Angela Duckworth

317: How to Cultivate Your Character Strengths

This week’s conversation is with Dr. Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive.

She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.

A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela has advised the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs.

Angela completed her undergraduate degree in Advanced Studies Neurobiology at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude. With the support of a Marshall Scholarship, she completed an MSc with Distinction in Neuroscience from Oxford University. She completed her PhD in Psychology as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

You may know Angela from her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” the #1 New York Times best seller, which was the impetus for our first Finding Mastery conversation back in 2016… that’s Episode 029 if you’re looking for it.

But I wanted to have Angela back on to discuss her new research on character… and how character development can be actioned to benefit others (and oneself).

As Angela says, the term “character” is used far too vaguely most of the time. She shares the 3 dimensions of character – and – ways to train them.

She is incredibly grounded in the scientific evidence on how character strengths like self-control, curiosity, and gratitude are critically important to social and emotional well-being, physical health, and achievement.

Angela is amazing. Her work is a gift to us all. This conversation, and our friendship for that matter, is a breath of fresh air – life-giving and life-lifting.

“Character is plural… It’s ways of thinking, acting, feeling, and doing that benefit others and yourself, that you can continue to cultivate your whole life. They’re not just thoughts you have. They’re not just beliefs. They’re enacted.”

In This Episode:

Angela, how has 2022 been so far?

I’m better than I was at the end of 2021. I’m good… I went on vacation with my family to Miami and right there, I think I would say vacation for me is not usually where I want to be. I think I just vastly prefer working than being on vacation, but I was making it okay. I was surviving, being away from my work, my research. And then we went snorkeling. We were off the coast somewhere, south of Miami, and my close to 87 year old mom nearly drowned. The happy ending, by the way, is that she didn’t drown. But between almost drowning and drowning, there was the ER, the ICU, the hospital, and then a few other misadventures. Anyway, all that happened, but by the time January 1st rolled around, we were approaching the equilibrium that we had before the vacation and all that. That’s what I mean by I’m feeling great. Relatively, Mike, I’m feeling great.

So, what is character?

We use that phrase a lot. But maybe we don’t use it enough. I think of character the same way Aristotle thought of character, which is: Character is everything that you do, everything that you think, everything that you feel, and everything that you say that is both good for others and good for you. To paraphrase Aristotle, a life well-lived. One thing that this incident with my mother nearly drowning taught me is that my mother will not be around forever. Thank God she didn’t die on that day, but there will be a day where she is not here and there will be a day when I am not here. I think Aristotle, thinking about the finiteness of life, said, “A life that is well-lived is a life that is done in service to others as well as yourself.”

Angela’s “migration” from Grit to Character

It’s really clear to me that character is probably what we should be focusing on and grit is just one component of it. Not one that I want to diminish because like you, Mike, I think you and I probably personally enjoy high performance and excellence. It is a pleasure for us to see someone who is truly at the top of their game, whether it’s a game, like a sport, or whether they’re a three star Michelin chef or a great journalist or writer, whatever it is. I think grit is important, but I think it’s a facet of character that as a mother, as as a person, as a performer, I wouldn’t even necessarily count as the most important aspect of my own character or the people that I admire. I don’t know if it’s a pivot, because in a way I have to say at the same time that as a scientist, you have to specialize. It’s like an athlete, right? You can’t play all sports equally well. So I do study grit and I’m continuing to study grit now, five years after the last time we talked, but I more and more want to basically get all the researchers and psychologists who study all these facets of character to come together and say, “Here’s the stuff that we know that’s useful and also just here’s how we can do more of this good work. How do we find out more about these aspects of character?”

“Families” of character strengths

There were two psychologists named Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson. Marty Seligman ended up being my PhD advisor a couple years after this. They decided to come up with the Encyclopedia of Character… So they came up with a list of 24 strengths and they have things on there like appreciation of beauty, curiosity, humility, perseverance, things that again, if you had a blank piece of paper and you just had to list things you probably would get close to the list that they came up with. 24 is a lot, Mike. I honestly couldn’t name all 24… I think it might be simpler to think of the categories of these. Are there families, so is there a smaller number than 24? There’s been a lot of scientific research asking the question are there natural bundles of character strengths that go together and are all pointing the same thing. I believe that there are really three natural families of character strengths. I’m going to call them Heart, Mind, and Will.

Strengths of Heart

These are interpersonal character strengths like generosity and kindness, like empathy and compassion, like honesty, because if you’re honest it affects some other person and if you’re dishonest, it also affects other people. These are all character strengths which I would argue are the most important character strengths. Your strengths of heart are the ones where if you don’t have them, very clearly other people than you suffer. I think when you talk to someone about someone else, like if I say, “Hey, Mike, I want you to meet this high performer. First thing I want to tell you about, they have great character,” you probably would spontaneously think of these interpersonal strengths of heart.

Strengths of Mind

These strengths are curiosity, humility, especially intellectual humility, imagination, creativity, and these strengths… This strength of mind category I think is increasingly important because it is uniquely human to be a creative problem solver. It is uniquely human to have curiosity about unrelated things. It is uniquely human to have these particular strengths of mind. Artificial intelligence will not beat out human intelligence, in this particular way that these strengths describe.

