Action is Character

by J.D. Roth

Back when I worked at Custom Box Service, Nick and I would often have philosophical discussions. Or psuedo-philosophical discussions. Well, we’d share our Deep Thoughts with each other at any rate.

On more than one occasion, I’d be lamenting that X was a priority in my life — where X could be exercise or getting out of debt or reading more books — but that I never seemed to have time for it. Instead, I did a bunch of other stuff.

Nick would always tell me, “Then X isn’t a priority.” If I tried to argue, he’d point out that the things we actually do are the priorities in our life. What we say doesn’t matter; it’s what we do that counts.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson. I used to be what I call a Talker: I talked about all the things I wanted to do, and I felt like I had the solutions to everything, but I never actually took action. I was full of hot air.

Somehow, I’ve turned into a Doer. Most of the time, I get things done. Instead of lamenting about the man I want to be, I’m working hard to be that man. I’ve built a new life out of doing the things I used to only talk about before. (Note that I’m not always a Doer. I still spend plenty of time Talking, but my ratio of action to words has increased sharply in recent years.)

I’ve written about this subject several times in the past, both here and at my personal finance blog. For example, in August I wrote a piece about the difference between Talkers and Doers for GRS. It may be my favorite article from last year. And longer ago at Folded Space, I shared Action Girl’s Guide to Living from Sarah Dyer. (Action Girl’s #1 tip is awesome: “Action is everything! It really doesn’t matter what you say or even what you think; it’s what you do that matters.”)

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about this subject quite a bit lately because of a single quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his notes on The Last Tycoon, he wrote, “Action is character.

I’d never heard this phrase until Kris and I watched An Education, an interesting little film from 2009. In it, a bored English schoolgirl spends a few exciting months hanging out with an older man. At one point, she says, “”Action is character, our English teacher says. I think she means that if we never did anything, we wouldn’t be anybody.”

Or to up it another way, we are what we repeatedly do. (This is Will Durant’s interpretation of an idea from Aristotle, though many people mistakenly attribute it to the latter.)

This is brilliant, and it goes back to what I said earlier: We are not what we think or say; we’re what we do.

Action is character. We are what we repeatedly do.

All of this was tied together by a quote from Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, which we just read for book group. In it, the author writes:

There is what you believe and there is what you want and these things are fine. But they’re just ideas, in the end. History, like any single life, is made up of actions. At some point, the thinking and believing and deciding fall away and all that’s left is the doing.

So, my friends, what is important to you? No, I mean really: What is important to you? Stop hiding from it, stop being afraid of it, stop waiting for it to come. Go act. By doing so, you’ll reveal your true character.

Updated: 20 January 2011

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
Copyright © 1994 - 2022 by J.D. Roth