Whether you like it or not, you are sure to imitate other people. The impulse to follow the example of others is so strong in us that we obey it unconsciously. We begin as little children, copying those around us, and we imitate the bad in them as well as the good.
But now that you are older, you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny. If you observe and imitate the good and choose to copy the good qualities of those with whom you associate, you will be, in the old comparison, like the bee that gathers honey from every flower and leaves the poison. On the other hand, if you do not choose carefully whom to imitate, you will collect bad qualities and accentuate the faults of your character.
To have a clear, alert, and fair mind, and to judge men’s good qualities rightly are of supreme importance, especially to the young. Do not be deceived by appearances; do not adopt wrong standards of conduct. Some people have showy, specious, false characters that make a good impression at first, but there is no substance to their personality. Others do not attract or impress us much at first, but they improve on acquaintance. They wear well; they have solid characters, fine hearts, good minds, and consistent principles. Those are the ones to imitate. Many a young person has gone wrong and wrecked his whole life because he did not see truly and judge rightly whom to follow, but let himself be carried away by his first impressions, his feelings, or his emotions.
All human beings have some good qualities, of course, and by observing their good qualities and imitating them, and recognizing their mistakes and avoiding them, you can steer your way safely through the difficult seas of human character.
It is told of one young man who made a supreme success in life, that he deliberately noted the good qualities of all those around him. He would jot down such notes as this: “I like A’s pleasant, kindly smile; I am going to try to imitate it. I like B’s everlasting willingness to oblige and serve other people, and I am going to try to make it my own. I like C’s custom of punctuality and reliableness, and I am going to try to be the same myself. D’s fine mental culture appeals to me, and I want to be like him in that respect.” In this way, the young man deliberately emulated, and made his own by constant practice, the very best that he saw around him.
No human character is quite ideal, but every one has some divine spark of goodness in it. By taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character, just as, by taking all the unpleasant characteristics of each one, you could create a sort of monster.
One advantage of this method of looking for the good qualities of others and imitating them is that it brings out by contrast your own imperfections. If you study the best in others and compare that best with your own corresponding traits, you will feel humble and be stirred up to be better. There is hardly anyone around you who does not surpass you in something. Yet, you have the divine gift of free will, by which you can continually practice and aspire after the good qualities that others possess, without envying them and without taking anything away from those whom you imitate. This is the very opposite of jealousy, that wicked and hideous monster of vice, which observes the good in other people and is saddened by it. Your keen observation must pick out the good qualities in others not in order to envy them, but to rejoice in them and imitate them. Thus, you will multiply their goodness and gain by it, by becoming like them in that particular characteristic in which they most excel.
Suppose you had the power of taking for yourself the best qualities you see in others. With what keen interest you would study each one’s character in order to choose the very best trait you would find there. You would weigh each one’s personal charm and try to find out on what it depended. Here you would see that it was the result of a spirit of great kindness and interest in others, and you would choose that characteristic. There you would see that it came chiefly from a finely cultured mind, and you would make that quality your own. Another man’s influence over others and power to do good to them has come, you would perceive, from his deep conscientiousness and faithfulness to duty, and you would make those qualities your own.
Now, in literal truth, you can obtain to a degree any one of these things, by wanting it earnestly enough and seeking it persistently enough. The measure of your right judgment in seeing clearly the best that is in others and your strong will in disciplining yourself to acquire their particular excellences will be the measure of your success in getting the best that they possess.
When thus trying to acquire the best characteristics of mankind, you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history. Saints and heroes of hundreds of years offer you their knowledge and companionship on the shelves of libraries.
This is one of the greatest blessings of a love of reading: it brings us into communion with the choicest spirits of all the ages. Entering a library in a thoughtful and reverent mood, we can stretch forth our hands and bid this, that, and the other of the most excellent of mankind to speak to us. In great books, we find a revelation of human character in its excellence and nobility that our personal experiences could never offer us. The ordinary dealings of everyday life are sometimes like a game of hide-and-seek, in which men and women carefully conceal even their own excellences. They are reluctant to show the finest depths of their characters. But the wonder of good books is that they can faithfully reveal these hidden excellences of human nature and can acquaint us with the inward workings of good hearts and cultured minds. Therefore, in our reading, we may choose our associates from the most excellent of mankind and, through our knowledge of them, learn to emulate their finest characteristics.
Then, too, in our wonderful times, when nations are drawn so much nearer, we can become acquainted with the intellectual and spiritual nobility of all the nations. We should avoid that excessive nationalism which sees no good in people of other nations. On the contrary, we should try to recognize in nationalities, as in individuals, the excellent qualities in which they excel. This is one reason among many why it is a fortunate achievement for anyone to learn a new language. Whenever you learn a new language, you think the thoughts of another race and acquaint yourself with new models to imitate, new excellences to emulate.
Human nature, therefore, lies before you, like a beautiful garden, in which a variety of exquisite flowers delights the eye. Some are more beautiful or more fragrant than others, and through the exercise of your intelligence and your will, choosing from each character its more beautiful blossoms, you can pick for yourself an exquisite bouquet of fine characteristics and make for yourself a personality that will bring color and fragrance into the lives of others.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Fr. Garesche’s The Catholic Book of Character and Success, available from Sophia Institute Press.