Virtue vs Character (I’m OK & You’re OK Too!)

April 18, 2016

This morning when I was on my walk, I was listening to On Being and Krista Tippet brought up a really cool idea that I couldn’t stop thinking about (podcasts often do this to me!) It was actually just a tiny gem in a much bigger conversation, but it kept going around and around my head because it’s something I think about a lot as I try to make sense of the internet, the world and my place in both. (And also the things that rub me up the wrong way!)

She raised the idea of the language of character and the language of virtue and she wondered if people of a certain age reject virtue over character.

This kind of summed up something that I have been wondering about too.

Virtue: behaviour showing high moral standards.
“paragons of virtue”
synonyms: goodness, virtuousness, righteousness, morality, ethicalness, uprightness, upstandingness, integrity, dignity, rectitude, honesty, honourableness, honourability, honour, incorruptibility, probity, propriety, decency, respectability, nobility, nobility of soul/spirit, nobleness, worthiness, worth, good, trustworthiness, meritoriousness, irreproachableness, blamelessness, purity, pureness, lack of corruption, merit

Character:  the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
“running away was not in keeping with her character”
synonyms: personality, nature, disposition, temperament, temper, mentality, turn of mind, psychology, psyche, constitution, make-up, make, stamp, mould, cast

I think as I get older, something roughly summed up by the words ‘true character’ are what I’m going for as a person. And what I see a lot of out there in the world are ‘virtuous intentions’.

True character – to me – is defined by being able to do/be what/who you truly want to be at any moment, regardless of outside expectations. It doesn’t mean you’re an ahole, but it does mean that you’re not always motivated by morals or ethics and that you’re sitting in your own skin.

Virtuous intention – to me – is defined by striving to be some kind of higher, better or best self – or the self you think you should be – a lot of the time. It’s about perceived forward motion.

Sometimes the two criss-cross, but generally you’re on one path or the other – although you might switch paths as your resolve or goals or influences switch.

Instagram is flooded with visual displays of intended virtue. People working hard to be their best selves and pulling in all kinds of life facets that in the past may never have been the stomping ground of virtue. Virtuous types are often trying to eat, move, be, think, give, speak, dress, shop, do in their best self ways according to best-self best practice. Facebook is a bit the same.

Sometimes this is inspiring and makes us want to follow suit. Other times it’s a bit too much. Or we might think it’s all a bit inauthentic or exhausting or cult-ish. It’s all a bit confusing.

True character, on the other hand, is not so easily visually displayed, is less likely to have its own hashtag and lovingly embraces who we really are beneath the surface (regardless of whether we have rich girl hair or the prettiest lunchbox in the universe or rad before/after shots.) It doesn’t have its own out-of-the-box visual language like virtue does, but when we see it, we know it! (Online, it’s probably more likely to be found on quippy Twitter or more confessional or long-form blogs.)

So. Do we really need to be our best self all the time?

Is this seemingly ubiquitous, virtuous, visual focus really the way forward?

I admit I used to try to do the best self thing A LOT. Now I’m not so sure it’s the right path for me. There’s a prescriptive, judge-y base-line that best-self virtue can often spring from. It’s a weird paradox that I don’t want to be part of.

Yes – it’s a great idea to learn, do, improve and grow. But I think you need to learn, do, improve, grow, collide, screw-up, snort and bumble into who you really are.

That means you don’t have to be ace all the time.

You really don’t.

There’s a strength in working out your own fragilities and perceived failings – AND you don’t always have to fix those things. Sometimes accepting the wonky bits is the best thing you can do – and there’s actually a kind of peace that comes from doing that. A shift. A kind of auto-growth, if you will.

Less of who you want to be/think you should be. More of who you are. Yes.

I think we’re often raised to be achievers and pleasers, to live pre-emptively (so we’re seen as GOOD people), avoid conflict and keep the peace. That’s where this weird and mentally exhausting addiction to virtuous intention comes in.

BUT if we accepted ourselves a little more, judged others a little less and embraced people’s – including our own – complexities and inconsistencies, then maybe true character could have more time to shine?

Maybe we’d be more inclined to take chances, have fun, bumble through, risk it, celebrate life, goof off, mess up, triumph, trust ourselves, feel it?

Maybe instead of being the external or internally perceived GOOD or INSPIRING or #BLESSED… we could all just be OKAY for a little while! Yay?!

