Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Secret to Success? Character.

When you think of character traits what comes to mind?

zest for life,
appreciation of beauty,
social intelligence,

In the NY Times article What If The Secret to Success is Failure? the author talks a lot about character development in students.

He specifically mentions 2 categories of character:

moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity;
and “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance.

I've noticed that elementary and middle schools are very concerned with teaching kids about moral character traits. Posters line the halls with slogans like:

“Treat everyone with respect”
“Be aware of other people’s feelings"
"Find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.”
“Practice Good Manners"
"Avoid Gossiping"
"Help Others”

High schools focus on performance character traits like:

"Be the best"
"Achieve your goals"
"Never give up"
"Be creative"
"We are number 1"

This reminds me of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. We start out learning how important it is to be a good person (moral character traits) and then we go to school and end up learning how important it is to succeed and compete (performance character traits). I realize this is not always true for everyone in every school, but in my experience watching my boys go through the public school system for 13 years, this has been my observation.

As the article continues, “When I think of good character, I think: Are you fair? Are you honest in dealings with other people? Are you a cheater? I don’t think so much about: Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker? I think, Are you a good person?”

“Sure, a trait can backfire. Too much grit, [for example] and you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people. If you’re so gritty that you don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about how hard things are, because nothing’s hard for you, because you’re Mr. Grit, then you’re going to have a hard time being kind. Even love — being too loving might make you the kind of person who can get played. Character is something you have to be careful about. Character strengths can become character weaknesses.”

Race to Nowhere has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them."

"Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents."

"And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can."

"The ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life. [In order for] students to succeed...they first need to learn how to fail."

So, what was the lesson from this article for me? The secret to real, meaningful success in life is not forgetting the moral character traits we learned as young children. And, a little hardship and failure goes a long way.


  1. I completely and totally agree. When I told my son's 7th grade teacher I was going to let him manage his own time and homework. She said he was not ready to do that and he might not be successful. I told her, "Isn't middle school where they need to learn from their mistakes." She just did not seem to understand. Kids need to learn that they can "fail" and then try again and again. A bad grade does not make them a bad person. A lot of poor students are fantastic and wonderful people.