Reality Check: You’re a Character!

When you hear someone say, “He (or she) is a character!” the implication is usually that the person is kind of…quirky.

On the other hand, when someone shows a lot of character, the implication is that they’ve demonstrated strength in the face of adversity. Perhaps they are courageous, loyal, trustworthy, doing the right thing even in difficult circumstances.

In an earlier column, I referred to KIPP—a school system that’s achieving outstanding success with students from often-marginalized groups. They focus on developing character as well as academic skills. They suggest that there are 7 character strengths that can help one lead an engaged, happy, and successful life.

What do you think? Take a few seconds; jot down what you think those strengths might be.

Another question: Are you born with a level of character that doesn’t change? Or can character be built and learned (and therefore taught)?

If you read these columns regularly, you’ve probably guessed that I’m going with the view that character can change; we can develop and improve!

I’m not alone in that view. But while mine is just an opinion based on personal experience and observation, others have done actual research. In “Grit,” Dr. Angela Duckworth presents her findings on characteristics that can lead to success.

KIPP has based their character strengths on Duckworth’s research and that of Dr. Martin Seligman, well-known for positive psychology.

The character strengths that KIPP identifies are: self-control, grit, zest, optimism, curiosity, gratitude, and social intelligence. How do those strengths correspond to your perception of character?

Some of those strengths matched my perception. For example, self-control—remaining calm when provoked, being polite, keeping one’s temper—that reflects my perception of character.

Likewise, grit—staying committed to goals, continuing to work when you feel like quitting—that behaviour also demonstrates character to me.

On the other hand, I was surprised to see zest and optimism as character strengths. It’s not that I don’t value zest and optimism; I just hadn’t associated them with character. However, zest—defined as active participation and enthusiasm, is certainly a valuable trait.

Likewise optimism—the belief that your efforts can make a positive difference in your future—is essential to taking charge of your life.

Curiosity is a curious one! Curiosity means taking an active interest in exploring and seeking out information, including information that doesn’t fit our existing assumptions. In choice theory, fun is seen as the reward for learning, so curiosity could build fun as well as character!

The practice of gratitude provides so many benefits. Showing appreciation, saying thank you with actions as well as words, and recognizing what we receive from others develops character, too.

The final strength is social intelligence. In a nutshell, that means being aware that there are other people in the world besides us! It helps us find reasonable ways out of conflict, genuinely care about how others feel, and develop some understanding of what motivates others.

The thread that ties these strengths together for me is that they are all largely under our own control. We can choose to be grateful, or not. We can choose to be curious, or not, and so on. If we do consistently choose to act on those strengths, that will make a difference in our lives. And when we do, we’ll be characters, indeed!

Does character matter to you? Do you consider character when you choose your friends?

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