search of new and novel sensations and have a nose for trends. They are not only comfortable with noise and bustle but actively search it out. If they are bold, they love physical adventure. If they are not so bold, they love creature comforts. In any event, they crave stimulation and attention from others.

Introverts are more sensitive and easily exhausted by too much outward activity. They like to conserve their energy, to spend time alone or with one or two close friends. As opposed to extroverts, who are fascinated by facts and statistics for their own sake, introverts are interested in their own opinions and feelings. They love to theorize and come up with their own ideas. If they produce something, they do not like to promote it; they find the effort distasteful. What they make should sell itself. They like to keep a part of their life separate from others, to have secrets. Their opinions do not come from what others think or from any authority but from their inner criteria, or at least they think so. The bigger the crowd, the more lost and lonely they feel. They can seem awkward and mistrustful, uncomfortable with attention. They also tend to be more pessimistic and worried than the average extrovert. Their boldness will be expressed by the novel ideas they come up with and their creativity.

You might notice tendencies in both directions in individuals or yourself, but in general people trend in one or the other direction. It is important to gauge this in others for a simple reason: introverts and extroverts do not naturally understand each other. To the extrovert, the introvert has no fun, is stubborn, even antisocial. To the introvert, the extrovert is shallow, flighty, and overly concerned with what people think. Being one or the other is generally something genetic and will make two people see the same thing in a totally different light. Once you understand you are dealing with someone of the other variety than yourself, you must reassess their character and not foist your own preferences on them. Also, sometimes introverts and extroverts can work well together, particularly if people have a mix of both qualities and they complement each other, but more often than not they do not get along and are prone to constant misunderstandings. Keep in mind that there are generally more extroverts than introverts in the world.

Finally, it is critical that you measure the relative strength of people’s character. Think of it in this way: such strength comes from deep within the core of the person. It could stem from a mixture of certain factors—genetics, secure parenting, good mentors along the way, and constant improvement (see the final section of this chapter). Whatever the cause, this strength is not something displayed on the outside in the form of bluster or aggression but manifests itself in overall resilience and adaptability. Strong character has a tensile quality like a good piece of metal—it can give and bend but still retains its overall shape and never breaks.

The strength emanates from a feeling of personal security and self-worth. This allows such people to take criticism and learn from their experiences. This means they do not give up so easily, since they want to learn how to get better. They are rigorously persistent. People of strong character are open to new ideas and ways of doing things without compromising the basic principles they adhere to. In adversity they can retain their presence of mind. They can handle chaos and the unpredictable without succumbing to anxiety. They keep their word. They have patience, can organize a lot of material, and complete what they start. Not continually insecure about their status, they can also subsume their personal interests to the good of the group, knowing that what works best for the team will in the end make their life easier and better.

People of weak character begin from the opposite position. They are easily overwhelmed by circumstances, making them hard to rely upon. They are slippery and evasive. Worst of all, they cannot be taught because learning from others implies criticism. This means you will continually hit a wall in dealing with them. They may appear to listen to your instructions, but they will simply revert to what they think is best.

We are all a mix of strong and weak qualities, but some people clearly veer in one or the other direction. As much as you can, you want to work and associate with strong characters and avoid weak ones. This has been the basis for almost all of Warren Buffett’s investment decisions. He looks beyond the numbers to the CEOs he will be dealing with, and what he wants to gauge above all else is their resilience, their dependability, and their self-reliance. If only we used such measurements in those we hired, the partners we take in, and even the politicians we choose.

Although in intimate relationships there are certainly other factors that will guide our choices, strength of character should also be considered. This was largely what led Franklin Roosevelt to choose Eleanor as his wife. As a handsome young man of wealth, he could have chosen many other more beautiful young women, but he admired Eleanor’s openness to new experiences and her remarkable determination. Looking far into the future, he could see the value of her character mattering more than anything else. And it ended up being a very wise choice.

In gauging strength or weakness, look at how people handle stressful moments and responsibility. Look at their patterns: what have they actually completed or accomplished? You can also test people. For instance, a good-natured joke at their expense can be quite revealing. Do they respond graciously to this, not so easily caught up in their insecurities, or do their eyes flash resentment or even anger? To gauge their trustworthiness as a team player, give them strategic information or share with them some rumor—do they quickly pass along the information to others? Are they quick to take one of your ideas and package it as their own? Criticize them in a direct manner. Do they take this to heart and try to learn and improve, or do they show overt signs of resentment? Give them an open-ended assignment with less direction than usual and monitor how they organize their thoughts and their time. Challenge them with a difficult assignment or some novel way of doing something, and see how they respond, how they handle their anxiety.

