Ever since my childhood, like most of us, I wondered ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ It’s a question I was often asked and something that I often pondered. Little did I know that (a) growing up meant that I had many, many…many adult responsibilities [meh..] and (b) I was asking the wrong question. To be more specific, I was asking the wrong question because it was in the wrong frame of reference.
I always thought it meant what do I want to do for work when I’m older – an archeologist, a photographer, a CEO, maybe a fireworks technician [these are all true answers when I was young]. I seriously considered being a superhero, because I loved the idea of an origin story and helping others. The problem was I didn’t have any superpowers…or do I?
It took me a long time to understand that my work, my job, and my career are only a part of my life. My relationship with work is one that I continue to nurture because I was raised in a society that believes my job is a representation of my worth, my value, and my identity. I think most of you can relate. But jobs and careers often change, as many of us experienced in 2020 when the COVID pandemic began. When these tectonic plates beneath you suddenly shift and you find yourself out of work or even overworked, the dominos can start to fall. Your health & well-being can suffer if you’ve attached your intrinsic value to an extrinsic factor – like our jobs.
As I reflect on this childhood question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, I realized that this question can be answered through an entirely different frame of reference. You can answer it through the lens of deep-rooted traits and beliefs that can endure you through times of great change.
I want to be curious and creative. I want to be a constant learner. I want to be in awe of beauty and excellence. I want to be honest, forgiving, grateful, humorous, and a team player….
Here’s the best part, you already carry these traits – all of them – in some magnitude. Once you understand that, these traits can help enhance your intrinsic views of self-worth and infinite potential. They can keep you grounded as the world changes around you. So, what are these traits that are so powerful? They’re called Character Strengths. What are Character Strengths? Character Strengths are the positive traits that make up the core of a person’s personality. They are traits that are embedded in our internal compass – our make-up of values and beliefs that can become a driving force for who we show up to be in this world. When we nurture our strengths, they can help us lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives. Research has distilled these strengths to a set of twenty-four positive personality traits that can make you feel engaged with and authentic in the life you live. Each Character Strength is categorized under one of six virtues – transcendence, courage, wisdom, justice, temperance, and humanity. As noted on VIA Character Strengths, these personality traits reflect a person's personal identity, can produce positive outcomes for that person or others, and contribute to the collective good of humanity [Niemiec 2018].
Here's a list of the 24 Character Strengths. As you read them, see if any of them resonate with who you are: 1. Love of Learning 2. Fairness 3. Social Intelligence 4. Kindness 5. Humility 6. Honesty 7. Hope 8. Judgment 9. Forgiveness 10. Curiosity 11. Self-Regulation 12. Leadership 13. Prudence 14. Love 15. Spirituality 16. Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence 17. Humor 18. Creativity 19. Gratitude 20. Perspective 21. Zest 22. Perseverance 23. Teamwork 24. Bravery What’s the science behind Character Strengths? There’s a long history of our species doing a great job of finding what’s wrong with us. We are problem solvers and we love to identify what is not working so we can fix it – the weaknesses. It’s a natural part of our evolution so we can protect ourselves from things going wrong. This human drive has allowed for unimaginable progression in developments in the fields of science and medicine. We can solve problems faster than ever before. But what about our species doing a great job of finding what’s best within us? While we might witness moments of amazing human feats or advancements – we never really had a scientific field that gave us the tools to identify what works well – the strengths.
Two researchers, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, witnessed great advancements in psychology around understanding, treating, and preventing psychological disorders on a global scale that resulted in classification manuals that could be applied across groups of people, nations, or cultures for over a dozen disorders. It was a powerful moment in creating a common language among practitioners to enable the treatment of the problem – a psychological illness. They used this framework to publish work in 2004 titled “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification” which aimed to bring a measurable classification of human strengths that could be used to create effective methods and tools for creating interventions to enable people to make a good life possible – or what they called psychological health.
Extensive research conducted since the early 2000s by various teams of researchers in the social sciences field of positive psychology advanced the study of a common set of traits that transcend age, gender, nations, and cultures. The research looked at literature from a psychological, theological, and philosophical lens to distill a set of universally valued positive traits. The result? A classification manual that gave people an opportunity to use common language about human character – a set of character strengths that represent “psychological ingredients – processes or mechanisms – that define the virtues” within all of us. Instead of identifying only what’s wrong with us, we now had a tool to identify what’s best within us.
Since this work began, more than 13 million people worldwide have taken the assessment that has informed a deeper understanding of this field of research. Studies across positive psychology, well-being, mindfulness, happiness, relationships, careers, nature, parenting, and more have helped the application of this work permeate countless areas of our lives. You can read more about the studies that have been done over the past 20 years on the VIA Character Strengths research page. How do Character Strengths help me? While all the research is encouraging, you may be wondering how this can help you. While a whole different journal will need to cover the depth and breadth of the benefits, I thought I’d provide some great examples of how you can benefit from learning about and applying your character strengths.
Character Strengths can lead to a more positive and fulfilling life. Once you identify and leverage your strengths, they can enable you to set goals that better align with your values and passions. When this happens, it can feel more effortless to take the necessary steps to achieve your goals, and can lead to a stronger sense of satisfaction. As this develops over time, you begin to recognize more of the ‘wins’ you have in life which can improve your overall health and well-being.
Character Strengths can help you to better navigate challenges and obstacles that you face. When you know your strengths, you deepen the connection to your intrinsic motivation and cultivate your belief in your abilities. This enables you to approach difficult situations with a positive mindset and find creative solutions to overcome obstacles. As a result, you become more resilient and better equipped to handle whatever life throws your way.
Character Strengths can help you build stronger relationships. When you learn about your own Character Strengths you also start to identify these strengths in others. This is called ‘Strengths Spotting’ and it can help you form a deeper connection with those around you. Once you recognize the strengths of those in your network, your empathy and understanding of their positive personality traits will lead to more satisfying and meaningful connections – both personally and professionally.
You may begin to understand how Character Strengths can be a powerful tool to use in coaching. When someone is trying to address stress, burnout, exercise, mindfulness, eating habits, sleeping habits, or relationships – a coach can recognize and emphasize a client’s Character Strengths to help them build confidence, motivation, resilience, and lasting change. As a coach, I have access to a wide range of intervention methods that can help a client understand, build, utilize, express, and apply their Character Strengths across multiple areas of life. One of the more valuable applications that I have come across in my work is to identify when someone is overusing or underusing a Character Strength and how to best transform the use of their strengths to be more balanced. But, you don’t need a coach to benefit from this powerful tool! Where do I learn my Character Strengths? The most widely used assessment is the VIA – Inventory of Strengths which is a 10-minute survey that will help you discover your greatest strengths. The beauty of this work is that we all carry these 24 Character Strengths to some degree. The report you receive from this survey helps you identify your Top Character Strengths – also known as your Signature Strengths. Some people are surprised when they receive their results while others already begin to better understand where their inner values derive from. Character Strengths: My Superpower When I learned about my Character Strengths, it was like I discovered my Superpowers. For me, what do I want to be when I grow up? Someone who Loves to Learn, is Socially Intelligent, Fair, Kind, and with Humility. I am reminded of these in the work I do every day – to help others, learn their story, be empathetic to their needs and bring kindness to every interaction – and knowing this gives me an undeniable sense of joy and fulfillment in life. As long as I understand and appreciate my strengths, I can handle many of life's challenges and, more importantly, navigate the challenges of others alongside them. These are my Character Strengths and my Superpowers. What are yours?
Interested in learning how to use your Character Strengths? Book a free discovery call and let’s connect.
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.