There you are, the "Completed" page after taking the VIA Survey, staring at your rank order list of character strengths. What are your initial thoughts? Surprise? Confusion? Excitement? You may have some questions, and that's ok. In fact, if you’ve not done a lot of study and practice in this area, it’s likely you have some wrong ideas about strengths. These are called misconceptions.
Here are 3 of the most common misconception areas about strengths. Understanding these will help you make the most of what your character strengths can offer you. And that’s no small promise… remember, character strengths research shows they're connected with greater flourishing in life, achievement of goals, work productivity, physical health, and better relationships!
Misconception #1: “My character strengths don’t change.”
Research shows that people tend to believe their strengths are less changeable than their weaknesses. If you are one of those people (which is likely) you are blocking your opportunity for growth. We are less likely to make an effort when we think something can’t be changed. If you believe change is futile then you can’t be more brave in conversations with your father, more persevering with that work project, more honest with yourself about your addiction, or more fair-minded with your friend. This futility is a helpless and stuck feeling – it’s miserable to feel as if you cannot improve.
The good news is that you and others can be taught to see your strengths as changeable, that character strengths are not fixed in place or etched in stone. Modern research in the field of personality has shown us this in the last decade. Our personality and our character (which is part of our positive personality) can and does change over time.
I recall Samantha, a woman who was unhappy that gratitude was her 24th strength. “This doesn’t feel like the real me,” she told me. So she went about trying to change it. She developed a nightly practice of writing down 3 things she was grateful for each day and why these things occurred. She made an effort to express gratitude in a deliberate and clear way with family and friends. I saw her a year later at a work event and she came up to me with great excitement.
“Look, look,” she exclaimed as she pulled out her smart-phone, “I took the VIA Survey again and I raised my gratitude strength up to #3. I’ve worked at it each week. It’s now a really important part of who I am and how I operate.”
You CAN impact your character strengths in a positive way. In our introductory course, Start with Strengths, we provide strategies to help you explore how all of your character strengths, even those lower on your list, can be boosted with deliberate practice and exploration.
But, it’s also important to keep a second reality in mind. We are creatures of habit and are fairly consistent in how we express ourselves from year to year. We are who we are. On the VIA Survey, a person’s raw score results (as opposed to rank order results) are typically quite consistent from test to test, year after year. It's uncommon to see numerous large changes in people's VIA Survey results from test to test. It’s more common to see small changes in rank order such as a shuffling around of strengths in your top 10 or say, creativity popping up into your top 5 or teamwork dropping down to your bottom 5.
- The key takeaway here is that you can make a difference in your strengths – you can target your perseverance or your curiosity and through practices and activities – build them up in your profile.
Misconception #2: “A strength is a strength. They’re all the same.”
Incorrect. Each character strength brings with it a number of unique potential benefits. Your perseverance is especially helpful for reaching your goals, your social intelligence and humor help you make friends, and your self-regulation is especially important for improving your health.
All 24 of these strengths matter for you, they just matter for different purposes. There are no bad strengths.
Related to this is we can group the character strengths into categories, such as “signature strengths,” “happiness strengths,” “phasic strengths,” and “lower strengths.” Are all of these strengths categories equal?
Again, the answer would be “no.” Some categories are more important than others to help you get the most out of your life. Research is beginning to unpack which categories are better for which purposes, so there is more that we don’t know than we do know at the moment. That said, the strongest and most consistent research is on the strength category called signature strengths, those strengths highest in you.
- A key takeaway here is to identify, explore, and cultivate your signature strengths. Use them more in each of your life domains – your work, relationships, and community.
Misconception #3: “There is one way to use my character strengths.”
It’s easy to get locked into a certain way of doing things. We all fall victim to our habits.
The reality is each one of us can come up with many new ways to use our strengths. Remember, you are the expert on yourself. Give yourself the chance to explore and express your best qualities in different ways. Don’t be blocked by perfection. There is no perfect strengths use. Instead, ask yourself: How might I use one of my signature strengths while I’m talking with my boss? Which character strength will help me deliver this presentation? Which will support me in this e-mail I’m writing? As you reflect, discuss, and try out your character strengths, your ideas will flow. You'll seen realize that the possibilities are endless.
- A key takeaway here is to periodically remind yourself that here is no “perfect way” to use your strengths. Trust yourself to express yourself fully.
Using your character strengths has many different dimensions and complexities, yet it is so simple! Once you understand all of the ways your character strengths can positively influence your life, your view widens and you'll see the possibilities. Let us guide you with our online, on-demand course, Start with Strengths. You have to start somewhere, start here.
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M. (2019). The strengths-based workbook for stress relief. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. Cincinnati, OH: VIA Institute on Character.
Steimer, A., & Mata, A. (2016). Motivated implicit theories of personality: My weaknesses will go away, but my strengths are here to stay. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 42(4), 415-429. DOI: 10.1177/0146167216629437