Defining And Building Character (Jocko Willink And Captain Charlie Plumb)

Jocko Willink and Charlie Plumb talking about character..
Before you read any further, pause and ask yourself “How would I define character?” (Image: Jocko Podcast)

Character is one of those things that we all know is good to possess; it’s been drilled in our heads from a young age. If we are friends with, or work for, or are married to someone with character, we are fortunate. On the other hand, if we are in close relationship with someone who lacks character, then we know we will be in for a hard time, sooner or later. In elementary school, I remember the poster, “Character is who you are when no one is looking.” Character, indeed, is not merely getting people to think we are one way, when, in reality, we are another. Character, however, doesn’t start when we are alone, or stop just because people are watching. Character, like integrity, is about internal and external consistency.

Today, I’ve transcribed a clip in which two former US military members give their two cents on the topic. Jocko Willink is a former Navy SEAL and author of the best-selling Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual (2017), Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win (2015), and the Way Of The Warrior Kid series (2017-2021). Charlie Plumb was a captain and fighter pilot in the US Air Force, and was a prisoner of war for 6 years in Vietnam. Willink and Plumb agree that character, though it may difficult in execution, is simple in principle.

Check out the complete video and transcript below!

I answered the question like this. I said, “For me, character is not a very complex thing. For me, character is you do what’s right. You do the right thing. That’s what you do.”

If you do the right thing regardless of what the consequences are, that represents character. So then how do you build character? It’s a beautiful thing, because it’s the same thing. If you want to build character, you do the right thing. You do the right thing for yourself. You do the right thing for your family, you do the right thing for the people that you know, you do the right thing for your community, you do the right thing for your country. That’s what you do. (Willink)

You know, the last thing you want to do when you’re getting beat up from every side, and you really want to quit. The last thing you want to do is to stand up and to be forceful again, to take control of the situation, and yet it’s those kinds of challenges in life that build that character, that really make the difference between the positive life lived well, and those guys and gals that don’t make those kinds of decisions.  (Plumb)

Jocko Willink And Charlie Plumb

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Transcript Of Jocko Willink And Charlie Plumb Talking About Character

Willink: I got asked a question the other day. I was working with a company. I was doing a speech, and I was doing some Q and A at the end, and a guy asked me, “How do you define character?” and “How do you build it?”

I’d actually never been asked this question before, and quite frankly, I hadn’t really thought about it very much. And this guy had thought about it, and I talked to him afterwards, and it was something that was why he really wanted to hear me talk, because he wanted to get my perspective on this.

I answered the question like this. I said, “For me, character is not a very complex thing. For me, character is you do what’s right. You do the right thing. That’s what you do.”

If you do the right thing regardless of what the consequences are, that represents character. So then how do you build character? It’s a beautiful thing, because it’s the same thing. If you want to build character, you do the right thing. You do the right thing for yourself. You do the right thing for your family, you do the right thing for the people that you know, you do the right thing for your community, you do the right thing for your country. That’s what you do.

Now, on an individual level, those things are hard things often. Those are hard things. You have to make the right decisions. You have to live a disciplined life. Those build character. Those little things that you do on a daily basis to make yourself better, to improve your health, to improve your situation in life. You’re doing those things—they’re hard to do. And when you do those things, they build your character, and, ultimately, they lead to your character being a good character as opposed to a bad one.

But I had never been asked that question before, and I thought that the simplicity of it is pretty clear, when you think about it. When you think about the people you know. When I think about the people that I worked for in the military, or that work for me up or down the chain of command. What is it that made them people—‘cause, you know, we can’t sit here and pretend like everybody, you know, just because you’re in the military, you have great character. That’s absolutely not true.

But what about those people, you know, and I thought through this in 3 seconds as this guy asked me this question. I thought to myself, “Well, what about the guys that I know that have good character?” That I look to and say, “This person, I trust without question.” What kind of person is that? That’s the kind of person that you know is going to do the right thing all the time regardless of the consequences.

Plumb: A couple of things about that. Usually, it isn’t easy. In fact, usually the right thing is the toughest thing. It’s the hard decision. The second thing is it doesn’t always turn out for the best, when you do the right thing. Lots of times we stumble. And your listeners make think that the 3 of us have always been on the top of the heap, but all 3 of us have fallen short, you know.

I’ll tell you this, languishing in prison camp, the first month in that prison camp, I lay there in blood and sweat and tears, and my mental state was just in the tank, because I’d given up. Fighter pilots are not supposed to get up. Gemini weren’t trained to surrender. The depression that I had, just because of that. And I think that largely in life, you know, when you do the right thing and it doesn’t turn out right, then you have to get up, dust yourself off, get back in the fray, and that’s tough to do.

You know, the last thing you want to do when you’re getting beat up from every side, and you really want to quit. The last thing you want to do is to stand up and to be forceful again, to take control of the situation, and yet it’s those kinds of challenges in life that build that character, that really make the difference between the positive life lived well, and those guys and gals that don’t make those kinds of decisions.  

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