Character Strengths… If you’re a banana be a brilliant banana… if you’re a banana and try to squash yourself into apple-shape, you’ll just be a crappy apple.
What would you say is your unique gifting that you bring to the world? This is a hard question – and it can take some soul searching to think it through. I know someone who said that she is “Good at interior decorating and at directing students in her drama classes, so they really shine”. But when we dug a little deeper, what we found was that for her, meaning and purpose in life comes from witnessing and supporting transformations. When she sees how a room could be better styled, she is thinking of the people who will enjoy that space and be refreshed by it, and when she thinks about the students who need a chance to shine, she is similarly seeing the potential inside those kids that they don’t see, and she enjoys teasing that out, drawing it forth, having those students accomplish feats they never thought possible. This is the core of her identity. With that context, it is no surprise that in taking the character strengths survey, one of her highest strengths were Hope (expecting the best in future, and working to achieve it) and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence (just what it sounds like).
For me I’m going to say that one of my key gifts is connecting with people and helping people connect with each other. Another is that I am good at finding joy in life, and pointing out ways others can find joy. Something that helps with both of those things is that I am fascinated by people and how they tick. Correspondingly, my top strengths are Love, Humour, and Curiosity. These are at the core of who ‘Nahum’ is as a person, and it is practicing these things that I am going to continue to ‘find’ who I am, and be the best version of myself. Now, Humility is my lowest strength. It’s not that I have a big head necessarily – but I know I am as far from a silent achiever as you can get. Whereas there are many people whose greatest joy in life is to contribute towards everything playing out beautifully, and who want nothing more at that point than to fade into the wallpaper, letting their deeds speak for themselves. I see this as highly admirable, but know that seeking to fade into the wallpaper of life would basically make me miserable, and also irk the people around me who are used to me contributing and leading more from the front.
So, what’s the message? We all have strengths. All of us, period. (In previous posts I’ve introduced Seligman and Petersen’s 24 Character Strengths , which are a robust taxonomy of the range of strengths of character). We all have all of these strengths, albeit in differing amounts. And, whilst it may seem logical to first look at our lowest areas and try to shore them up, this can become a frustrating and futile task. I recommend looking at your strengths first, and seeking to build on these. Not the strengths you feel you ‘ought’ to have (like I may really respect the quietly achieving wallflowers of the world, and that I ‘ought’ to join them); the strengths you actually have. I may be 3 out of 10 on Humility, and if I toil away at it, I might eventually reach a 5 out of 10. In other words, I may, if I slave away at it really hard, finally achieve mediocrity in that area. But, man oh man, I am an 8 out of 10 in terms of Love – in terms of building really good connections with and among people. And if I work hard at that, one day I may be a 10 out of 10. Speaking personally, I believe the world does not need more mediocrity, more 5 out of 10s. The world needs more 10 out of 10s if we’re going to move towards being a Flourishing society, a Flourishing world. Because there is one more thing to say about operating out of strengths. Practicing your strengths brings you joy.
How does this play out for you in your school? For one thing, it shakes us out of the idea that we all need to be the best at everything. And it gives us a platform from which to say to our kids that each and every one of them has a unique set of gifts to unlock, not only for their immediate benefit, but for the contribution they will make throughout life. Secondly, it can help us reframe some of the challenging things we deal with. Does your class have difficulty settling? Perhaps it might help you to view your year 7s through the lens of character strengths – at this age they are often uniquely gifted with an abundance of Zest (enthusiasm). Now, suddenly, you’ve got a resource you can draw upon – how can you use their Zest as a power for good? I’ve worked with classes that have one or two jokesters. One in particular I recall continually disrupting the class by pulling funny faces when my back was turned. At break I took him aside (he thought he was in trouble) and thanked him for reaching out to the class by keeping things light. Next I asked his help with a tricky lesson I had coming up. I’d seen his brilliant baboon face out of the corner of my eye, and was wondering if he’d be happy to start the next class with it up on his chair in front of everyone before we got to work?
Of course there are more formal ways to build character strengths into your programme, e.g. having all staff and students complete the VIA Character Strength survey and putting them all up on a poster, finding ways their top strengths are those things they most enjoy doing and being (what impact does this have for careers discussions?), having a character strength of the week for the whole school and aligning these with major school events appropriately, etc.
Character strengths, along with PERMAH Wellbeing theory are two key theories to have under your belt in terms of the ‘WHAT’ of student wellbeing – i.e. what do you need to know before you start. There are two more theories that are absolutely aligned with the tenets of student wellbeing and that I feel are critical for getting set up; the SCARF model and Appreciative Inquiry – which are the focus of the next blog.
But for today, I want to leave you with these questions:
- What are your top strengths?
- Given this, what is it in your life that you can’t not do, if you are to have meaning and purpose? How will you go about employing these strengths so that you can flourish further?
- Secondly, what are you currently spending time on in your life that is a constant drain for you? (Things that do not call upon your strengths – not just thigs that are challenging, because challenge is good, too.) What might you be able to minimise of let go? What can you say ‘no’ to in your life? Things that are better done by someone with the right mix of strengths to do it joyfully.
Remember – if you are a banana, be the most brilliant banana you can be!
Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:
‘Influencing others, influencing positively – SCARF and Appreciative Inquiry.’
- Peterson, Christopher, and Martin EP Seligman. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nahum Kozak | Psychologist
Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations. Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.