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Focusing, Befriending and Flexing that 24th Strength

September 7, 2017 by ·

Thank you to our VIA Blog Contributor, Mary Kiley, for this post on boosting lesser strengths! 


Discovering the part of our personality that is in ‘last place’ can be similar to awkwardly greeting an old, fair-weather friend, with those swaggering eye rolls and smirks only barely masking an unwanted sense of vulnerability.

Musing that perhaps this bottom dweller should be classified as a character deficit may seem logical but is a critical misstep. All of us possess each of these positive traits in varying degrees. Each strength counts.

Research in evolutionary psychology consistently points out that we are genetically programmed to place extensive focus on what we perceive to be ‘negative’ or ‘threatening’ while retaining lesser focus of events or experiences considered to be ‘positive’ or ‘life giving.’ It’s a part of what keeps us alive. But it’s not always helpful.

Consider this example: tossing in bed after an evening of 75 parent conferences, a veteran teacher is futilely attempting to broach steady sleep. Peeking through the covers, groaning at the 1:30AM clock face, she again replays that difficult parent conversation from six hours earlier. Her churning stomach seemingly brews more worries that might stem from this single discussion with a moderately disgruntled parent. Completely absent from her frantic ruminations are the 74 other conversations with very pleased, affirming parents.

Focusing positively on our 24th strength is key to learning to befriend and flex it.


Friendships are as unique as those who create them: some erupt naturally; some bud slowly. It’s always surprisingly delightful when a powerful friendship is created from mutual dislike or mistrust: so it is with our 24th strength. Like a friend we simply haven’t yet met or an underused but silently eager muscle, we can start by approaching this virtue with openness and positivity. It belongs to us, it is a part of us, and we can learn to better use it to boost our wellbeing.

Inspiring people who developed their own long lost strengths can be positive role models: let’s consider Anna Mary Robertson Moses. Better known as “Grandma Moses,” Anna Moses’ life began the year Abraham Lincoln was elected and ended in the midst of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Although she enjoyed artistic endeavors as a child and young adult, she considered painting to be a “frivolous pursuit.” After a long life as a farmer’s wife, she eventually turned to embroidery to create gifts for friends. In her 70s, arthritis made this hobby impossible. On a suggestion, she took up painting to exercise painful joints. This decision to call upon an underused strength tapped into a wealth of unknown creativity, giving us the genius of Grandma Moses, one of America’s most beloved folk artists.


Let’s pick up our brushes and take some tentative strokes at getting to flex this friendly 24th strength: it’s stronger than you think and may just need some consistent attention to spark it into flourishing. But what might our first steps be?

Speaking on ‘How Character Strengths Support Wholebeing’ at a conference almost two years ago, VIA Institute on Character founder Neal Mayerson put forth a startling easy way to boost such strengths. “Have a ‘To Be List’ right next to your daily ‘To Do List,’” Mayerson suggested. “Commit to attending to your ‘To Be List’ every day for six months. What do you think your life will feel like? What will be different?”

Listening to him, I was transfixed and suddenly hopeful about my own frustrating 24th strength: self-regulation. I considered my years of ‘To Do Lists,’ with their hurriedly scratched in daily imperatives followed by the blessed relief of marking each one out. I knew that a “To Be List” could work for me.

Making this “To Be” addition to my ‘To Do’ list was pretty easy, but I found it important to personalize it. Reminding myself that I already possessed the strength of self-regulation I decided that it would be friendlier to write this as: “Practice Restraint.” Considering this still stilted, I added some emojiis, resulting in “Practice Restraint ” being added to my morning organizational routine.

I’m not sure exactly when the results of my “To Be List” became evident to others, but I remember when it reached my own consciousness about six months after I had initiated this list. Spending time with my extended family, a sibling made a passing remark that piqued a small, almost insignificant familial wound. I found myself practicing restraint at a core level. Like an annoying fly, I let the comment pass by me with no immediate compulsion to swat it. This was a victory! And the more I noticed these seemingly small events, the more my self-regulation grew.

This summer, seeing Neal Mayerson at a conference in Montreal, I excitedly shared my personal progress with him as a result of his timely suggestion. I’ll conclude with Neal’s wisdom:


  • What is your 24th strength?
  • Begin a “ ‘To Be List’ right next to your daily ‘To Do List,’ and add your 24th strength to it.
  • Commit to attending to your ‘To Be List’ every day for six months.
  • What do you think your life will feel like? What will be different?”

Please do find out for yourself!

Mary Kiley is an educator at St. John’s Preparatory School (SJP) in Danvers, Massachusetts. As faculty in the Religious Studies Department, she teaches psychology and religion, scripture, and meditation. She is a curriculum specialist on the Wellness Team, having offered “Positive Psychology: A Proven Path to Wellness” workshops to faculty/staff staff for the past three years. This spring she will be adding “Positive Education: Using Character Strengths and Appreciative Inquiry in the Classroom.”

Mary received a Certificate in Positive Psychology from Wholebeing Institute, studying with Tal Ben Shahar. Her final project, “Bringing Positive Psychology to an All Boys Prep School: A Three to Five Year Plan,” was planned in concert with the Wellness Program at SJP. She received a Master in Theological Studies from Washington Theological Union. Her interest in psychology began at University of Richmond, where she received her BA in psychology and biology.

Deeply interested in world religions, Mary has extensively studied Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. She is the Holocaust Legacy Partner to the late survivor Sonia Schrieber Weitz through the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University. Mary moderates the SJP Jewish Student Union, a club for Jewish and non-Jewish students, receiving the SJP Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice and Equity Award in 2014.

Mary lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts near her two very fun young adult children.



Grandma Moses

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