Strengths of Will

I study self-control and grit and I study optimism and growth mindset and productivity. I think all of these strengths are important for getting things done. I think as somebody who started out as a teacher who saw a lot of kids who were failing and they were failing out of school, they were failing my tests as a math teacher, they were not on trajectories where they were going to do well in life, I think a lot of my attention went to strengths of will because they were not doing what they could have done. But when I say that, it may be the least important family of character.

Values vs. Character

There is a distinction between values and character. Character is all the things you habitually do, think, say, and feel that are good for others and good for you. Your character should be I hope a work in progress your whole life. Not just “Mike is kind” or “Mike’s not kind,” but “Mike is getting kinder, Mike is already kind but working on kindness in 2022.” That’s to me what character is. It’s ways of thinking, acting, feeling, and doing that benefit others and yourself, that you can continue to cultivate your whole life, but they really are in action. They’re not just thoughts you have. They’re not just beliefs. They’re enacted. Then values I do think are the aspirational principles by which you would hope to live your life. I mean, you really can value kindness and not be kind, but you cannot have the strength of kindness or the character strength of kindness or the virtue of kindness without actually doing kind acts.

Training self-awareness

I think mindfulness is one root. And journaling, you’re right, there is some magical thing with language. I don’t know where the human species would be without language, but there is something reflective that we can do while we’re writing. You know, the very word essay means to try in French and there is this theory when you’re writing, it’s like my mother used to say to me when I was a little girl. “When you’re writing you’re thinking and when you’re thinking you’re writing.” And conversation. I mean, I don’t know how expansive your thought is… but I really literally really mean conversation. I mean like this conversation. I mean, if you want to become more self-aware, it’s not only that you talk to Mike about your principles of finding mastery, but also you talk to your sister about what she sees in you as your superpowers. You know, I think there’s so much. I think human beings were designed as it were, we have evolved to learn about ourselves through conversations with people that develop.

How do we raise resilient kids?

I have always wondered… There are these stories of people who everybody else gives up and they don’t. For me I’m always wondering, why didn’t the person give up? What was going on in their head? The best answer that I can give you today is that they don’t think it’s hopeless. Okay. Why? I think that resilience comes from a history of wins. I really do. I think it can comes from I tried and it worked. I tried again and it worked. I tried again… I know we want to teach our children to learn how to fail and of course that is at the heart of it, but I think the paradox there is that what builds their confidence is striving and seeing that they have agency, trying and then finding that it did work out. I think as a parent, I have tried to make sure that my daughters experience struggle and that if they fail, they fail and that it’s nothing to fear because they go through it. But I also really think that people have to have small wins. Otherwise, where does the confidence come from? Why should they hope that they can do something if they have never been taught through experience that that’s true?

Types of “bad” character

There’s two kinds of bad character. There’s the bad character you know you have, and there’s the bad character you don’t even know you have. That’s probably, talking about self-awareness, the one you really have to worry about. I have known for a very long time, Mike, and it hasn’t come out in our interactions, but I really do have a terrible temper. I’m like one of those volcanoes that only erupts once every few years but when I do, it’s like, “Get out of the way,” because people are going to melt. I have a terrible temper and that is something to work on. I have worked on it very deliberately because of self-awareness. I’m like, “Oh, I know I have a terrible temper.” When things are not right if somebody who works for me doesn’t do something to my standard of excellence, don’t lose your temper. It’s terrible. But then there are the limitations in my character that I have no conscious awareness of. Like where the hell did the jealousy come out of? What part of my deep subconscious is obviously obsessing about what other people have that I don’t that is somewhere there smoldering?

Psychological literacy

I think something that you are onto as well, Mike, is building a deep, metacognitive foundation. Basically I think my whole life’s work really might be adding up to increased psychological literacy. Just like nobody can learn French or calculus in a day and expect to have a 20 minute intervention and it’s like, “Oh, now I know how to play tennis. Now I know calculus.” I think this kind of psychological literacy, which to me is how I think of you, somebody who’s helping us all become a little more psychologically literate, self-aware about ourselves, understand others, understand these principles that are at work… I know it doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, but imagine a place where our political leaders, our industry leaders, our classroom teachers, our neighborhood cops, our whatever, were really just psychologically wise. They understood emotion. They understood when people are insecure, what happens to us when we do things out of fear or how do we build these things? I don’t know. It’s a pretty great world. I think that’s where I’m hoping to go.

Angela’s framing of “The Year of Play”

I heard this definition of play. It’s the voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles, and it never left me. That’s not my definition. I heard somebody else say it, like Jane McGonigal or something. The voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles. It made me think that what work is is sometimes the feeling of an involuntary overcoming of necessary obstacles. I think blessed are us who can blur that distinction, because what you’re doing as your work other people would watch you and feel like it’s play. If in 2022, we can find ways to do things that feel more voluntary, maybe they need to get done, but we feel we have the choice and that we’ve made it, then to consider these obstacles. As when you have something that’s really difficult in your life and it’s really hard, if you could actually have a play mindset, how thin can we make that line between the involuntary overcoming of necessary obstacles and the voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles? I think the people that I admire most, the line is very thin, indeed.

Work in Progress

You know, I don’t know that I’ve become any better of a person in the short course of a few harrowing days and weeks, but I will say this. I really want to be a better person. I was like, oh, turns out life is definitely finite. There was a blessing so I get a little more time with my mom and I guess I have some time myself, but you know what, there will be a day where my mom’s not here and I’m not here. Because life is short, I hope that I can be a work in progress a little more intentionally than I was maybe not really as consciously aware of the finiteness of life.

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