External character traits are all around us. They’re what we choose to outwardly project to the world, whether in what we wear, what we share, or the causes we choose to side with or argue against.
Internal character traits are hard to define but easy to recognise. While first impressions can count for a lot, the longer you get to know someone the better an understanding you’ll get of the quality of their internal character traits over the external. Are they a loving mother, father, wife, husband, daughter, or son? Do they care deeply for their family, their community, and the world as a whole?
In post-war America and Europe, and in some instances even sooner, the focus began to shift from the internal to the external; that is, from building our internal character traits to choosing to display an external character that we believe (or simply hope) will be agreeable to those we want to impress. It’s been mentioned that Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People marked a change in the self-help genre whereby many previous works had focused on how to build your internal character, many new works began to explore how your external character traits can be manipulated to get you to where you want to be.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in small doses, and in the right hands. As my wife put it to me, “People are still good people, but maybe our focus has shifted more towards external good deeds like saving the environment or endangered species rather than internally trying to have a good character.”
She then gave me the example of George Bailey in the 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (one of my favourite movies). In the movie George, played by James Stewart, has plans to leave on a world tour right after high school before attending college, but after the sudden death of his father he chooses to stay in his small community of Bedford Falls to keep alive the family business, Building and Loan, after the board of directors votes to keep the business open (a business that much of the community relies upon) on the condition that George stays to run it.
George handed his college tuition over to his brother Harry on the condition that Harry will take over from him when he returns from college. Despite eagerly awaiting Harry’s return so he can finally see the world, when Harry returns four years later with a job offer from his father-in-law, George tells Harry to take it, offering (against his own self-interest) to continue to run the Building and Loan.
George’s internal character traits are clear for all to see in It’s a Wonderful Life. His life wasn’t glamorous, and in the end he didn’t get a “big win” against Mr. Potter, his family’s nemesis and the richest man in town. But without spoiling the movie too much (though it came out over seventy years ago, so you’ve had enough time to see it), the movie ends with George being surrounded by his friends, family, and his whole community, all of whom clearly love and value him for who he is. And that, in my wife’s words, is happy ending enough.
This book has been a labour of love for over a year and a half. We were approached by an editor at Portfolio in the summer of 2016, and since then it has been all go. Between us we contacted 631 people in the space of six months, with a small number being whittled down and making it into the finished work. I was personally lucky enough to speak with everyone from retired U.S. Army four-star General Stanley McChrystal, to the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Ed Catmull, to the life-changing tidying-upper herself, Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo.
If you’re not yet an email subscriber to My Morning Routine, the website, sign up here and you’ll receive the book’s introduction and the first routine included in it right now, for free. If you’re already an email subscriber, check your inbox.
Not too long ago I copied down these words by author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport:
Incessant clicking and scrolling generates a background hum of anxiety. Drastically reducing the number of thing you do in your digital life can by itself have a significant calming impact.
Taken from a blog post exploring the idea of digital minimalism, the phrase “incessant clicking and scrolling” struck a nerve with me for just how accurate it was. We are incessantly clicking and scrolling our way through life, and it’s true that the background hum rarely, if ever, stops. Newport has some thoughts on how to silence this noise, and I highly recommend his blog for practical recommendations on how to do so. Until then I challenge you to look out for this hum and not give in when you hear it. Just sit with it for as long as you can. This is easier said than done, but we’ll be rewarded for our patience over time.
Looking ahead to the year to come, last year I wrote down, amongst other notes, “Find out why I’m tired all the time.”
I’d had many theories on why this might be; my main being the comforting notion that everyone is just as tired as me. The afternoon slump is real, after all, and it’s something the vast majority of us feel every day, regardless of whether or not we’ve had a big, carb-filled lunch (though this does make it worse).
But this wasn’t it. After exchanging notes with my wife—a non-coffee, occasional black tea drinker—on how she experiences daytime tiredness, it was clear that something wasn’t right. We eat the same foods and get the same amount of sleep for the most part, so my wife suggested that I cut coffee out of my diet. I’d previously only been drinking 1-2 cups a day, but it was clearly a prime candidate to be dropped, so I agreed to it.
Now, about three to four weeks after giving up caffeinated coffee and tea for good, I can say with reasonable certainty that it was the caffeine making me tired all the time. After a couple of weeks of just drinking decaf tea, I started to mix it up with a decaf coffee here and there. And while I’m aware that there is caffeine in decaf coffee and tea, I’m not drinking enough of it to feel the effects.
If you’re feeling tired all the time, and you drink caffeinated coffee and/or tea on a regular basis, consider giving it up for a short period to see if your energy improves as a result.
I’m approximately three-quarters of the way through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and one of the insights that has stuck out to me the most so far is that of the planning fallacy.
The planning fallacy, in short, states that we tend to underestimate how long a task is going to take to complete. From taking out the trash, to writing an essay, to making a meal, we consistently believe that either our most optimistic guess of how long these tasks will take, or the fastest we have ever completed these tasks, are our averages. The planning fallacy does not foresee the natural complications that come up in our everyday lives. As Kahneman notes in the book:
Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence.
We all fall victim to the planning fallacy. I’d heard the phrase thrown around before I read it in Kahneman’s book (the book itself has become hugely popular, and has spent 156 weeks on the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction best sellers list as of this writing), but even then, I still tended to believe that my most optimistic guesses and my most impressive times are the norm. They’re not.
Give some though to the planning fallacy the next time you’re pushed for time; and maybe extend your estimation a little further out.