Remember: weak character will neutralize all of the other possible good qualities a person might possess. For instance, people of high intelligence but weak character may come up with good ideas and even do a job well, but they will crumble under pressure, or they will not take to kindly to criticism, or they will think first and foremost of their own agenda, or their arrogance and annoying qualities will cause others around them to quit, harming the general environment. There are hidden costs to working with them or hiring them. Someone less charming and intelligent but of strong character will prove more reliable and productive over the long run. People of real strength are as rare as gold, and if you find them, you should respond as if you had a discovered a treasure.

Toxic Types

Although each person’s character is as unique as a fingerprint, we can notice throughout history certain types that keep recurring and that can be particularly pernicious to deal with. As opposed to the more obviously evil or manipulative characters that you can spot a mile away, these types are trickier. They often lure you in with an appearance that presents their weaknesses as something positive. Only over time do you see the toxic nature beneath the appearance, often when it is too late. Your best defense is to be armed with knowledge of these types, to notice the signs earlier on, and to not get involved or to disengage from them as quickly as possible.

The Hyperperfectionist: You are lured into their circle by how hard they work, how dedicated they are to making the best of whatever it is they produce. They put in longer hours than even the lowliest employee. Yes, they might explode and yell at people below them for not doing the job right, but that is because they want to maintain the highest standards, and that should be a good thing. But if you have the misfortune of agreeing to work with or for such a type, you will slowly discover the reality. They cannot delegate tasks; they have to oversee everything. It is less about high standards and dedication to the group than about power and control.

Such people often have dependency issues stemming from their family background, similar to Howard Hughes. Any feeling that they might have to depend on someone for something opens up old wounds and anxieties. They can’t trust anyone. Once their back is turned, they imagine everyone slacking off. Their compulsive need to micromanage leads to people feeling resentful and secretly resistant, which is precisely what they fear the most. You will notice that the group they lead is not very well organized, since everything must flow through them. This leads to chaos and political infighting as the courtiers struggle to get closer to the king, who controls everything. Hyperperfectionists will often have health problems, as they work themselves to the bone. They like to blame others for everything that goes wrong—nobody is working hard enough. They have patterns of initial success followed by burnout and spectacular failures. It is best to recognize the type before getting enmeshed on any level. They cannot be satisfied by anything you do and will chew you up slowly with their anxieties, abusiveness, and desire to control.

The Relentless Rebel: At first glance such people can seem quite exciting. They hate authority and love the underdog. Almost all of us are secretly attracted to such an attitude; it appeals to the adolescent within us, the desire to snub our nose at the teacher. They don’t recognize rules or precedents. Following conventions is for those who are weak and stodgy. These types will often have a biting sense of humor, which they might turn on you, but that is part of their authenticity, their need to deflate everyone, or so you think. But if you happen to associate with this type more closely, you will see that it is something they cannot control; it is a compulsion to feel superior, not some higher moral quality.

In their childhood a parent or father figure probably disappointed them. They came to mistrust and hate all those in power. In the end, they cannot accept any criticism from others because that reeks of authority. They cannot ever be told what to do. Everything must be on their terms. If you cross them in some way, you will be painted as the oppressor and be the brunt of their vicious humor. They gain attention with this rebel pose and soon become addicted to the attention. In the end it is all about power—no one shall be above them, and anyone who dares will pay the price. Look at their past history—they will tend to split with people on very bad terms, made worse by their insults. Do not be lured in by the hipness of their rebel pose. Such types are eternally locked in adolescence, and to try work with them will prove as productive as trying to lock horns with a sullen teenager.

The Personalizer: These people seem so sensitive and thoughtful, a rare and nice quality. They might seem a little sad, but sensitive people can have it rough in life. You are often drawn in by this air of theirs, and want to help. Also, they can appear quite intelligent, considerate, and good to work with. What you come to realize later on is that their sensitivity really only goes in one direction—inward. They are prone to take everything that people say or do as personal. They tend to brood over things for days, long after you have forgotten some innocuous comment that they have taken personally. As children, they had a gnawing feeling that they never got enough from their parents—love, attention, material possessions. As they get older, everything tends to remind them of what they didn’t get. They go through life resenting this and wanting others to give them things without their having to ask. They are constantly on guard—are you paying them attention, do you respect them, are you giving them what they paid for? Being somewhat irritable and touchy, they inevitably push people away, which makes them even more sensitive. At some point they start to have a look of perpetual disappointment.

You will see in their life a pattern of many falling-outs with people, but they will always see themselves as the wronged party. Do not ever inadvertently insult such a type. They have a long memory and can spend years getting back at you. If you can recognize the type early enough, it’s better to avoid them, as they will inevitably make you feel guilty for something.

