Character counts – at least that’s what most of us are told as kids. But does it really?
What if – as the headline of this week’s New York Times Magazine blared – The Secret to Success is Failure, and not your GPA or even the schools you attended but rather your CPA – character personality average – that predicts your path forward?
The continuing march of evidence-based research (channel President Ronald Reagan here: “Facts are stubborn things.”) suggests that there is something to be said about the presence and exhibition of certain character qualities – behaviors such as grit, perseverance, curiosity, honesty, teamwork, humor and hope – and that they are some of the best predictors of your success as a person, and even your happiness as a human.
And like any number of skills (think cultural competency, or cooking an omelette) you can learn these habits of character, and improve traits that are important to you. As Harry Truman said, “Actions are the seeds of fate deeds grow into destiny.” In other words, you can change.
You can even start by taking a test to see where you stack – the University of Pennsylvania has a series of online tests here. Led by people such as Martin Seligman (TED talk here) and Angela Duckworth (TEDxBlue talk here – her Grit Study predictor here), the research suggests that you can modulate your character qualities through work and practice.
I should know; I’ve worked on improving parts of my character all my life, and the ability to help others with improving their skills is something that I bring to my work coaching execs and teams.
So while I exhibited “justice” – big quality #4 in VIA’s character roster – when I stood up with a couple of fraternity brothers when someone wanted to haze pledges going through initiation rites in college, I whiffed courage – #2 on the same list – when I let colleague Tina Sebekos down – and alone – by not joining her in voicing concerns when new department head Jeremy Stringer at USC asked for fealty not candor from those of us on his staff earlier in my career. That moment is one of two lifetime regrets that I carry (Tina – I’m still sorry.)
Practice though can make pretty perfect. When it came time to choose to stay (and be paid handsomely to stay quiet as a potted plant) as a senior exec with McKesson in the 1990’s or move on to some unknown future, it was the prior practice of character traits (bravery, honesty, and even hope) that enabled me to make the move to leave.
So like the character in Oh, The Places You’ll Go – “Kid, you’ll move mountains” – practicing these traits by you, your colleagues, or even your kids, improves the ability to behave in ways that will change you, even improve you.
In the end it appears that character traits – things like perseverance, the ability to bounce back from failure, and a sense of zest – are the types of things that separate those that move ahead in their work and lives, and those that stay stuck.
The good news? The behaviors can be taught and learned. The traits can be expressed. And you can choose to move ahead with your life on a brighter path.
Just think of the places you can go!
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.