Can you judge someone’s character just by looking at them?

Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men the world has ever known. He dominated the shipping industry when it was America’s primary means of transportation. He dominated the railroad industry when it took center stage as the nation’s preferred means of movement for people and products. In fact, the only place Vanderbilt didn’t dominate was in college football. Where his university’s football team is a consistent bottom-dweller in the SEC.

In the excellent book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (which won the Pulitzer Prize), author T.J. Stiles includes a quote about Vanderbilt from the Chicago Tribune that says, ‘He is so accurate a a judge of men, so clear-sighted, so fertile of resource, so skilful an organganizer of combinations, and the wielder of such an immense capital, that failure is next to impossible.’ That is a heck of a statement about a human. Which mean Vanderbilt was the original Parker Lewis.

The part of this quote that stands out to me is that Vanderbilt was noted for being a highly accurate judge of men. I translate men to mean people, because I often edit statements of yore to be more gender-intelligent.

If you are an accurate judge of humans you are able to surround yourself with the people of highest character. Which is key to personal happiness, friendship, and professional success. (And by highest character I don’t mean Willie Nelson.)

But how was The Commodore able to so accurately judge people? Vanderbilt himself provides an intriguing answer with the following quote:

‘God Almighty has stamped every man’s character upon his face.’

-Cornelius Vanderbilt

This is an interesting and profound statement. A statement given greater validity as it comes from one of the most successful humans of all time, known for his accurate judgement of people.

I encourage you to put this to your own test. Or said differently, I encourage you to see if you can accurately judge a person’s character simply by looking at them. Movies and TV shows regularly tap into your ability to make your own character judgements as new players are introduced and storylines develop.

Think about Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Based on the scenario, Ferris should be the bad guy, and the Principal should be the good guy. But we instinctually see it differently. And we felt validated when we learned that the actor who played the principal pleaded no contest to a charge of soliciting a 14 year old boy. #ohhhhnooooo #chickachickaaaa

You have met people you didn’t like and didn’t trust the moment you first saw them. You have likely had the opposite experience too with people you instantly liked. You may have even experienced love at first sight, like I did  20 years ago, the moment I first saw my wife on a crowded elevator. All of these experiences provide evidence that Vanderbilt may be right.

Key Takeaway

The ability to judge character is one of the greatest abilities of all. It enables you to align with the right people, and avoid the wrong. The more attuned you are to the character of others the happier and more successful you are likely to be. Assessing character may be as simple as an eye test. Try it yourself. And let me know what you find.

How to improve your natural ranking among humans.

There is a natural order among all humans. Put any collection of people into a room and that order will be revealed. It happens in businesses, schools and volunteer organizations. It happens in clubs and meetups. It happens in families and fraternities. It happens in the military and in mall food courts.

Like wolves in a pack or lions in a pride, we naturally sort and arrange ourselves. It’s as natural as the separation of oil and water. Yet our natural hierarchy is not arranged by height or weight. It’s not alphabetical order. It’s not by the color of your hair, eyes, skin or teeth. Actually, the color of your teeth may play a role. #keepbrushing.

Humans are sorted into their natural order by other humans based on their character and skills. This intuitive ranking system is as old as time. And it is baked into our DNA.

There are only 2 things that matter: character and skill. And maybe how you lean on wood.

You are valued and appraised for the content of your character. And for the quantity and quality of the skills you bring to the table. Even if there is no table. If you want to change your position within any group, focus on improving your character, and strengthening your valued skills, McGill.

To push yourself to the highest levels surround yourself with those who outrank you on both measures. There is little value in seeking out those with less character and skills than you. It is far better to sit at the bottom of the best collection of humans. Their character will strengthen you. Their skills will sharpen you. Just as iron sharpens iron, nothing improves humans like time spent with better humans.

Key Takeaway

To improve your standing in the world focus on your character and skills. Seek out those you admire. Spend time with the most capable and the most respected. They are the greatest teachers. They are the greatest guides. They hold the greatest influence. Not because they want influence. But because they have earned it, through their character and skills.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.