Thoughts

Virtue v.s. Talent

I was reading my positive psychology notes on the Classification and Measurement of Character Strengths by Peterson (2004), and a thought came to my head.

They listed 6 core virtues – Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence, and under each category, there are certain similar but distinct character strengths. For example, the virtue of Wisdom & Knowledge can be achieved through strengths such as curiosity, open-mindedness and love of learning.

To be classified as a character strength, it must pass through 7 criteria, 2 of which caught my eye:

  1. Each strength is morally valued in its own right, even in absence of obvious beneficial outcomes. Talents and abilities can be squandered, but strengths and virtues cannot.

If someone is a math genius but spends his/her time pursuing something else which he/she is not as good at, then people would say that the person has wasted one’s gift and ability.

But if someone extremely kind/forgiving/brave/or any other character strength, tries to do something else in life, that pervasive trait will still follow the person no matter which domain of life he/she goes. You can’t “waste” your virtue, because it affects your affect/thoughts/behavior subconsciously, and there’s always an opportunity for it to occur in every aspect of life.

2. The display of strength by one person does not diminish other people in the vicinity, but rather elevates them.

If we are an aspiring musician, and see a friend, who’s already an accomplished musician, reaching great heights and playing for big audiences, yes, we might feel inspired; but at the same time, it won’t be odd to expect ourselves to feel a tinge of jealousy and inferiority as well.

However, if we see someone being kind towards others, someone who shows bravery in the face of fear, isn’t it true that we would lean more towards feeling inspired and motivated to be as kind or brave as them?


The virtues we have and know about are speculated to be universal, meaning these virtues are considered to be inherently good all around the world.

Unlike talents such as being good at soccer, or math, or producing music, virtues can be applied in relationships, at school, at work, as a child, an adult, or elderly. When we see someone else doing an act of kindness, instead of feeling jealous, we feel the innate urge to reach to their heights.

But if virtues are so much of a good thing, then why aren’t they as highly regarded in our current society? In the self-help section, we see books trying to teach us how to speak better, how to win friends, how to earn a lot of money…but rarely do we see books which enlighten us in how to work on our courage, our humanity, how to forgive, and how to be open-minded.

When did we rust to a society which focuses on the external (money, power, fame, prestige), rather than the internal (virtues, positivity, meaning)?

Well, the good news is, positive psychology and positivity have become a lot more popular, such that I see a lot of books teaching us how to be happy. At the same time, it’s also important to open our eyes to all aspects of positive psychology – not just the happy, positive part, but the part involving pain as well, such as resilience, meaning and forgiveness. Where there is light (and you), there will always be a shadow. 🙂 and that is just the balance of life. And this post is a reminder for us to appreciate, and further develop, all the character strengths which we have unknowingly possessed and displayed our whole lives.

P.S.: To figure out what your strengths are, you can go register for free at https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu, and do the VIA (Values-In-Action) Survey of Character Strengths survey under Questionnaires. It consists of 240 questions, but it’s worth it just to find out about something you might not have consciously realized about yourself!

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