Do virtues matter in the modern world?
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast which gave me an opportunity for a bit of introspection. It was an interview with David Brooks, the author of ‘The Road to Character.’ He states that our society is placing less importance on qualities, that these days we place more importance on ‘resume virtues’ rather than ‘eulogy virtues’ i.e. virtues which are true to you, and what you genuinely stand for.
Why don’t we place importance on virtues anymore? Aren’t they still relevant? Times may have changed, but surely virtues still matter?
Courage (or a lack thereof)
“I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.” – Maya Angelou
This morning I was on the bus, and a man got on at the Grey Lynn shops. From the way he was dressed I could see he was probably a labourer or construction worker. He swiped his bus card, and there was a bit of a commotion – he clearly either didn’t have enough credit, or any cash in his wallet. He pleaded for a ride to the next stop. The bus driver refused, yelled and gave him firm instructions to alight.
He got off the bus, threw his bag down, crumpled down on the bench and put both his hands on his face – absolutely despondent.
I kicked myself for not being brave enough to offer to pay for his ride.
Why didn’t I have the courage to pipe up? I blamed the proximity to the driver – I was too far from the entrance. There were too many people looking. I didn’t want the attention. Why did that matter? It could have made all the difference to this man who just wanted to earn his living today.
Courage was always a quality I aspired to have. But this morning I clearly failed, falling flat on my face.
I’ve been reflecting on this experience all day. For all the modern preoccupation with personal development and self-help, there isn’t a huge amount of talk about virtues. Maybe they seem a little old fashioned. And yet, I’ve realised that while it may not always be easy to be virtuous, if you are able to, it can make all the difference in your own and others’ lives.
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” – Saint Augustine
Approximately six or seven years ago, I was covering a lunch break for one of our receptionists. A man came in, asking to meet with the company director. He looked nice enough, and didn’t have a typical ‘I’m very important’ air about him. I asked him if he had an appointment. Before he answered, the company director hailed him in, saying ‘darling, he doesn’t need an appointment, he’s family to us.’ A week later he was appointed as our CEO.
This man is still our CEO, and has stayed the funny, down-to-earth person that checks in on us on a weekly basis. His three kids have all done the paper run, he brings his puppy to the office (because we pester him to), he has the habit of walking around and offering to make people coffees and has been spotted many a times wearing the Madison Apron and pushing the snacks trolley on a Friday afternoon.
No airs, nothing to prove, still exceedingly humble.
“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Years ago, I picked up a call from a candidate who’d applied for a data entry role that we’d advertised – let’s call him Nelson. We’d already filled the role, but Nelson was so polite and gracious on the phone, that despite my intention to decline him, I couldn’t help but hesitantly invited him in to register. Originally from PNG, Nelson had come to NZ to join his partner. He’d worked in insurance back home but had struggled to gain similar work here. He’d been helping his father-in-law with small painting jobs.
Three weeks later, a hiring manager calls with a request for some candidates to complete data entry work. I attempted to ‘sell’ Nelson’s profile over the phone. It was going to be a long shot as he hadn’t worked in an office environment for over two years. Fortunately she took my recommendation and gave him a chance. Nelson was employed permanently and promoted a few months later.
Her kindness made all the difference to Nelson and his family. Her kindness also made all the difference to his self-worth.
Never too late
I’m sure you’ve heard that clichéd question that gets asked at almost every interview: ‘Tell me about your key strengths.’ Most people say that they are ‘ambitious, hardworking, responsible and punctual.’ In a world where we are taught to market ourselves constantly, we seem to have our ‘three key strengths’ memorised, ready to be rattled off at demand. But are we giving enough consideration to our true character or the sort of person we’d like to be. Moral choices are a fact of everyday life, whether we know it or not. In all my years in recruitment, people who are genuine tend to stand out anyway. They arrive early, complete everything on time, treat the receptionists kindly, smile easily. Perhaps their key strengths are inherent. My grandfather used to say that it’s never too late to learn something, or, to acquire a virtue, which is quite similar to what David Brooks concluded after studying character; that wonderful people are made, not born.
Ultimately, it’s your character that will set you apart from the rest – maybe now’s the time to start. What are the qualities that you aspire to possess? I know I certainly have a few to work on.