Vanderbilt University is indeed my second home, and it will remain in my heart as long as I live. A motto of Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management that I will always remember is, "We are competitive, not cutthroat." Sun Tzu said, "There are routes not to be taken; there are armies not to be attacked; there are walled cities not to be besieged; there are grounds not to be penetrated; there are commands not to be obeyed." What this means is the individual must always be thinking critically and concerned about matters grander than his or her self-interests. "Therefore," Sun Tzu said, "The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure." If you believe in this ideal for a better society, and if you are considering going to college or have a son or daughter considering college, there is no better institution of higher learning than Vanderbilt.
Learning is a life-long activity. Learning isn't only about obtaining factual knowledge but also about obtaining personal and interpersonal wisdom. Learning isn't even about success and achievement if those fruits don't come from a good, strong tree. Analogous to lifting weights and building stronger muscles, so too by handling adversity and working through everyday problems we build stronger mental strength. In essence, wisdom can come from anywhere, from anybody, and at anytime -- even in today's hectic, disharmonious, yet promising world. It is, however, only promising if we continue to build something beyond skyscrapers and spaceships and it's the topic of today's blog entry.
Today's world has many things going for it. Last week I read that scientists were able to grow an eye from stem cells. Google continues to perfect their self-driving car. (Alphabet a.k.a. Google, by the way, will soon topple Apple's highest market cap valuation ranking permanently based on Alphabet's momentum versus Apple's.) Virtual reality and 3D photos are upon us. The mission to Mars is more of a reality than virtual every day. We can video conference from anywhere in the world.
But to me, all these things are tools and technologies, and they are indeed merely things. What hasn't progressed -- and I would argue regressed -- is the very soul of the human beings who use these tools, technologies, and things. What I'm talking about today is character. And what I mean by character isn't someone's general personality but rather someone's moral excellence and consistency. Character is an important trait that separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, and the quality of that trait separates those who actively seek and walk the divine path as much as possible and those who rely on stumbling upon it from time to time.
But aren't morals subjective? My answer to this question is yes and no. Yes morals are subjective when they are debatable. For example, is it ok to kill animals for consumption? For many, the answer is debatable. How about is it ok to torture animals? For many, the answer isn't debatable. So in this case of animal torture, I can make an argument that morals can be objective. Other than privacy matters, the litmus test is if you have to look behind your back or close the door to do something you tell yourself is debatable, it likely isn't debatable. People with character aren't superior in morality than those with little -- they simply have examined carefully the various life situations to which they concluded where they would stand.
Ultimately, then, morals are what you have determined as being right and wrong. In other words, the yardstick comes from you. The chief thing you must ensure is that your yardstick doesn't break when it is time to measure. For example, if you believe that lying is wrong unless it hurts someone, then you must follow through on that belief. But if it's time to tell the truth to help someone, yet you end up lying due to pressure, then your yardstick is broken. This is when you must crack open Sun Tzu's Art of War again and prepare yourself better. You must anticipate possibilities and circumstances in your life and prepare ahead of time how you would decide. To do it right, you must seriously ponder and meditate. This process could literally take months if not years. When you have done this, however, you need only a split second to decide which position to take when the situation presents itself in real life. If you don't, then you will more likely make a regrettable decision, especially if it is a major one.
The first time I fully realized we have a major problem of character in our civilized world was when US Gen. Colin Powell gave a speech to the United Nations on February 5, 2003, to confirm Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. The only problem was Iraq didn't possess weapons of mass destruction. Over the years, there have been clear evidence uncovered that Gen. Powell knew about this fact. One could conclude he sold himself and did irreparable damage to his integrity. He was seen as someone who was impartial, to keep us out of trouble, and now he is no longer that person. I could be wrong but I can't imagine US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf making that speech. He risked his own life leading from the front during the Vietnam War, and it would seem inconceivable for him to risk his hard-earned reputation to restart a war he helped end on March 3, 1991. What was truly appalling about Gen. Powell's actions was over 100,000 Iraqi civilians died as a consequence and the current situation in Iraq is even more unstable and dangerous than before.
The issue of character can also apply to something as mundane as business and commerce. Right now there are hospitals that can bankrupt a sick patient financially for life-saving treatments. If a gas station were to price gouge its customers, it would be fined heavily and shut down, but the same doesn't seem to apply for health care providers and insurance companies.
Right now there are companies threatening local officials with dire economic consequences if they don't acquiesce to their demands. Such economic bullying is becoming more common and it is time to boycott companies that engage in such activities. Why? Because if they don't show care in pulling out their business and jobs from the community, why should the citizens who would be poorer support them economically as a result?
The matter of salary disparity between men and women remains a problem. It is a matter of fairness and meritocracy. It is also a matter of execution, to uniformly implement existing corporate policies.