The Drama Magnet: They will draw you in with their exciting presence. They have unusual energy and stories to tell. Their features are animated and they can be quite witty. They are fun to be around, until the drama turns ugly. As children, they learned that the only way to get love and attention that lasted was to enmesh their parents in their troubles and problems, which had to be large enough to engage the parents emotionally over time. This became a habit, their way of feeling alive and wanted. Most people shrink from any kind of confrontation, but they seem to live for it. As you get to know them better, you hear more stories of bickering and battles in their life, but they manage to always position themselves as the victim.

You must realize that their greatest need is to get their hooks into you by any means possible. They will embroil you in their drama to the point that you will feel guilty for disengaging. It is best to recognize them as early as possible, before you become enmeshed and dragged down. Examine their past for evidence of the pattern and run for the hills if you suspect you are dealing with such a type.

The Big Talker: You are impressed by their ideas, the projects that they are thinking about. They need help, they need backers, and you are sympathetic, but step back for a moment and examine their record for signs of past achievements or anything tangible. You might be dealing with a type that is not overtly dangerous but can prove maddening and waste your valuable time. In essence, these people are ambivalent. On the one hand they are secretly afraid of the effort and responsibility that go with translating their ideas into action. On the other hand, they crave attention and power. The two sides go to war within them, but the anxious part inevitably wins out and they slip away at the last moment. They come up with some reason for getting out of it, after you have committed to them. They themselves never finish anything. In the end, they tend to blame others for not realizing their visions—society, nebulous antagonistic forces, or bad luck. Or they try to find a sucker who will do all of the hard work in bringing to life their vague idea but who will take the blame if it all goes wrong.

Often such people had parents who were inconsistent, would turn on them suddenly for the smallest misdeed. Consequently their goal in life is to avoid situations in which they might open themselves up to criticism and judgment. They handle this by learning to talk well and impressing people with stories but running away when called to account, always with an excuse. Look carefully at their past for signs of this, and if they seem the type, be amused by their stories but take it no further.

The Sexualizer: They seem charged with sexual energy, in a way that is refreshingly unrepressed. They have a tendency to mix work with pleasure, to blur the usual boundaries for when it is appropriate to use this energy, and you might imagine that this is healthy and natural. But in truth it is compulsive and comes from a dark place. In their earliest years such people probably suffered sexual abuse in some way. This could have been directly physical or something more psychological, which the parent expressed through looks and touching that was subtle but inappropriate.

A pattern is deeply set from within and cannot be controlled—they will tend to see every relationship as potentially sexual. Sex becomes a means of self-validation, and when they are young, such types can lead an exciting, promiscuous life, as they will tend to find people to fall under their spell. But as they get older, any long periods without this validation can lead to depression and suicide, so they become more desperate. If they occupy positions of leadership, they will use their power to get what they want, all under the guise of being natural and unrepressed. The older they get, the more pathetic and frightening this becomes. You cannot help or save them from their compulsion, only save yourself from entanglement with them on any level.

The Pampered Prince/Princess: They will draw you in with their regal air. They are calm and ever so slightly imbued with a feeling of superiority. It is pleasant to meet people who appear confident and destined to wear a crown. Slowly you might find yourself doing favors for them, working extra hard for no pay, and not really understanding how or why. Somehow they express the need to be taken care of, and they are masters at getting others to pamper them. In childhood, their parents indulged them in their slightest whim and protected them from any kind of harsh intrusion from the outside world. There are also some children who incite this behavior in their parents by acting especially helpless. Whatever the cause, as adults their greatest desire is to replicate this early pampering. It remains their lost paradise. You will notice often that when they don’t get what they want, they display baby-like behavior, pouting, or even tantrums.

This is certainly the pattern for all of their intimate relationships, and unless you have a deep need to pamper others, you will find the relationship maddening, always on their terms. They are not equipped to handle the harsh aspects of adult life and either manipulate a person into the pampering role or resort to drinking and drugs to soothe themselves. If you feel guilty for not helping them, it means you are hooked and should look to take care of yourself instead.

The Pleaser: You have never met anyone so nice and considerate. You almost can’t believe how accommodating and charming they are. Then slowly you begin to have some doubts, but nothing you can put your finger on. Perhaps they don’t show up as promised or don’t do a job so well. It is subtle. The further this goes, however, the more it seems like they are sabotaging you or talking behind your back. These types are consummate courtiers, and they have developed their niceness not out of a genuine affection for their fellow humans but as a defense mechanism. Perhaps they had harsh and punishing parents who scrutinized their every action. Smiling and a deferential front was their way of deflecting any form of hostility, and it becomes their pattern for life. They also probably resorted to lying to their parents, and they are generally practiced and expert liars.

Just as when they were children, behind the smiles and flattery is a great deal of resentment at the role they have to play. They secretly yearn to harm or steal from the person they serve or defer to. You must be on your guard with people who actively exert so much charm and politeness, past the point of what is natural. They can turn out to be quite passive-aggressive, particularly hitting you when your guard is down.

The Savior: You cannot believe your good luck—you have met someone who will save you from your difficulties and troubles. Somehow they recognized your need for help and here they are with books to read, strategies to employ, the right foods to eat. In the beginning it is all quite seductive, but your doubts begin the moment you want to assert your independence and do things on your own.

In childhood, these types often had to become the caregivers of their own mother, father, or siblings. The mother, for instance, made her own needs the primary concern of the family. Such children compensate for the lack of care that they receive with the feeling of power that they derive from the inverted relationship. This sets a pattern: they gain their greatest satisfaction from rescuing people, from being the caregiver and savior. They have a nose for those in possible need of salvation. But you can detect the compulsive aspect of this behavior by their need to control you. If they are willing to let you stand on your own two feet after some initial help, then they are truly noble. If not, it is really about the power they can exercise. In any event, it is always best to cultivate self-reliance and tell saviors to save themselves.

The Easy Moralizer: They communicate a sense of outrage at this bit of injustice or that, and they are quite eloquent. With such conviction they find followers, including you. But sometimes you detect cracks in their righteous veneer. They don’t treat their employees so well; they are condescending to their spouse; they may have a secret life or vice you catch glimpses of. As children, they were often made to feel guilty for their own strong impulses and desires for pleasure. They were punished and tried to repress these impulses. Because of this they develop some self-loathing and are quick to project negative qualities onto others or look enviously at people who are not so repressed. They don’t like other people enjoying themselves. Instead of expressing their envy, they choose to judge and condemn. You will notice in the adult version a complete lack of nuance. People are good or evil, no middle ground. They are in fact at war with human nature, incapable of coming to terms with our less-than-perfect traits. Their morality is as easy and compulsive as drinking or gambling, and it requires no sacrifices on their part, just a lot of noble words. They thrive in a culture of political correctness.

In truth they are secretly drawn toward what they condemn, which is why they will inevitably have a secret side. You will certainly be the target of their inquisition at some point if you get too close to them. Notice their lack of empathy early on and keep your distance.

(For more toxic types, see the chapters on envy, 10; grandiosity, 11; and aggression, 16.)

The Superior Character

This law is simple and inexorable: you have a set character. It was formed out of elements that predate your conscious awareness. From deep within you, this character compels you to repeat certain actions, strategies, and decisions. The brain is structured to facilitate this: once you think and take a particular action, a neural pathway is formed that leads you to do it again and again. And in relation to this law, you can go in one of two directions, each one determining more or less the course of your life.

The first direction is ignorance and denial. You don’t take notice of the patterns in your life; you don’t accept the idea that your earliest years left a deep and lasting imprint that compels you to behave in certain ways. You imagine that your character is completely plastic, and that you can re-create yourself at will. You can follow the same path to power and fame as someone else, even though they come from very different circumstances. The concept of a set character can seem like a prison, and many people secretly want to be taken outside themselves, through drugs, alcohol, or video games. The result of such denial is simple: the compulsive behavior and the patterns become even more set into place. You cannot move against the grain of your character or wish it away. It is too powerful.

This was precisely the problem for Howard Hughes. He imagined himself a great businessman, establishing an empire that would outdo his father’s. But by his nature, he was not a good manager of people. His real strength was more technical—he had a great feel for the design and engineering aspects of airplane production. If he had known and accepted this, he could have carved out a brilliant career as the visionary behind his own aircraft company and left the day-to-day operations to someone truly capable. But he lived with an image of himself that did not correlate with his character. This led to a pattern of failures and a miserable life.

The other direction is harder to take, but it is the only path that leads to true power and the formation of a superior character. It works in the following manner: You examine yourself as thoroughly as possible. You look at the deepest layers of your character, determining whether you are an introvert or extrovert, whether you tend to be governed by high levels of anxiety and sensitivity, or hostility and anger, or a profound need to engage with people. You look at your primal inclinations—those subjects and activities you are naturally drawn to. You examine the quality of attachments you formed with your parents, looking at your current relationships as the best sign of this. You look with rigorous honesty at your own mistakes and the patterns that continually hold you back. You know your limitations—those situations in which you do not do your best. You also become aware of the natural strengths in your character that have survived past adolescence.

