Character Determines Potential

Character

“Character reigns preeminent in determining potential.” (Laura Hildebrand, Seabiscuit)

Character involves the moral or ethical quality of a person, and preeminent means superior and surpassing all others. Potential determines what something or someone is capable of being or becoming, their possibility. Potential exists as a latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed.

Combining these definitions gives us an amplified version of Hildebrand’s discovery about character.

“The moral or ethical quality of a person is superior to all other qualities in deciding the possibility of excellence that exists within someone or something and that may or may not be developed.”

We see this truth of character determining potential through the life of Seabiscuit as it intersects with his owner, Charles Howard, his trainer, Tom Smith, and his jockey, Red Pollard. Howard recognized Smith’s wisdom, and Smith saw the potential in Seabiscuit, who had not been trained properly. Pollard was the last piece in the puzzle that finally showed Seabiscuit’s potential to the rest of the country. These men brought out Seabiscuit’s character – his heart – with amazing results.

As a child, I remember desperately wanting someone to see my potential, but I too often just felt overlooked. Maybe that’s why stories like Seabiscuit inspire me. And maybe that’s why frustration overwhelms me when I see potential in others but struggle seeing the character necessary to make that potential show itself in meaningful ways.

Character does not simply involve the surface person. Instead, true character shows through under pressure and in our attitudes, actions and words, especially with how those play out when no one but God knows the truth.

“Good character is about making good choices no matter who is watching or who will know about it.” (Dan Black in The One Required Leadership Quality)

We’ve likely all known – or have seen on television – someone with immense potential but who failed to realize that potential because of faulty character. What begins as poor choices in private, a more accurate reflection of our character, eventually shows through in the public realm. Our true character eventually becomes evident to all.

Thinking about this idea of character and potential and remembering how it played out in the life of Seabiscuit, two application points emerge to focus on as we encounter potential.

  1. Potential means very little if character is not developed.
  2. Focus on character, and potential will take care of itself.

The Bible says character is developed through endurance of suffering (Romans 5:3-5). This truth was certainly seen in Seabiscuit, and we all know it’s true in our own lives too.

This idea of potential being determined by character exists as a life principle we can embrace at every stage and in every season. It’s why parents can’t shield their children from all of life’s struggles, but instead should focus on character development within whatever life hands their children.

We also must not estimate potential, others or even our own, simply by appearances (1 Samuel 16:7). The attitudes, actions and words that ooze out when under pressure are what best indicate the status of character and thus the development of potential, and we need God’s help in seeing and encouraging both.

This post was inspired by the book Seabiscuit by Laura Hildebrand.

6 thoughts on “Character Determines Potential

  1. "Focus on character and potential will take care of itself."

    This is an excellent observation I think. Of course it ties nicely to your other point–without character potential is useless. So it follows that the best way to realize the benefits of potential is to begin by developing character. This seems to me to be a very important life lesson. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Good piece. I guess this is why Hildebrand was selected to wrote "Unbroken" as well – a true human story of character under unconceivable conditions and feelings of hopelessness.

  3. I love that movie. "Though he be little he is mighty" (I think that is pretty close). Lots of good lessons in that book. it took someone who could "see" to bring out what was in Seabiscuit all the time. Love this post Kari.
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