What do you think?!

pip signature


“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
John Muir



If you want to think/hear more about these ideas and others that surround them:

On Being with Krista Tippet – Tiffany Shlain & Growing Up The Internet
The Lively Show – Mariana Lopez Gonzales on Celebrating Life
Longform – Tavi Gevinson on Being Smart Enough and Cool Enough


More things I’ve written about stuff:

Why slowing down is the new speeding up
Care, click away and help
Why tough times with a pal can be good for you
The light in our eyes


  • Reply Kate @ One Small Life May 9, 2016 at 6:34 PM

    I realise I am coming to this post a bit late, but I love it so much I just had to say so. What a wonderful idea wonderfully written. Thanks Pip. x

  • Reply Lise April 21, 2016 at 6:34 AM

    Thank you so much for this post! I found that I was being sucked into virtue-land, mainly via Instagram and Facebook. I read an article about how Danes were much happier (and they are already pretty darn happy) after giving up Facebook for a week. After reading your post, I decided to do that, too (as well as IG), and after two days I already feel more grounded and happier in who I am, not trying to chase some photographic perfection. I prefer reading blogs, because to me, the words are what I am into. What people are thinking and creating and doing and being and messing up and doing well. Like the humans that we are. Not the unreal perfection of the quicker and shorter attention-spanned social media.

    Thanks for (as usual) giving me something to think about!

  • Reply Emily April 20, 2016 at 10:25 PM

    This is just perfect. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer last year we decided to let other people in and be authentic through the process. That was pretty hard for me cos it meant others were going to see the real me. My lifelong virtuous intention was always to be the girl who ‘has it all together’. I had no idea what my true character was in relation to suffering.. or, in fact anything (if I’m completely honest!) But I just decided to be myself… to ask for help when I needed it, fall apart when I was broken, be strong when I had it in me.. and just roll with it. It was hard to let go of the perfect version of me, but actually the more I learned about my true character the more I liked it, and – funnily enough – the more I liked other people too. Character is so closely tied to compassion. You can’t be immersed in a life of virtuous intention and hope to feel genuine compassion for another human being. You’re right – self virtue is so judgey. You become hyper-judgey about yourself and that just turns right back around and becomes hyper judgement of others. A lovely and humbling and surprising thing i found about allowing other people to see my wonky, hopeless, not-having-it-all-together bits was that it strengthened connection. Other people could see me for me, and I could see them right back. Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but I think the ONLY way you CAN be the best version of yourself is to embrace the imperfections. Your true character is the only version of you that other people can truly know, love and connect with. Embracing the imperfect doesn’t come easy to many (most??) of us, but I highly recommend giving it a shot. I really loved this post Pip – thanks for sharing xx

  • Reply Edie April 20, 2016 at 6:38 AM

    This was totally one of my fave posts!!! I’ve spoken to heaps of people about it who have gone …. Jeez yup!!!

  • Reply Jess April 19, 2016 at 10:57 PM

    Hey Pip,
    Thanks for posting this, it really resonated with me and was very well timed! I am a post-graduate medical student, currently trying to navigate my way through my late twenties and a particularly arduous time in my clinical training. There is a lot of pressure, and there has been for a few years now. As I progress in my training and interact with patients and doctors, I find myself constantly reflecting on what it means to be a ‘good’ doctor. Like many professions, there are some basic expectations by which people measure whether or not you can be trusted or are reliable ; like being on time, being honest and being accountable for your actions. However, there are other are other virtues that doctors all view differently, and these are the things that roll around in my brain constantly. How much empathy is too much empathy? At what point does emotional reservation in the face of distress actually become emotional disengagement? When does being organised mean that you become anal-retentive and inflexible? As doctors, we are relied upon by others at their most vulnerable moments and the qualities required of us in a professional environment are almost super human. We need to be empathetic, but not over emotional. We should be strong minded, but not confrontational. We should be organised at all times- but still be laid-back and relate-able. We are never to be tired and we are expected to live the healthy lifestyle we expect of our patients- to exercise regularly, to eat healthily.. the list goes on. The problem with this expectation is not what it means for our professional lives and professional selves, but what it does to our sense of self away from the hospital. This drive to improve oneself doesn’t get left on the wards when you walk out of the hospital. At home I am constantly analysing whether or not I am being a “good” partner, a “good” friend, a “good housemate” . This focus on on always trying to be the best version of myself, means that sometimes I forget to be myself at all. I’m really not as funny, or as interesting or as relaxed when I’m striving to be perfect. Your article made me realise this – and I hope is the first step to being a little bit kinder to myself and to others 🙂

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:06 AM

      Oh my gosh. This is a peek into a world I have never considered… Thank you so much for your comment. I can see what a difficult balance it must be to strike… and now I am wondering about other jobs that are more than a job, but rather a LIFE. Thanks for taking the time to read and to share your perspective. I am so glad you did and am off to ponder further… xx

    • Reply Edie April 20, 2016 at 6:36 AM

      Oh gawd Jess I totally get that!!!! My partners a doctor, I’m a midwife and sometimes we are sitting in the gutter filled with martinis going nahhhhhhhh we ain’t perfect….. Nahhhhhhh….. !!!! I totally would salute you at this particular time in your training though if you manage to get yourself breakfast or a shower!!!!??