And how many times do companies promise something and then the customer ends up disappointed? As a customer, I find myself too many times rationalizing why: perhaps I would also be disappointed with another company, or maybe I was unlucky and it will be better next time. Yes, next time. Nowadays consumers explain these lies away as effective marketing. It is not uncommon for a company to present itself as a product manufacturer but in actuality is simply a shell company with a recognizable name. They call it a brand. I call it a front or a mask. My Vanderbilt marketing professor Piyush Kumar called it a "wrap" -- as in a pretty wrapping paper covering what's inside because what's inside is too awful to present by itself. At the time Prof. Kumar taught this concept to me, I didn't believe it. It just didn't sound plausible. Now he seems wiser (or, more likely, I'm not as ignorant).
For the last two weeks, I've seen companies pandering to a certain group of society, yet neglecting another group. This would ok if this pandering was based on truth but unfortunately it is based on prejudice, ignorance, and misinformation. Thus what you have is one group's rights would be infringing on another group's rights thanks to propaganda and groupthink. So the lack of character here is four-fold: 1) exploitation of a socially trendy issue for profit, 2) knowingly harming another group for that profit, 3) threats to lawmakers to capitulate or they would be harmed economically, and 4) the general laziness and lack of research and critical thinking from those involved with the loudest opinions.
Fortunately, possessing character -- moral excellence and firmness -- isn't a talent but something that is learned. Unfortunately for too many people, they believe they are already experts in their field. They don't need to listen to different views because they know everything and thus cannot do anything wrong. What they don't understand is knowledge only gets you into the game; character allows you to master the game. Knowing grammar will allow you to write a fine letter but whether or not you should write a letter at all grammar doesn't tell you. Thus, you don't move with the wind; you don't move by blindly following another before you. Instead you need a firm resolve to focus on your goal and employ creative, sound strategies in your present and future actions. In short, you must see it for yourself, you must think for yourself, and you must do it yourself (or, at the very least, oversee it yourself).
There are many successful individuals who have done well for themselves. Surely they must have character. I would hope so. Let's look now at how society views the people it considers as successful and the people it considers not as successful.
Let's take, for example, a certain leading US Presidential candidate. He often brags about how much money he has made, and from that vantage point, he claims to be capable of being leader of the free world. This might be true if he has as much character as he has dollars, but to me his character is quite deplorable. I would never allow my children to see this man talk for the fear they might talk like him. Surely I am not the only one who feels that way, but I would probably be in the minority.
This might surprise some of you but the same goes for Warren Buffett. He is often lauded for his character but I would argue he has no more character than working people who consistently take care of their spouses and children despite not making enough money. They keep their word even when it is more profitable to do so otherwise. They lose out financially and often socially for choosing to be honest in all their dealings. No reporter I'm aware of praises these wonderful albeit common souls, the foundation of a safe and stable society. Who reporters write about are the outliers but the outliers are as useful as fiction -- which is to say, they are useful for entertainment value, mildly interesting, little more. We cannot consistently build a community based on extraordinary people. But we can consistently build an extraordinary community with ordinary people, people who diligently take care of themselves and take care of others around them.
Thus ordinary and everyday actions are often ignored yet have incredible value. The modern world likes flashy moments, but in reality those moments are rare. You can't make even a good song with only the best parts. As such, we need to work on things that we might consider boring. Taking on something boring takes discipline. And taking on discipline requires someone with character.
So when you encounter something you don't want to do but you know you need to do it, then that is an good opportunity to build your character. One of the tenets of Richard Marcinko, US Navy SEALs Commander and founder of SEAL Team Six, is "Thou hast not to like it - thou hast just to do it." Thus, do you want to know the secret to making an enemy your friend? This doesn't work every time but when it does work, the first step always begin with one side extending an olive branch to the opposing side. Without this critical step, nothing changes and the same problems linger indefinitely. The reason why a sincere and kind gesture sometimes works is because it (1) makes the other side pay attention and (2) it casts doubts on prejudices and deeply held beliefs. All of the sudden you are viewed as a fellow human being with real human emotions (that's crazy talk, right?) and it can certainly loosen up any existing tension. But few people take this crucial step. Instead they show more force. If the other side has any dignity at all, the response would be more force as well. So almost everyone locks him or herself in an impossible situation with zero chance of success. That partially explains why the modern world continues to fight wars with no solution in sight. Technology has advanced to the digital age but human psychology is still stuck in the stone age.
Do you wish the problems you encounter are easier? Do you wish the people you work with are kinder? Do you wish the weather is nicer? Instead of wishing for all those things, wish instead for you to be tougher than tough problems, kinder to unkind people, and happier in unhappy weather. Character, you see, is a panacea if there ever was one in the world. You worry not about everything in life going along as hoped, but instead you work on strengthening your character so you can adroitly handle tricky situations, whether they be big problems or big successes.
Maybe then people can start to handle matters presented to them unvarnished and unwrapped from all that pretty wrapping paper. Once they see matters as is, maybe then people can start to tackle the real but sometimes difficult root problem instead of easier side problems. Maybe then people can think twice before blaming others and instead start to question the process itself. That's because with character, they can discipline their minds and emotions. With character, they can take action on what they can control and ask for guidance on what they cannot control. Therefore, I wish you not success but a healthy, strong character. Character has always been useful in the past and throughout history, but it is an outright requirement in the modern world.