At the same time, in addition to my research on perception, I was also deeply
immersed in an in-depth study of the success literature published in the United
States since 1776. I was reading or scanning literally hundreds of books, articles,
and essays in fields such as self-improvement, popular psychology, and self-help.
At my fingertips was the sum and substance of what a free and democratic
people considered to be the keys to successful living.
As my study took me back through 200 years of writing about success, I noticed
a startling pattern emerging in the content of the literature. Because
of our own pain, and because of similar pain I had seen in the lives and relationships
of many people I had worked with through the years, I began to feel more
and more that much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial.
It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes --
with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes
even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems
untouched to fester and resurface time and again.
In stark contrast, almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so
focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation
of success -- things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage,
justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule. Benjamin
Franklin's autobiography is representative of that literature. It is, basically,
the story of one man's effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep
within his nature.
The Character Ethic taught that there are basic principles of effective living,
and that people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they
learn and integrate these principles into their basic character.
But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the
Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success
became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviours,
skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction. This
Personality Ethic essentially took two paths: one was human and public relations
techniques, and the other was positive mental attitude (PMA). Some of this philosophy
was expressed in inspiring and sometimes valid maxims such as "Your attitude
determines your altitude," "Smiling wins more friends than frowning," and "Whatever
the mind of man can conceive and believe it can achieve."
Other parts of the personality approach were clearly manipulative, even
deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like
them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of others to get out of them what they
wanted, or to use the "power look," or to intimidate their way through life.
Some of this literature acknowledged character as an ingredient of success,
but tended to compartmentalize it rather than recognize it as foundational and
catalytic. Reference to the Character Ethic became mostly lip service; the basic
thrust was quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills,
and positive attitudes.
This Personality Ethic, I began to realize, was the subconscious source of
the solutions Sandra and I were attempting to use with our son. As I thought
more deeply about the difference between the Personality and Character Ethics,
I realized that Sandra and I had been getting social mileage out of our children's
good behaviour, and, in our eyes, this son simply didn't measure up. Our image
of ourselves, and our role as good, caring parents was even deeper than our
image of our son and perhaps influenced it. There was a lot more wrapped
up in the way we were seeing and handling the problem than our concern
for our son's welfare.
As Sandra and I talked, we became painfully aware of the powerful influence
of our own character and motives and of our perception of him. We knew that
social comparison motives were out of harmony with our deeper values and could
lead to conditional love and eventually to our son's lessened sense of self-worth.
So we determined to focus our efforts on us -- not on our techniques,
but on our deepest motives and our perception of him. Instead of trying to change
him, we tried to stand apart -- to separate us from him -- and
to sense his identity, individuality, separateness, and worth.
Through deep thought and the exercise of faith and prayer, we began to see
our son in terms of his own uniqueness. We saw within him layers and
layers of potential that would be realized at his own pace and speed. We decided
to relax and get out of his way and let his own personality emerge. We saw
our natural role as being to affirm, enjoy, and value him. We also conscientiously
worked on our motives and cultivated internal sources of security so that our
own feelings of worth were not dependent on our children's "acceptable" behaviour.
As we loosened up our old perception of our son and developed value-based motives,
new feelings began to emerge. We found ourselves enjoying him instead of comparing
or judging him. We stopped trying to clone him in our own image or measure him
against social expectations. We stopped trying to kindly, positively manipulate
him into an acceptable social mould. Because we saw him as fundamentally adequate
and able to cope with life, we stopped protecting him against the ridicule of
He had been nurtured on this protection, so he went through some withdrawal
pains, which he expressed and which we accepted, but did not necessarily respond
to. "We don't need to protect you," was the unspoken message. "You're fundamentally
As the weeks and months passed, he began to feel a quiet confidence and affirmed
himself. He began to blossom, at his own pace and speed. He became outstanding
as measured by standard social criteria -- academically, socially and athletically
-- at a rapid clip, far beyond the so-called natural developmental process.
As the years passed, he was elected to several student body leadership positions,
developed into an all-state athlete and started bringing home straight A report
cards. He developed an engaging and guileless personality that has enabled him
to relate in non threatening ways to all kinds of people.
Sandra and I believe that our son's "socially impressive" accomplishments were
more a serendipitous expression of the feelings he had about himself than merely
a response to social reward. This was an amazing experience for Sandra and me,
and a very instructional one in dealing with our other children and in other
roles as well. It brought to our awareness on a very personal level the vital
difference between the Personality Ethic and the Character Ethic of success.
The Psalmist expressed our conviction well: "Search your own heart with all
diligence for out of it flow the issues of life."