      • Reply Jess April 20, 2016 at 4:39 PM

        Thanks for your replies Edie and Pip. Yes, the medical world is certainly a strange one and demanding in many ways I had never even considered. I think if you have any job that you consider a vocation rather than a form of employment, a large part of your identity (sometimes all of it) becomes based on your professional life. It can be easy to forget that you were a person of value and interest years and years before you were a doctor or midwife or writer or artist. A drive for self- improvement is so necessary in our professional lives but an obsession with being virtuous can certainly make us very boring! I certainly enjoy being around friends who are flexible, enjoy a drink and express how they feel when they feel it-even if they are ridiculous sometimes! A secret martini in the gutter sounds like much more fun than a kale salad posted on instagram. And thanks Edie, most days I manage to shower, but my diet is 85% mi goreng….;)

  • Reply Karin April 19, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    I am grateful to have logged on to visit your page today. I really needed to read this at this moment. Thank you! I haven’t been blogging for a very long time now (years) as 1. Time has not been on my side, and 2. I feel a lack of anything coherent to say. Maybe I’ve been thinking I have to be more than I actually am. I’ve always been someone who holds one ball in hand rather than juggling several. I appreciate the reminder that this is ok. 🙂

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:08 AM

      Thanks for reading, Karin. I really appreciate THAT. x

  • Reply Sarina April 19, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    Thank you for this article Pip, separating the two in this way makes a really clear distinction between one and the other. It’s so hard not to get sucked into the mostly unreal nature of social media so this is a nice reminder for me to find my own ground where I’m comfortable and authentic to myself.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:10 AM

      We probably don’t need to try to be heroes – but just be, I think! With all the weird turns and wins that brings.

  • Reply Wendy April 19, 2016 at 7:22 AM

    This is a fabulous post. Thank you Pip. I do try to be my best self. The trickier thing is accepting myself whether I manage it or not and moving on. I need to stop worrying about whether I’m being ace enough for others and just be myself.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:11 AM

      I think this is a BIG thing. I think a lot of us are living out of body, trying to be better. It would be good to learn to live IN OUR OWN SELVES, I reckon. Get comfy with that, kinda thing?! x

  • Reply Jacqui April 19, 2016 at 4:50 AM

    Oh yes, totally agree! I think that visual mediums like Instagram or Facebook encourage faux good intentions where slapping a trite saying in a pretty font onto a pretty photo and hash tagging with profound tags, or reposting something about breast cancer (when 90% won’t) take the place of any real personality or real conviction. It might be aspirational on their part but it’s not very interesting or authentic. And of course everyone’s authentic, even if it’s buried deep down inside, the trick is expressing it! There’s lots of great, authentic, bloggers/instagrammers/tweeters out there but unlike the aspirational ones you can’t copy them or their hashtags to achieve the desired results, you have to do it all on your own!

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:12 AM

      Yes… you are so right. You can’t really capture someone else’s true character… but you can replicate their virtuous acts and give THAT a whirl, I suppose!

  • Reply Kerry April 19, 2016 at 3:09 AM

    I think this is perfect. I’m writing a blog post at the moment (in my head; but will actually write it soon) called In Praise of Messy Blogging, and this post connects with that idea, that blogging is much more about being than striving. I like the Instagram accounts best that are like that. But maybe that’s just because I am old 😉

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:13 AM

      Thanks so much for reading! Be sure to share your post here, if you feel like doing that? x

  • Reply Mel Roworth April 18, 2016 at 10:12 PM

    Thank you.
    This piece has struck a chord with me.
    I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of my character and the virtues I want her to have.
    I’m going to revisit this tomorrow.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:13 AM

      I am glad it made some sense to you, Mel. Thanks for reading. xxx

  • Reply Gabby April 18, 2016 at 9:59 PM

    Thanks so much Pip! You always know the right thing to say, you are indeed a clever clogs, truly 🙂 x

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:14 AM

      Aw. THANK YOU for reading my blog. It means a lot. x

  • Reply Reannon April 18, 2016 at 9:30 PM

    What an interesting post Pip. I like to think I’m pretty comfortable with myself, that I am who I am all of the time, that I just live my life the way that makes me happy. But I also like to change the things about myself that irk me, not because I the world tells me that certain things are irksome but because certain things just don’t feel right any longer. I’ve never thought of myself as a virtuos person but I like to think I have strong character. Maybe that’s not for me to say, I’m not sure….

