The only thing that really matters

In 1940, while he was struggling as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Walker Percy wrote to his uncle and adopted father, William Alexander Percy, to give him the bad news about his grades.

William Alexander, who introduced his young ward to the writings of Marcus Aurelius and had himself gone to Harvard, did not care for one second about the grades. As he wrote back to Walker, “My whole theory about life is that glory and accomplishment are of far less importance than the creation of character and the individual good life.”

How lucky we might have been to get such a lesson from our own parents at that impressionable age! To hear, emphatically, that marks on a report card are not a reflection of who we are and that their recognition is such a hollow thing. Because it’s clear that most of us internalized the exact opposite: We think that fame and fortune are the marks of a good person. We connect them, like cause and effect. If/then statements in the logic of human existence. We chase these things, because like grades, they are quantifiable and easy to game.

But character? The trait the Stoics believed was like fate, the determining factor in life? Well, that we mostly ignore. We assume it will take care of itself.

It won’t. If we directed half the time we spend trying to advance our careers or ace a test, toward our individual moral improvement, the world would be transformed. And so would our individual lives–good lives.

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