Character Counts: Forge yours carefully

May 24, 2021
Dr. Cole standing behind a podium clapping at graduation.

On May 15, I had the privilege of presiding over the two Spring commencement ceremonies for all six MUSC colleges. Although I am a part of this event annually, this year I was honored to be asked to serve as the keynote commencement speaker.

For any such address, it’s important to speak from the heart, to offer something meaningful and get to the point. Given the unprecedented set of circumstances that our graduates had to overcome to make it to that day, I tried to craft a message that fit the moment. As I later reflected on the two ceremonies it occurred to me that we have all had to face these challenges, and maybe you should hear some of the message too. Below are excerpts from that address. My hope is that despite the trials and tribulations of late, you might find some reassurance that good character still counts, and that we always have the opportunity to shape and evolve ourselves in a positive, meaningful and impactful way.


“My thought is simple – character matters. Forge yours carefully. Why? Because character makes all the difference... From my perspective, good character might be defined as: someone who values truth, someone who brings joy, and someone who pursues passion… Let’s talk about these three qualities.

First, value truth.

It seems that in today’s world truth is becoming exceedingly rare. Truth often gets tangled or lost in the middle of personal beliefs, Facebook facts, common knowledge or even social media manipulation. This is especially important in the field called health care in which gray areas and uncertainty are constants.

Why is this important in terms of character?

Trust and truth go hand in hand. Someone who is known to value truth is also considered as one who can be trusted. It is almost impossible to build a solid relationship with a spouse, family member, patient, team or institution without a solid foundation of trust and truth.

To value truth means asking questions for better understanding, to try to get to the right answer in any circumstance. To hear all sides of an issue. It means discovering and correcting the unconscious biases you carry with you, and it means moving beyond the basic biases that are ingrained within us all – we are all victims of our circumstances and upbringing.

As a leader, even though sometimes elusive, placing a value on and seeking truth provides a compass… You must be intentional about how you carry yourself and your profession and be willing to do what is right and necessary when it is needed, even when it’s hard or unpopular. This is critical in all aspects of life…

Second, bring joy.

Who is someone that brings joy? Why should we care? And, what difference does it make?

Simply put, bringing joy is about becoming an individual who can be an inspiration to others. One who elevates and cares about others, making them better because you were a part of their lives for moments in time. Just for the record, the person I know who does this best is my wife, Kathy.

We all have individuals along our paths in life who we can point to as purpose-filled inspirations, ones who may have provided the needed push for us to be here today – lights or mileposts on life’s path.

Would you not want to be the same for someone else?

This is often what gives meaning, purpose and drive to an individual.

But it’s not only about others; ideally, to be able to bring joy means pursuing joy in your own life. Prioritizing the elements of life that you and your loved ones value, having work that you find meaningful and inspirational. It also means being able to laugh with others – and at yourself…

At the end of the day, when you strip away all of our imperatives, self-imposed priorities and deadlines, the things that have the most meaning in life are the intangibles –  the relationships and impact that you had on others…

Third, pursue passion.

Pursing passion does not mean that you are a constantly raging bull trying to get your way or a forlorn lover trying to regain your true love. Pursuing passion means that you have the courage and insight to seek the things in your life that are meaningful, that give you energy – and to inspire others to do the same. I know one basic truth as a leader… when talent and passion are aligned, stand back. It’s like igniting a Saturn V rocket – the energy and impact can be awe inspiring…

The privilege of pursing your passion means that you have the freedom to innovate, but it also means having the freedom to fail. You’re probably thinking, ‘Wait, WHAT?’

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not giving you a pass to fail out of laziness, frustration or self-absorption. I’m encouraging you to use the skills you’ve built, the passion you bring to your work and your innovative spirit to take risks that lead to added value, progress and doing the right thing for those you serve.

‘Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward,’ author John Maxwell instructed. If the status quo doesn’t work, you don’t have to accept it. Bring an innovative solution to the table, fueled by passion and purpose. Bring new evidence, try new things, talk to new people, get different perspectives, build consensus for new ideas. You’ll win some and fail some, but you’ll always learn some.

That is how you channel your life’s passion into your life’s work, and subsequently, how you transform health care…

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we can have a real and lasting impact by virtue of what we do, quite literally becoming the beacon that our communities need when unprecedented challenges threaten the health and vitality of those we value. That beacon, that positive light in you, is intrinsically linked to your good character and how you demonstrate it to others will lead to impact both grand and small – and always significant.”

About the Author

David J. Cole
MUSC President
M.D., FACS