The playwright, novelist, and short story writer William Somerset Maugham once said (or wrote), “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” When I think of this quote, I am often moved to assert that the two – “good personality,” and “good character,” are not mutually exclusive.
Still, when we’re young(er), I believe that while the two are related, there is a distinct difference between character and personality. Character is about our moral compass and ethics perspectives – some of which are personally and culturally specific; some of which are universal. Personality is more about outward manifestations of the individual self, based on how you see yourself and how others see you.
The insistence of personality’s definition entailing “manifestations of how you see yourself and how others see you” is one way to distinguish it from character in a pure sense. Character, may be visible to others and may be largely influenced by others, but it is not as outwardly obvious as personality.
Perhaps then personality is always known to others but character is not; perhaps personality is what we show in the light, while character is what we are in both the light and the dark.
If the above is true – personality is outward, while character is inward – then it makes for a strong argument that personality is secondary to character in evaluating any person. Neither of these concepts are easy or simple or narrow. But I think if you ask most people which they want to value more between the two – most people would say character.
But what people say and what they do are not always the same. So, in thinking about personality and character, consider the traits that we might use to describe each. Using the popular Myers-Briggs test for example, one might have a personality that is introverted or extroverted, or be more of a thinker or feeler. There is really no moral hazard that is possible with most personalities. (I say “most” because we have to leave room for outliers – sociopaths, for example.)
Certainly one may find a personality boring. But finding a personality boring, or a type that doesn’t compliment yours, is a matter of taste. Character, although culture and society must be accounted for, has a much more universal agreement as to what constitutes a good one. Honesty, loyalty, temperance, prudence, etc.
Of course if we only consider the character of our family, friends, significant others, and all the rest of “our people,” and render their personalities unimportant, we miss a huge part of what makes them, them.
But in choosing the people we’re going to share our lives and time with, like Maugham, I think we ought not to choose personality over character. I would say it differently from Maugham though; I would say when it comes to choosing your friends, remember that personality matters, but character matters more.
In thinking about the importance of character and how we choose “our people,” I thought about three qualities that are particularly underrated, but are actually some of the best qualities to look for in a person:
The older I get, the more I truly appreciate this often overlooked virtue. Reliability is about doing what you say you’re going to do. It encompasses honesty but goes beyond to include dependability. It may sound like something that should be common but if you think about it, from small things such as last-minute cancellations, to entirely not showing up when people really need you, reliability is not as common as it should be. But when you can rely on someone, hold on to them.
You’ve probably heard that phrase, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I take that phrase very seriously in my relationships. I like to have friends who are doing things. Motivated, self-actualized people are often the most confident too, and it is all contagious. Purposeful people walk alongside purposeful people, and oftentimes during failures and disappointments, they are there to lift each other up. Make sure your people have purpose.
No matter how many times its importance is stressed, kindness never seems to be taken quite as seriously as it should be. By kindness, I don’t mean “niceness” – that’s often a mistake people make. “Nice” people can be unkind. Kind people may not be “nice.”By kindness, I mean empathy, generosity, “love in action,” and helping people in need. (We are all in need.) Kindness in so many ways, is the one quality that if someone has, it almost redeems them from any negative quality they might also have. Be kind, and look for kindness in the people you want around you in this short lifetime.