Some people's personalities are so compelling that they command attention. And a decade ago, like many others, I was very taken with that kind of charisma. At the time, I was dating a charming, intelligent, handsome, and athletic man—one of those guys everyone loves. But one day when we were out hiking the Appalachian Trail, we came across a mother whose child had fallen and scraped his knee. They were both scared and panicking, practically in tears. As we approached them, my date kept saying, "They're fine. They're fine." When he wouldn't stop to help, my heart just sank. I thought, "I don't want to kiss this man anymore."
That experience wasn't the first or last time a boyfriend didn't meet my expectations. But I never made the connection between my own choices and these disappointments until I was sitting in my bathtub, where I do a lot of my best thinking, worrying about a good friend who was going through a difficult breakup. Her ex was attractive and suave, everything about him seemed perfect, but he broke her heart in a reckless, uncaring way. Suddenly it hit me: Charisma is not character.
A magnetic personality doesn't necessarily indicate a good heart. I'd always assumed they went hand in hand.
Gradually I began to understand what I really needed to look for in people. One afternoon on a work conference call, we were discussing a mistake that had been made; the conversation got very intense. One colleague threw another person on the team under the bus. But then a third colleague piped up and said, "No, I don't think that's quite fair. That's not how it happened." I was wowed and impressed by that, and it changed my perception of that person. I began to see things clearly: Doing the right thing has power. You don't have to do it in a flashy way.
It was easy and natural for me—especially in my youth—to overvalue a light-up-the-room personality. But now I realize I can't expect a friendship or romance to flourish if the person hasn't demonstrated strong character. Traits like humility, courage, and empathy are easily overlooked—but it's immensely important to find them in your closest relationships. Perhaps my best proof of this is how I fell in love with my husband. Early on in our relationship, I observed how special his friendships were to him. When he saw any of his friends, he'd embrace them in a big bear hug. I could see why: He was caring, dedicated, and generous with them. I thought, "This is a profoundly good sign." And I was right.
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From the June 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine