Be More Of Who You Are

Everyone has a combination of character strengths, “core capacities” for human beings to grow and flourish. The combination of strengths and the ways they are used is unique to each individual. While you can’t be good at everything, you could be GREAT at one thing. Focus on developing and expanding your unique Signature Strengths

The Animal School [1]

Once upon a time, the animals decided they must make some adaptations to meet the challenges of a changing world. So they set up a school.

They developed a curriculum of climbing, flying, running, and swimming and declared that all animals must take all subjects.

The duck excelled at swimming. In fact, she was better than the instructor! However she was only fair at flying and her wobbly gait got her a D- in running. Because of her poor running grade, she had to do extra practice. She ran until she wore out her webbed feet and then she was only average in swimming. But average was OK so nobody worried. Except the duck.

The rabbit was the fastest runner in the class. But he had to do so much make-up work in swimming that he had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of school.

The squirrel was an excellent climber and runner. But he became frustrated by flying. He wanted to start at the top of the tree and fly down but the instructor forced him to start at the bottom and fly up. He tried so hard that he pulled a muscle in his leg and then got a C in climbing and a D in running.

In the end, an unusual little animal who could swim really well and also run and climb and fly just a little bit, had the best average grade and she graduated at the top of the class.

Character Strengths

Much like the animals in the Animal School had unique abilities, you and I have “character strengths”. They are “basic elements of our identity,” we are told by Ryan Niemiec, education director at the VIA Institute and Robert McGrath, senior scientist. “When we express these character strengths through our thoughts and actions, research says we tend to feel happier, more connected, and more productive.” [Niemiec and McGrath]

We have them all (24 to be exact), but we use some more than others and the combination is unique to each of us.

You can develop and expand your unique character strengths by learning about and taking steps to use them, particularly your Signature Strengths.

Signature Strengths

When you take the VIA Character Strengths assessment, you receive a report that ranks all 24 of the character strengths. The top 5 or 6 that you score highest in represent your “Signature Strengths”.

There are over 5.1 million possible combinations of these top strengths [Niemiec and McGrath] which makes yours unique to you. These hold the most potential. Perhaps you already use these strengths without being too much aware of them. But when you use them purposefully, when you develop and expand your own unique strengths, then you begin to flourish.

Positive psychologists have identified three key features that are common to one’s signature strengths: They are Essential, Effortless, and Energizing. [Niemiec and McGrath]

Here is how Ryan Niemiec and Robert McGrath describe these important qualities:

“Essential — They feel essential to who you are as a person. The person for whom appreciation of beauty and excellence is a signature strength doesn’t just like beauty: seeking out experiences of beauty is part of what makes them who they are.

Effortless — When you enact the strength, it feels natural and effortless. Being curious or kind isn’t work; it just flows. Recent research suggests this sense of flow when using a character strength is the best single identifier of a signature strength.

Energizing — Using the strength energizes and uplifts you. It leaves you feeling happy, in balance, and ready to take on more.” [Niemiec and McGrath]

Why Focus On Signature Strengths?

“If you spend most of your life trying to be good at everything, you eliminate your chances of being great at anything.” [Rath]

While it can be interesting to look at all 24 strengths in your full strengths profile, and even work to boost your middle and lower strengths, your greatest potential for growth lies in cultivating your top strengths. Don’t fall into the trap of the Animal School. Instead, as Tom Rath writes in Are You Fully Charged, “aim to be more of who you already are.” [Rath]

Remember that effort counts twice. Effort turns a talent into a skill and a skill into achievement. And the best use of your efforts is in honing the talents you have a natural affinity for — your signature strengths. These are the strengths to focus on; to develop and expand through practice. “Starting with your natural talents — then investing time in practicing, building skills, and increasing knowledge — yields a much greater return.” [Rath]


Are you excited to develop and expand your unique signature strengths? (I hope you said “Yes!”) Here are steps suggested by Dr. Niemiec to help you become more familiar with your own unique strengths. [Niemiec]

1. Review the list of character strengths. Identify the 5 or 6 that best describe who you are at your core. Which ones come naturally, energize you, and are widely expressed in your life?

The VIA Classification Of Character Strengths [2]

The Virtue of Wisdom

  • Creativity: Original; adaptive; ingenuity
  • Curiosity: Interest; novelty-seeking; exploration; openness to experience
  • Judgment: Critical thinking; thinking things through; open-minded
  • Love of Learning: Mastering new skills & topics; systematically adding to knowledge
  • Perspective: Wisdom; providing wise counsel; taking the big picture view

The Virtue of Courage

  • Bravery: Valor; not shrinking from fear; speaking up for what’s right
  • Perseverance: Persistence; industry; finishing what one starts
  • Honesty: Authenticity; integrity
  • Zest: Vitality; enthusiasm; vigor; energy; feeling alive and activated

The Virtue of Humanity

  • Love: Both loving and being loved; valuing close relations with others
  • Kindness: Generosity; nurturance; care; compassion; altruism; “niceness”
  • Social Intelligence: Aware of the motives/feelings of oneself & others

The Virtue of Justice

  • Teamwork: Citizenship; social responsibility; loyalty
  • Fairness: Just; not letting feelings bias decisions about others
  • Leadership: Organizing group activities; encouraging a group to get things done

The Virtue of Temperance

  • Forgiveness: Mercy; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance
  • Humility: Modesty; letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
  • Prudence: Careful; cautious; not taking undue risks
  • Self-Regulation: Self-control; disciplined; managing impulses & emotions

The Virtue of Transcendence

  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: Awe; wonder; elevation
  • Gratitude: Thankful for the good; expressing thanks; feeling blessed
  • Hope: Optimism; future-mindedness; future orientation
  • Humor: Playfulness; bringing smiles to others; lighthearted
  • Spirituality: Religiousness; faith; purpose; meaning”

2. Now, take the full VIA Survey for free and see how accurate you were at identifying your strengths.

Develop And Expand Your Unique Strengths

Research into the character strengths and virtues is ongoing and has compiled an impressive list of benefits. This is from the VIA website:

  • Greater happiness
  • Acceptance of oneself
  • Reverence for life
  • Competence, mastery, efficacy
  • Mental and physical health
  • Positive and supportive social networks
  • Satisfying, engaging, and meaningful work
  • Accomplishment of goals
  • Greater engagement and life meaning
  • Higher work productivity
  • Increased likelihood of work being a life calling
  • Less stress and improved coping
  • Greater academic achievement
  • Improved close relationships

Do the work to develop and expand your strengths. Not only for you, but to share your unique gifts with the world. In this way you are building a solid foundation on which to create your Excelerated Life™!

Discovering and using your Signature Strengths is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


[1] I adapted this story from The Animal School written in the 1940s by George H. Reavis, who was at the time an assistant superintendent in the Cincinnati public school system. (See Resources.)

[2] These are the 6 Virtues and 24 Character Strengths originally identified by a team of scientists let by Dr. Martin EP Seligman, Dr. Chris Peterson, and Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard and which became known as the Values In Action (VIA) Character Strengths. (See Resources.)


Niemiec, PhD., Ryan. “What Are Your Signature Strengths?” Strengths Basics: The Strengths That Help You Thrive. VIA Institute On Character, 22 March 2012. Web. 08 February 2020.

Niemiec, PhD., Ryan and Robert E McGrath, PhD. The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality. Cincinnati, Ohio: VIA Institute on Character, 2019.

Rath, Tom. Are You Fully Charged? Arlington, VA: Silicon Guild, an Imprint of Missionday, 2015

Reavis, George H. “The Animal School.” Peterborough, NH Crystal Springs Books

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002

develop and expand unique strengths

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