Commandment One: Cultivate Character-Building
“Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.”
Big Question: Is Character-Building Doable?
Food for Thought Story: You Have to Take the Stairs!
I remember how my father was dying of cancer for three long months. He had been placed in the best hospital in town, the Central Hospital for Executives—not because he was a well-deserving veteran of WWII who fought fascism as a captain in the Chemical Division, but because my brother Simon was a famous doctor and a head of that hospital’s department, a small detail of life in Ukraine at the time.
Anyway, my father agonized with ever-increasing pain and the family took turns sitting near his bed 24/7. My shift was all day time, and I could make long hours since I was on the “creative leave” from the university, for finalizing my doctoral thesis.
It was hard. Father was aware of his diagnosis, but we never discussed or even mentioned it aloud. In the moments of relief, he would tell me his wartime stories, most of which I had known since childhood. He would also reminisce about his happy moments: daytrips to the woods, sleeping in a tent and cooking food over the fire; or treating the family to Black Sea vacations. A chemical engineer by training, he also recollected some innovations he introduced at his jobs. Indeed, inventing and changing things were his favorite occupations, passions that were passed down to my brother and I. We’re both kind of restless and seeking something new all the time.
My father would also share with me his wisdom of how to love well, how to care about the family and such, done casually and with no mention that he would soon be gone. Once he asked me what I would be doing that evening, and I said I would be sewing a new dress. Quick as an arrow, he asked, “What color” – and was visibly relieved to hear, “Red.” “Black” would signal a preparation for his funeral.
On the last day I saw him alive, father took my hand and said, pensively, “I’m so happy you’ll be a doctor, but it’s not the doctor I need: your doctorate is about suffixes-prefixes” (that’s how he referred to linguistics). I said, “Papa, my suffixes-prefixes are really complicated and I’m not even sure I can pull them out!” He looked me straight in the eyes and replied, “Never doubt it! You are my daughter. Just think of what I did in my time and how I did it. Remember, there’s no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs.”
Something turned in me, a lump in my throat…this was his good-bye, his blessing. And for many years now, I am doing just that: climbing the stairs, sometimes with my teeth clenched, trying to be worthy of my father. I did earn my second doctorate, became a full professor and chair—but then dropped it all and flew across the countries, restarting my life from scratch—for the promise of American freedoms. Would my father have done it? Would he approve it? Have I been good enough? In tough times, I always ask these questions, measuring my success against his values. It helps. It helped me build myself from the ground up.
You can do your own character-building. All you need is to recognize the traits you want to develop or acquire and select an appropriate role model. This self-coaching is a serious approach to character-building, to sustaining who/what you are and want to be. It’s building your success “from within.” You need to make constant efforts for your character-building though. Like with bodybuilding, you cannot grow your muscles simply watching Arnold Schwarzenegger exercise! You need to persist and remember that almost nothing good happens overnight. There’s no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.