How to Become a Creative Original: Build Character

Suppose that your child or your student has just completed a praise-worthy task: Helped a friend with homework, took out the trash without being asked, written a thank you note.  Which form of reinforcing feedback would you use?

  1. It was a good thing to help your friend.
  2. You are a good friend.

If you picked, “A. It was a good thing to help your friend,” then you are of the mindset that praising the behavior, not the person, promotes growth – the reinforced behavior will continue to develop with effort.  Perhaps you have learned from the “growth mindset” movement that praise which “labels” the person (you are a good friend) is static and impedes development.  You either are, or you aren’t, so making an effort doesn’t count for much.

However, as it turns out, if you want to build character, then saying “You are a good friend” is the right kind of feedback.  Being told that I am a kind person, a truthful person, a generous person—forms my identity. It’s who I am.   When I see another student being bullied, I am more likely to speak up because I am a kind and a truthful person, not because I did a random act of kindness last week.

This ground-Originalsbreaking, paradigm shifting research by psychologist Joan Grusec is presented in Adam Grant’s new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Grant defines “original” the dictionary way: A thing of singular or unique character; a person who is different from other people in an appealing or interesting way; a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity.

Today we are very interested in raising and educating originals with unique perspectives and inventive
capacities.  After all, creativity is the capital of commerce.  The 21st century skills are defined through the Four C’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.  Then, there are two more C’s: college and career readiness.   And now, Grant gives us the Seventh C: Character.

What does character have to do with creativity, or its endgame, becoming an original?  In the chapter “Rebel with a Cause,” Grant reports research on a group of truly world-class originals, Holocaust
rescuers.  These uniquely creative individuals had similar upbringings when it came to learning values. Their parents de-emphasized rules but emphasized the universal moral values behind rules. They encouraged empathy by explaining the effects or consequences of behavior on others.  Through rational explanation, moral standards became an intrinsic part of the children’s identity.  These children grew up wanting to right wrongs and create a better future.   And they did.

Good news! It’s not too late for us adults.  Character as our identity (not our behavior) can move us to become creative originals.  Reinforce your own identity with this positive feedback:  I am a creative original.  I choose not to sit on the sidelines.  I have a singular and unique character and the inventive capacity to create a better future.

 Now change your world!