Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic—Change the Way You Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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There are two approaches to self-improvement: Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic. When we think about self-improvement, we know it has to be built from the inside out. You must first know who we are, and understand our own perspectives and our character, in order to understand how we can change.

What is Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic?

This method starts with examining and adjusting your character, your motives, and how you see the world; only when you start from the foundation of your character and your worldview can you make lasting behavioral changes. 

This inside-out approach entails

  • Making improvements to your character before your personality
  • Focusing on principles before practices
  • Adjusting your paradigms, or how you see the world, in order to change your actions
  • Improving yourself (achieving so-called “private victories”) before you can build better relationships with others (“public victories”)

So this brings us to the Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic. Character Ethic focuses on foundational traits, including integrity, humility, hard work, loyalty, self-control, courage, justice, patience, modesty, and morality. These are basic principles that any person — in any culture or time period — could agree are important. Character Ethic vs. Personality ethic is determined by each individual person, but can also be influenced by societal norms and expectations. For example, in the first 150 years or so of this country’s existence, most publications were about how to be successful used a Character Ethic approach.

Personality Ethic emphasizes skills and practices that affect your public image, attitudes, and behaviors. This approach offers quick-fix solutions — how to be more charming, have a more positive outlook, make people like you, and influence people to do what you want. However, these solutions generally only work temporarily, while the underlying problem remains and ultimately resurfaces. After World War I, success literature largely shifted focus from Character Ethic to Personality Ethic. The differences between Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic can be seen in certain time periods and what people focused on for self-improvement.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic can be addressed this way: Character Ethic addresses primary traits, while Personality Ethic encompasses secondary traits, like communication skills, interpersonal strategies, and positive thinking. These techniques are often essential for success, but they are flimsy and ineffective if they’re not based in character that supports them; you must start with the foundation. For example, if you try to use communication skills to make people trust you, but your character is not honest and trustworthy, the effects will be hollow and eventually people will see through the act.

You can also think of Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic this way: in one-time or short-term scenarios, you may be able to get by on personality alone. But without the foundation of primary traits — Character Ethic — the secondary traits will never have a lasting impact. 

Working on personality improvements without first establishing the necessary character traits would be like a farmer trying to fit all her work into one season. If the farmer skips planting in the spring and neglects to water and nurture the buds all summer, then tries to plant, water, and harvest in the fall, it won’t work. You can’t shortcut the process, and can’t ignore the differences between Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic when you need both for self-improvement.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic is an important distinction. They both create a foundation you need to use to be effective, and you need to understand this part of yourself in order to seek self-improvement.

Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic—Change the Way You Think

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

One thought on “Character Ethic vs. Personality Ethic—Change the Way You Think

  • February 10, 2023 at 1:16 pm

    Loyalty? Hard work?? This doesn’t seem right. The 7 Habits doesn’t mention any of these two.


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