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:14 AM

      I think it is for you to say… after all, who knows you best? YOU! x

  • Reply Jennifer April 18, 2016 at 8:43 PM

    I love this, Pip! I was thinking through this same sort of idea recently when my family life and health came into conflict with the expectations of my employer. Being a good employee meant ignoring my family and health, and being a good mother and taking care of myself meant missing substantial time from work. I did try to juggle everything for awhile, completely ignoring my health and then one day….it was just too much. I chose to stop worrying about being a good employee and focus on the things that were more important to me (like taking care of my kiddo’s health stuff and my health stuff). I ultimately lost my job and might have botched my career a bit, and there will be lots of change and challenges. But, the forced perspective of intentionally dropping the balls and seeing where they land, and just being ok instead of trying to make everything perfect just because that is what “good” people do…all of that is turning out to be a real gift. Thank you for giving me a few more things to think about on this journey, Pip!

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:16 AM

      That is a perfect example of it all going pear shaped. There are no ‘winners’ (except for you, kind of, because at least you chose what made the most sense at the time). I wonder how much STRESS and ANXIETY is created in this ditch between character and virtue…. A LOT, I think. Thanks for sharing your experience of the juggle. xxx

  • Reply Rachael April 18, 2016 at 8:00 PM

    “More of who you are”
    That is it.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:16 AM

      *cheers* xx

  • Reply Claire April 18, 2016 at 6:56 PM

    Needed to read this this morning Pip, thanks xxx

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:16 AM

      Thanks for taking the time to do just that! x

  • Reply Annette April 18, 2016 at 2:33 PM

    Pip, I really like this thoughtful post. And I really like the notion that the pursuit of a best self might not be the best for yourself, or myself.
    I am more at peace with my fragilities and spiky bits than ever before. I don’t have to mind my step or watch my manners in my self-expression or my self-acceptance. This kind of being true can most certainly be experienced without being a doo-doo-head. It feels very odd initially, because it’s not necessarily “good girl” compliant. But it is me being ME, and it’s you being you in your way too.
    I reckon character trumps virtuous intentions.
    Thank you for pondering this, then writing about it. Hooray for thoughtful writing.

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:17 AM

      I think it’s not best for us at all. I think it’s actually causing a lot of pain and anxiety for people. Less best. More be. Or something like that. That’s what I am trying. xx

  • Reply Kate April 18, 2016 at 1:17 PM

    This has made me think, about myself and my behaviours, thank you, I like things that make me think.
    My take aways from this post are guiding me to something that I have been pondering now for a short while, that is; I’m over all the self help stuff, the be best you stuff, the always be trying to improve myself, and the idea that who I am right now isn’t enough, I must be able to be a better communicator or I can be happier if I meditate everyday, or I can be …… anything other than who I am. Don’t get me wrong I do like to meditate and I do want to be my best self but I just think that for me personally there is much more to life than always to be striving. An example of this is that I’ve become so hung up and being a ‘great’ communicator that I know longer say anything, by the time I’ve considered all my possible responses or ways to initiate a conversation the moment has passed, the conversation moved on and I haven’t said a thing. This is not always good communication, if I hadn’t read so much about being a good communicator and tried so hard to be virtuous I probably would have just said what was on my mind, discussions would be had and things would move on. Gahhh over thinking again.
    Anyway I’ve gone all over the show with this comment, not sure I’ve even understood your point, but I’m all for being real and being yourself not being virtuous for the sake of being virtuous.
    cheers Kate

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:19 AM

      That sounds like you have understood perfectly… Thank you for reading and posting such a thoughtful comment. xx

  • Reply Michelle April 18, 2016 at 12:45 PM

    When I read that sentence, “you don’t have to be ace all the time” I let out a huge sigh of relief and my shoulders instantly relaxed. Then I read the rest of the post and started to cry, because well….I feel like….I just really needed to read this today. Thank you Pip, for writing it xx

    • Reply Meet Me At Mikes April 20, 2016 at 6:18 AM

      Life is hard sometimes. Sigh. Especially when you are secretly hoping to be remembered for the rad things you did. Sob.

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