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Published: May 20, 2015 6 min read
Tony award winning play Death of a Salesman 1949
Caption from LIFE. Losing his mind as result of worry, the salesman, Willy Loman (Lee J. Cobb), babbles at imaginary characters in a restaurant. This two sons attempt to restrain him while a couple of floozies the boys have picked up look on in cold puzzlement.
W. Eugene Smith—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Character is an orchard. What do orchards have? Trees, weeds and farmers. The trees are character traits that need to be planted, watered, tended and deliberately grown. The weeds are all the things that threaten to destroy your orchard. The farmer is you.

Before you start to plant generosity, empathy and presence, make sure you’ve got a handle on your weeds. The weeds we can’t stand in others are often the weeds we’ve been ignoring in our own orchards.

If I asked you to name five people you’ve worked with who had strong character, it would take you a lot longer than if I asked you to name five people who have no character. We tend to remember the knives in our back easier than the pats on our back.

Those people, the ones you couldn’t stand working with, all had one thing in common—they lacked character. Their orchards were choked by these workplace weeds:

1. Narcissism

I completely get the irony of someone who has a picture of his headshot inside the cover of a book telling you about narcissism but life is ironic. When it comes to character the weed of narcissism is the belief that you’re the only one who matters at the company. The company is there for your benefit and the phrase “Take one for the team” is your kryptonite. This is the one I struggle with the most, possibly compounded by the fact that car services pick me up with a little sign in baggage claim when I fly to an event. Recently while heading to the limo, I pressed the #2 button in the elevator for the floor we were parked on. The driver said, “Sir, please do not do that. You are a guest.” He’s right! These are typing fingers, not elevator‑pushing fingers. I can’t be using my hands that way! I’m Jon Acuff! These are callus‑free writer hands. I can’t sully them like normal people! (I can’t pull the narcissism weeds in my orchard; I usually have to use a flamethrower because there are so many.)

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2. Dishonesty

This weed comes in a tremendous amount of varieties. Dishonesty at work can mean simple lying. Someone said they did something that they did not do. They covered a small mistake with a slightly bigger lie. Dishonesty can also take the form of gossip. When you talk bad about someone else behind their back, you’re lying to their face if you’re friendly when you see them. Dishonesty can also mean overpromising and underdelivering. I might pretend I wrestle with this because I don’t want to disappoint people, but when I promise them a timeline I know I will never hit, I’m lying. In my defense this might be caused by the exhausting amount of elevator buttons I’ve been pressing all by myself lately.

3. Pessimism

Oh, you little black cloud, you. Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame would bump into you and think, “I get why I’m sad. Someone stuck my tail on with a nail gun, but what’s that guy’s problem?” People who only have the ability to see the negative and then the gift to spread the negative aren’t fun to work with. This can morph into paranoia as well, as a coworker starts to operate from an “I’m under attack” perspective. Sometimes when I get voicemails my first thought is, “That’s someone calling to tell me I’ve screwed up something.” I can’t explain why I live from a “called to the principal’s office” point of view, but I do. If I’m not careful, that pessimism weed grows until I can no longer brainstorm and dream, two activities that require the optimism of creativity.

4. Apathy

People who don’t care about their jobs don’t have to worry about having jobs for very long. This is one of the easiest weeds to see in someone else. It’s the surly service on the phone call, the lazy attention to details and the general “whatever” that floods a coworker’s every action. Most destructive of all is that apathy cripples your ability to launch a Career Jump. No one who is apathetic has the energy or heart to try a positive, voluntary career transition.

Character is sometimes tricky to talk about because it has so many definitions. Weeds though are easy. We can all agree that narcissism, dishonesty, pessimism and apathy have no place at work. If you ever find them in your own orchard, pull them quickly.

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This article was adapted from Jon Acuff’s new book, DO OVER: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck. Jon Acuff is the New York Times Bestselling author of five books. Read his blog at Acuff.me and follow him on Twitter, @JonAcuff.