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"Character is Destiny" book

by Ron Kurtus

The late U.S. Senator John McCain wrote the book Character is Destiny, consisting of inspiring stories of how over 35 people throughout history exhibited positive character traits. McCain says that he does not believe that destiny rules our lives. Instead, he says that our character traits determine the type of lives we lead and thus determine our destiny.

I've summarized the main points of the book and organized the various character traits according to my concepts on the subject. Although, the book provides a good perspective on how a number of people had shown admirable character traits, it does not dwell into how they learned to have those traits.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Background of John McCain

John McCain’s father and paternal grandfather were both four-star Admirals in the United States Navy. They instilled in him the Navy Code of Honor.

John attended Episcopal High School, a private boarding school located in Alexandria, Virginia. The strict honor code at the school helped to shape John’s character is:

He entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, where he was known to stand up for people who were being bullied. He was also a poor student who preferred to party. Apparently, although he had learned the rules of honor and courage, he did not learn to fully apply himself in school.

McCain became a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. His airplane was shot down and he was held as a prisoner-of-war for seven years. He suffered torture during his time as a prisoner of the Vietcong. But when offered his freedom, he refused to be released unless the other prisoners were also released. McCain was a true hero and showed tremendous character during his capture.

McCain later became a Senator from Arizona and ran for U.S. President in 2008. He passed away in August 2018.

Seven major character traits

The book is divided into what Sen. McCain considered the seven major character traits:

Details of traits

Each of those major traits is subdivided into several related character traits. McCain gives examples of people in history that exhibited each trait.


Honor consists of the personal character traits of:

It also consists of the social character traits of:


Joan of Arc was a 15th century French heroine. She was true to her calling and authentic in her actions. (But also note that she was extremely stubborn and willing to sacrifice herself for her beliefs.)


Viktor Frankl kept his dignity while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during the 1940s. As a result, he was able survive the ordeal and used his experiences to write a best-selling book, Man's Search for Meaning, and contribute as a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists.


Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, author and statesman in the 1500s under King Henry VIII. Throughout his life, he showed honesty and integrity, which greatly contributed to his success and reputation.


Gandhi demanded respect for his people and sought respect and tolerance among all people. His character helped him become a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement prior to and during World War II.


Sir Ernest Shackleton set out with a goal of crossing the Antarctic continent on foot but his group was forced to abort the mission when their ship became trapped in the ice and was destroyed. He exhibited loyalty to his men and gained their loyalty in return during their trek to safety between 1914 and 1916.


Under purpose, McCain lists the personal character traits of:

He also includes the social character traits of:


Sojourner Truth was a former slave who became an American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Her idealism was expressed in her "Ain’t I a Woman?" speech was delivered in 1851.


Roméo Dallaire is a French-Canadian senator and humanitarian who advocated righteousness when he served as Force Commander of the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, trying to stop a war of genocide.


Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. Throughout his career, he showed diligence and persistence in attaining his goals.


Pat Tillman was an American football player who showed his citizenship when he left his professional sports career and enlisted in the United States Army in May 2002. He was killed in action in Afghanistan.


Horatio Nelson was a British admiral famous for his participation in the Napoleonic Wars. He showed responsibility in leading his men in battle, resulting in a decisive British victory in the war, during which he lost his life.


By promoting cooperation among his players, John Wooden become one of the greatest college basketball coaches, leading UCLA to ten NCAA National Championships.


The personal character traits McCain listed under strength are:


Edith Cavell was a British World War I nurse. She showed courage in helping hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium until her capture and execution by the Nazis.


George Washington was the first President of the United States, after leading the Continental Army to victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War. He showed great self-control and discipline in leading his troops.


Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, showed great confidence in gaining the thrown after being imprisoned by her half-sister Mary I of England for nearly a year.


Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States. He showed great resilience after numerous defeats on the route to the presidency.


Eric Hoffer had lived on skid row for ten years until he got a job as a longshoreman in San Francisco. Basically uneducated, he became an industrious and prolific writer on social commentary.


John Winthrop was the leader of a group of English Puritans that settled in Massachusetts in 1629. He was hopeful for their future in the New World.


Understanding consists of the social character traits of:


A Christian guard at the Hua Lo Prison, where John McCain was held prisoner during the Vietnam War showed his faith and mercy on McCain.


Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan friar who showed compassion by volunteering to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi concentration camp.


Mother Antonia is an American-born Roman Catholic nun who works in a Mexican maximum security prison, showing mercy to the inmates.


The Four Chaplains were four United States Army chaplains who gave their lives to save other soldiers during the sinking of their ship during World War II. They were known for their religious tolerance.


Nelson Mandela forgave those who had imprisoned him for 27 years for fighting apartheid. He later became President of South Africa.


Oseola McCarty was a Mississippi washerwoman who showed her generosity in giving a large portion of her life's savings for scholarships to students at the University of Southern Mississippi.


McCain defines judgment as the social character traits of:

It also consists of the personal character traits of:


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in fairness and equality for all people, as seen in his marches to stop racial discrimination. Despite his good character, he was assassinated.


Tecumseh was a famous Shawnee leader. He showed gratitude toward other Native American tribes that joined him in the defense of their native lands, which eventually led to Tecumseh’s death during the War of 1812.


Aung San Suu Kyi is a pro-democracy activist in Burma. Although being imprisoned for her views, she still remained courteous to the military leaders in her country.


Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II and served as the 34th President of the United States. He exhibited humility despite his high position.


Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) was a humorous and popular American lecturer and writer.


For creativity, McCain lists the personal character traits of:


Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese maritime explorer who, while in the service of the Spanish crown, had the aspiration to find a westward route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. He was the first person to lead an expedition sailing westward from Europe to Asia and to cross the Pacific Ocean.


Leonardo da Vinci was an outstanding scientist, inventor, painter, and writer who showed discernment and understanding in his numerous fields of endeavor.


Charles Darwin used his great curiosity to propose and provide scientific evidence that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors.


Theodore Roosevelt was the twenty-sixth President of the United States. He was well-known for his great enthusiasm, energy and vast range of interests.


Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. She overcame polio as a child with hard work and a desire for excellence.


McCain defines love as including the social character trait of selflessness and the personal trait of contentment.

Selflessness and Contentment

Mother Teresa was an Albanian Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. She was selfless in ministering to the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. Her good works gave her contentment.


John McCain learned about honor and character from his father, high school code and the U.S. Naval Academy. He showed his heroism as a prisoner-of-war. His book Character is Destiny summarizes how 35 people in history exhibited character in their lives.

Have character in your life

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Character Resources


(Notice: The School for Champions may earn commissions from book purchases)

Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember by John McCain; Random House (2007) $23.96

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