When No One Sees Character in the Dark

In a culture in which the chief item on the menu is self-aggrandizement through a plethora of social media outlets, and in general always pointing a bigger, brighter finger at yourself, it’s easy to forget the lasting value of the John Wooden quote, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” 

I’m convinced from my Instagram feed, among many other things, that we now live in a world where it’s almost unthinkable to do anything worthwhile without cataloging it for the world to see. We can’t eat a nice meal, drink a spendy bottle of beer, swim a lap, hit a new PR at the gym, go on a date, spend time with a friend, without launching that experience into the social media stratosphere as a way to win for ourselves the burning envy of our “followers.”

In fact, I’d go further than that—I think much of what we do is no longer because we enjoy doing it, but because we think it is “postworthy.” The lust for attention has in many cases actually become the overriding motivation for why we even do something in the first place. No wonder the No. 1 online phenomena the last two years straight was the selfie. Yech.

The running joke about CrossFitters and Vegans is that they can’t have a conversation and not evangelistically suffocate you with Workouts of the Day or Green Propaganda within the first two minutes of contact. Of course you could substitute about any lifestyle infatuation into the equation—militant public breastfeeders, whole foodies, gluten intolerants, attachment parenters, get-ripped gym dwellers (with their gallon of water always in tow)—and the joke still works.

We are no longer content to do things because they’re meaningful to us and we derive genuine pleasure from them; we feel we have to broadcast it all to the world. Our pleasure in doing and experiencing has been replaced by the sad and empty “pleasure” of being watched and applauded for having done those things.

There are a number of problems with living your life this way, but let’s get back to the John Wooden quote for a moment. Your character is revealed by what you do, and therefore by what you really love, when no one is watching. If you feel like your life is nothing more than a quest to build a better marketing campaign for your “tribe” of “followers,” well then, newsflash, your life is a pretty phony sham. I saw a church sign that sarcastically captured this sentiment well: “May your life be as blessed as you pretend it is on Facebook.”

Who you really are is an attention whore, a lover of self, the fiercest promoter of you than ever there was. In that case your life is nothing more than watching the weather of popular opinion and desperately trying to be at the right spot when it rains Likes and Shares, the surest signs in your world of approval. You’re the perfect candidate for compromise and selling out for all the wrong reasons.

And, perhaps worst of all, you’ve sacrificed true passion, true integrity of character, true enjoyment, at the altar of another man’s opinion. The joy you once had in your pursuits will die at the choking hands of your ever-toxic slave master, Mr. Approval Ratings, as Bunyan might have called it.

That’s not to say social media is inherently evil, because it isn’t. What we post can genuinely inspire people in the right ways. A photo of an epic sunset can inspire others to praise the God who made it all. You can create art that points to beauty, goodness and truth rather than yourself. But the question we have to ask when we post is, “Whose glory am I seeking?”

Or you might examine yourself after you post something, as I often must; do you obsessively watch for the Likes to pile up? Prior to embarking on a task as junior creator, are you more worried about how many people will see it, or whether or not what you’re conveying is good, beautiful or true? Are you working on art that moves you, or that you think will move the needle?

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Another way

But what if you rejected the notion that things are only worth doing or experiencing because other people are watching? Sure, the outward manifestation would be that you no longer feel the need to tweet every obscenely personal detail of your life to the world, but it’s more than that.

First and foremost, you’d be freed from the slavish compulsion to do things only because others approve of them; you’d be free to do them for the unadulterated, intrinsic joy you have in doing them. The fruit of disciplining yourself not to turn every experience into an episode of “Jersey Shore Attention Whores” is the freedom to do and be what you really love, and to have lasting pleasure in your pursuits.

Second, you’d become a stronger person who did hard things because they were worth doing and because they held true meaning and lasting purpose for you. You’d dedicate and discipline yourself to work toward your goals everyday—goals that you set, not others—and you’d have a joy that endured because it wasn’t dependent on someone else’s fickle and ultimately meaningless approval. You’d be a happier, more consistent person.

You’d derive lasting pleasure from your work because you wouldn’t feel compelled to waste your time doing things you hate to please people you don’t really care about. The purpose and meaning would return to your life. You’d have the peace that comes with integrity, the result of a life lived in accordance with your core principles and moral compass in all phases, public and private.

Living for the opinion of others, however, is far more serious than whether or not you have a booming social media following or whether you find joy in your life. In fact, it has eternal consequences. As Jesus himself said, the religious leaders in his day could not enter into eternal life “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). The only eternally significant life, the one of lasting joy, is one spent seeking the glory and approval of the Father, not men.

What you find when you discipline yourself to enjoy things without launching a private PR campaign afterward is a genuine personal triumph that proves to be one of the greatest rewards of all. That victory comes when you learn to discipline yourself and put in the work when no one’s watching. That’s when character develops into something greater.

Author Steven Pressfield struggled for years to finish a manuscript, and his lack of discipline, in that area and others, cost him a marriage and several jobs. He’d start a manuscript and never finish, until life crashed and burned and he moved to California. While there he worked for 26 months straight on a book, barely leaving the house until he typed those monumental words, “The End.” Of the experience he wrote,

I never did find a buyer for the book. Or the next one, either. It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherf—–. Next morning I went over to [my friend and fellow writer] Paul’s for coffee and told him I had finished. “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.” (The War of Art, 112)

That’s what it looks like when character is formed in the dark, when no one sees. The greatest victories in your life, the most meaningful moments of personal triumph, will come when no one is watching.

“Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew.

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