Now, with this awareness, you are no longer the captive of your character, compelled to endlessly repeat the same strategies and mistakes. As you see yourself falling into one of your usual patterns, you can catch yourself in time and step back. You may not be able to completely eliminate such patterns, but with practice you can mitigate their effects. Knowing your limitations, you will not try your hand at things for which you have no capacity or inclination. Instead, you will choose career paths that suit you and mesh with your character. In general, you accept and embrace your character. Your desire is not to become someone else but to be more thoroughly yourself, realizing your true potential. You see your character as the clay that you will work with, slowly transforming your very weaknesses into strengths. You do not run away from your flaws but rather see them as a true source of power.

Look at the career of the actress Joan Crawford (1908–1977). Her earliest years would seem to mark her as someone extremely unlikely to make it in life. She never knew her father, who abandoned the family shortly after her birth. She grew up in poverty. Her mother actively disliked Joan and constantly beat her. As a child she learned that the stepfather she adored was not really her father, and shortly thereafter he too abandoned the family. Her childhood was an endless series of punishments, betrayals, and abandonments, which scarred her for life. As she began her career as a film actress at a very young age, she examined herself and her flaws with ruthless objectivity: she was hypersensitive and fragile; she had a lot of pain and sadness she could not get rid of or disguise; she wanted desperately to be loved; she had a continual need for a father figure.

Such insecurities could easily be the death of someone in a place as ruthless as Hollywood. Instead, through much introspection and work, she managed to transform these very weaknesses into the pillars of her highly successful career. She decided, for instance, to bring her own feelings of sadness and betrayal into all of the different roles she played, making women around the world identify with her; she was unlike so many of the other actresses, who were so falsely cheerful and superficial. She directed her desperate need to be loved toward the camera itself, and audiences could feel it. The film directors became father figures whom she adored and treated with extreme respect. And her most pronounced quality, her hypersensitivity, she turned outward instead of inward. She developed intensely fine antennae tuned to the likes and dislikes of the directors she worked with. Without looking at them or hearing a word they said, she could sense their displeasure with her acting, ask the right questions, and quickly incorporate their criticisms. She was a director’s dream. She coupled all of this with her fierce willpower, forging a career that spanned over forty years, something unheard of for an actress in Hollywood.

This is the alchemy that you must use on yourself. If you are a hyperperfectionist who likes to control everything, you must redirect this energy into some productive work instead of using it on people. Your attention to detail and high standards are a positive, if you channel them correctly. If you are a pleaser, you have developed courtier skills and real charm. If you can see the source of this trait, you can control the compulsive and defensive aspect of it and use it as a genuine social skill that can bring you great power. If you are highly sensitive and prone to take things personally, you can work to redirect this into active empathy (see chapter 2), and transform this flaw into an asset to use for positive social purposes. If you have a rebellious character, you have a natural dislike of conventions and the usual ways of doing things. Channel this into some kind of innovative work, instead of compulsively insulting and alienating people. For each weakness there is a corresponding strength.

Finally, you need to also refine or cultivate those traits that go into a strong character—resilience under pressure, attention to detail, the ability to complete things, to work with a team, to be tolerant of people’s differences. The only way to do so is to work on your habits, which go into the slow formation of your character. For instance, you train yourself to not react in the moment by repeatedly placing yourself in stressful or adverse situations in order to get used to them. In boring everyday tasks, you cultivate greater patience and attention to detail. You deliberately take on tasks slightly above your level. In completing them, you have to work harder, helping you establish more discipline and better work habits. You train yourself to continually think of what is best for the team. You also search out others who display a strong character and associate with them as much as possible. In this way you can assimilate their energy and their habits. And to develop some flexibility in your character, always a sign of strength, you occasionally shake yourself up, trying out some new strategy or way of thinking, doing the opposite of what you would normally do.

With such work you will no longer be a slave to the character created by your earliest years and the compulsive behavior it leads to. Even further, you can now actively shape your very character and the fate that goes with it.

In anything, it is a mistake to think one can perform an action or behave in a certain way once and no more. (The mistake of those who say: “Let us slave away and save every penny till we are thirty, then we will enjoy ourselves.” At thirty they will have a bent for avarice and hard work, and will never enjoy themselves any more . . . .) What one does, one will do again, indeed has probably already done in the distant past. The agonizing thing in life is that it is our own decisions that throw us into this rut, under the wheels that crush us. (The truth is that, even before making those decisions, we were going in that direction.) A decision, an action, are infallible omens of what we shall do another time, not for any vague, mystic, astrological reason but because they result from an automatic reaction that will repeat itself.

—Cesare Pavese

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