Can Character Be Taught?

If you could teach people to learn better in school, be more effective at work, have a stronger marriage and live a happier life, would you?

In 2004, Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a compendium of 24 character strengths that ancient thinkers, spiritual leaders and modern psychologists all agree lead to a good life.

Since then, research has shown being strong in one or more of these character strengths can help:

  • Increase meaning, engagement and pleasure in life
  • Reduce the negative effects of physical & psychological disorders
  • Improve academic achievement
  • Make teachers & cadets more effective
  • Reduce the effects of stress & trauma
  • Increase overall happiness & life satisfaction

Based on my own experience, strengths like perseverance, optimism and creativity also help entrepreneurs grow businesses, employees perform better and marriages flourish.

Moreover, these character strengths can be taught and improved upon.

From Learning Leadership to Teaching Character

Last week I attended the orientation session for Leadership Asheville, a leadership training program aimed at improving community leadership skills. In two weeks, we decide on a community project for our class within the topics of education, healthcare and the environment.

After reading the New York Times article What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?, I’ve become intrigued with the concept of “performance character”, those character attributes that deal not with moral issues but with how well you navigate life.

I attribute most of my success in life to these strengths. Strengths that were given to me by my parents, my teachers, my mentors and my self.

It is a process which continues. I strive constantly to learn and practice techniques that help me develop and improve these character strengths.

As a natural introvert who never learned social intelligence in school, I spent years reading and practicing the advice in books like How To Read Person Like a Book, The Hidden Dimension, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands and Power Networking. As a result, I’m competent in most social situations, which has added greatly to my success and happiness in life.

I believe other character strengths can be taught as well, and that our class project should be to develop a class to teach these strengths.

Why Teach Character Strengths?

I believe character strengths lie at the heart of success in school, business, marriage and life. Take a deep dive into the 24 strengths, organized into 6 key virtues, and I think you’ll agree.

Yet in my research and talks with others, while classes may incorporate them into lessons, I’ve uncovered no program in Asheville that teaches these core strengths independently. We have classes on mathematics, marketing, painting, martial arts and entrepreneurship but character itself is not taught.

I believe teaching character strengths is critical.

Character strengths enable you to learn and perform more effectively. They give you a foundation that enables you to continue learning throughout your life, and to adapt to changes in your environment, whether economic, emotional or physical. Who among you have achieved success without them? And how often have you failed when your character strength muscles haven’t been built up strong enough? For me, it’s been often on both counts.

As a community, character strengths make us stronger. Developing them connects us together, makes us happier and allows us to achieve more. In a small town during hard economic times, nothing can help us develop a strong lasting economy and culture better than improving these strengths.

Creating an 6-8 Week Class

A theme running through the Leadership Asheville orientation was that our class didn’t want to do a project which, while doing some good, had no lasting impact on the broader community.

I believe we can develop an 6-8 week class, focused on 6-8 critical character strengths that support success in school, business and life.  Our goal would be to teach a pilot class, then release the syllabus and teaching materials into the public domain for others in our community to teach or integrate into their own classes.

During the first part of our program, we can break into teams to research which of the 24 strengths we should teach. We can talk to others in the community to identify gaps and find out which strengths will have the greatest impact. Since this class can be taught to a wide range of audiences, from middle school & high school students to burgeoning entrepreneurs & job-seekers, we will also need to identify our target audience.

During the second part of our program, we can break into teams to develop one class per team. Imagine stepping into a classroom where a leader in the community relates how a key character strength helped them achieve success, then teaches you specific techniques on how you can develop this strength too. Or going on a field trip specially designed to work on one or two key strengths.

Once the pilot class finishes, we can collate our materials and what we learned teaching the class and provide that to local schools and non-profits to continue the work of building these character strengths within our community.

Helping Ourselves While Helping Others

In the end, developing and teaching a class on how to improve these key character strengths will help us improve these strengths in ourselves. Mentioned in our orientation was the idea that to help others, one must often first help oneself.

Learning the skills of leadership helps ourselves, but also helps our community thrive. Without strong, ethical leaders, the quality of life we hold so dear in Asheville will diminish. Likewise, developing strong character strengths and teaching these to others, helps us all.

Thus today, I ask those in the community, does this make sense? Do you want a class that teaches character strengths? To those of you in the Leadership Asheville 30 class, would you like to see this as a project? Please comment below.


  1. MaryLynn Manns says:

    One thing that occurs to me as I read this…. There are three educational levels to consider…
    (1) You can teach the traits. Participants will understand what each one means.. for example, they will learn the character strengths of justice (
    (2) The next level is skill. You need to teach, and students need to learn, how to use these traits (e.g. how to be fair, how to be a good citizen, etc.)
    (3) The highest level is disposition. Just because they know what a particular trait is (level 1) and are able to use it (level 2) does not mean that they actually will– for example, when the time comes for them to be fair, will they…. when they get the opportunity to be a good citizen, will they?
    I love your idea, but I think to be truly effective, we need to figure out a way to get students to level (3) in your 6-8 week time period… no small task!

    1. trevor says:

      Two strategies for doing this effectively:

      1) Pick the right traits. Only plan to teach 6-8 traits. We shouldn’t try teaching them all.
      2) Focus on specific techniques and knowledge, not general theory.

      Thus I would aim to start at your level 2 with specific techniques to help them get to level 3.

      I personally wouldn’t try to teach fairness or citizenship in this class. I would aim to teach the ones that drive performance: perseverance, critical thinking, self-regulation, curiosity, social intelligence, hope, gratitude.

      For instance, the 5 Whys method can be used to increase curiosity or specific body language techniques can improve social intelligence. Mind Tools has a lot of great content in these areas:

    2. trevor says:

      After reading this preliminary study on the correlations of the character traits with successful entrepreneurs (10+ years running a multi-million dollar business), I’m less sure of what attributes I might pick. It depends on the audience.

      According to the study, zest, hope and persistence rank significantly higher than the general population and the top 5 strengths were Authenticity, Leadership, Fairness, Gratitude and Zest.

      The question is: does teaching these skills help entrepreneurs succeed? And which of these skills, when taught, has the greatest impact on success?

  2. MaryLynn Manns says:

    I agree… Focus on a few traits, briefly explain, then concentrate on the techniques for acquiring the skill as well as where/when it is useful.
    I like your list….. And I have some random and not-so-random thoughts on three of them: critical thinking, hope, gratitude. We’ll talk soon.

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