Character, like many things, is something you instantaneously know when you see it. I was eight years old and growing up in a small, Midwestern town. We had a classic “old school” neighborhood grocery store about a block from my house. The Ole Store, named after the nearby college, St. Olaf, was over 100 years old with wooden floors, a small adjoining café, and the basic sundries that every family needed daily. The owner, a third generation Norwegian, proudly flew an American flag in front of the store every morning while he swept his sidewalk with the ferocity of an autumn tornado.
When my dad and I would walk by, he would always point out the humble, hardworking, and passionate store owner as someone of legendary character. “No matter how cold, how hot, or how windy, Mr. Lien is always flying the flag and always out there cleaning his store. His character, explained my dad, “is what and who you are when you are alone, cold, tired, and afraid.” Through conversations with my dad, I came to understand that character is the representation and essence of who you truly are when you are stripped of all possessions, money, status, and family name.
Over a decade later, in the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to have my character evaluated in the US Army Special Forces Assessment course. The Special Forces Assessment course is a 30-day continuous test of individual and team cognitive and physical skills to see if you have the passion to try and become a US Army Special Forces soldier, a Green Beret. The US Army Special Forces are one of the premier Special Operations Forces (SOF) both in the US Military and the world. Pass rates for the course are notoriously low and hover around 20%.
In the Special Forces Assessment, you run, sleep little, take tests, march cross country with 70 lb. packs, and work in ad hoc teams on unique problems such as how to move a telephone pole with some old tires and metal bars. In short, the purpose of Special Forces Assessment was to find and to reveal your true character. One of the key character revealing aspects of Special Forces Assessment was to take away everyone’s name and military rank. In military organizations your name and rank are everything, so the Special Forces completely remove it. Your dad is a General Officer? You went to Princeton? You have only been in the Army six months? None of your personal history matters: your name does not matter, and your rank does not matter. Special Forces want to see what you can do and who you are when you are stripped bare of your personal history and simply must perform relying on your skills and not your rank.
Once everyone loses their personal identification, the Special Forces’ Instructors march, freeze, heat, and exhaust candidates through continuous and unending series of individual and team events where you never know how well you need to perform to succeed. In most aspects of life, there is a scoring system. More touchdowns than the other team? You win. Get a 75 on an exam, you receive a “C” letter grade. In Special Forces Assessment, no one knows the standards of success. You must do your very best in every single event to receive a passing grade at Special Forces Assessment. Your only guide on every event, is to “do the best you can.” Once one event is done, the results are kept secret and you are on to the next event.
Another aspect of Special Forces is a series of peer reviews where people you may not have known even three days ago are scoring and evaluating your fitness for a future within the Special Forces. The peer reviews are something entirely unique in the military where your performance and the opinion of your tired, sweaty, achy, hungry peers matter more than the rank and the ribbons on your chest. Special Forces believe that team comes before rank and every one member on a team, from the newest soldier to the oldest, is valuable.
The net effect of the combination of de-personalization, fatigue, hunger, unknown performance standards, and peer reviews make it impossible to hide from your true character. If you are selfish, do not help others, sleep too much, and do not share your food, then your true character has been revealed, and it is not what the Special Forces want. The Special Forces want individuals who can work alone or in teams, thrive helping others under the hardest conditions, and do not let ambiguity stand in their way of future success.
I was fortunate that my character matched what the Special Forces wanted. In the end, the entire purpose of Special Forces Assessment was to find out who I was. Marching through the cold, dark, rainy woods of North Carolina at 3:00 AM with an 80 lb. backpack and 10 miles from the nearest road, I was pulling myself through thorn bushes, and I had my character revealed. I decided to push forward for both my team and myself. In retrospect, it was not even a difficult decision, I knew that it was the right thing to do.
I will never be a millionaire and I will never be a celebrity. Every day, I see those with and without character. I, like so many others, chose to act and to teach character at every point in my day. Character is not confined to the Special Forces. Teachers, nurses, parents, business people, politicians, and so many others show their true character when they act for others, when they help others, and when they share and support each other. Character, like breathing, is something that we must do every second of every day. The nature of our character and how we act each day is the only possession that we can truly call our own.
No Replies to "Character is the Only Possession That is Truly Yours"