For the past few days, I’ve been stuck on the idea of what it means to have good character. Given a situation, especially one that’s difficult or terse, how do you react? What sort of choices do you make under certain circumstances? Who are you? Beyond yourself, passing judgment on someone’s character is tricky; a tightrope activity. You can have someone completely figured out, and then, they surprise you and knock you off-balance. You don’t know who you are—or who someone else is—until action (or inaction) has taken place.

Character is as much fixed (you are who you are) as it is in constant development (you are what happens to you). A running total of experience. As I’ve been interpreting it, character is what you do when no one is looking, but it’s also what you do when everyone is looking. What principles do you uphold? How do you interact with others, irrespective of their place on the social spectrum? Are you honest and forthcoming, or callous and deceitful? For whom do you let your mask down and whom do you service with off-the-shelf parts?

The more I think about it, I’ve realized that you can’t dictate whether your own character is good or bad. It has to be experienced by others. Listening to an interview recently (I forget who), someone cited the Eminem song “The Way I Am,” noting the lyric “And I am, whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?” In this sense, you’re whatever people see you as whether you like it or not. The only way to influence that image in the positive is to always operate at your best, assuming an audience is there even if invisible.

This has been the takeaway for me: always try to do what’s right, even when it’s difficult. Remain aware of your actions, paying close attention to those that increase the value of your stock and those that devalue it. Whether you get credit for your best work is irrelevant; always do the thing that you think would make you look the best if someone were watching. To determine what is best, imagine yourself as a silent observer of yourself. Whatever you’re about to do, would they smile at it or sneer?