Constraining Greatness

Aristotle

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Avram Alpert suggests that the ideal of greatness can be an obstacle to achieving the good life. On the surface, his promotion of the “The Good-Enough Life” seems little more than the latest bashing of Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement.

But Alpert’s insights are actually grounded in both practical experience and sensible philosophical reflection. His most persuasive example is taken from D.W. Winnicott, who suggests that the “good-enough mother” is one who is not merely “adequate or average,” but who manages to love and care for her children while allowing them sufficient autonomy to prepare for the inherent troubles of life. As any conscientious parent knows, this is a daunting task, whatever term we use to describe it.

According to Alpert, the good-enough life creates conditions for everyone to thrive, to enable others to be good enough to meet their personal challenges and responsibilities. Such an ideal does not pardon mediocrity or encourage apathy. “Good-enough” implies virtue and goodness in a comprehensive sense.

Striving for a comprehensive level of goodness might actually be more difficult (and more heroic) than a misguided quest for extraordinary distinction in a narrow sphere.

Clearly, Alpert is arguing against shallow conceptions of greatness—when grand achievements come at the expense of others or when fame is based on one-dimensional success. Lamentably, flimsy notions of greatness prevail in our society. We celebrate successful athletes, musicians, and business executives whose personal lives often fail to reach even the lowest standards of respectability. The towering heights of their public achievements overshadow the repulsiveness of their more private affairs.

If the burden of greatness compels us to neglect family relationships and basic standards of decency, we ought to abandon it, as Alpert suggests. Or we can choose to redefine greatness as a multi-faceted achievement of virtue.

Alpert places Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the same “greatness” camp as other flawed philosophical systems of the western world. But at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of virtue is unity and balance. Aristotelian wisdom does not countenance either excess or deficiency in any area of life. The golden mean applies to each individual virtue as well as to the fullness of virtue achieved within a complete human life.

Of course we can argue that Aristotle’s magnanimity, his great-souled man, represents an unreachable ideal. But greatness as an unreachable ideal is much different from the small-minded celebration of intemperance, which is what Alpert is really arguing against.

So another way of looking at the ideal of greatness is that it needs to be constrained by our commitment to a wide range of virtues and responsibilities. For example, we cannot be great while violating the principles of justice or failing to control our emotions.

So how does the the “good-enough life” philosophy make its way into real life? Here’s an example from my professional work. I’m currently developing an online course designed to teach students real-world skills in using information technology. With the other members of my development team, we’ve committed to deliver a great course. We’re committed to the ideal of greatness.

But since we live in the real world, my team and I understand that our greatness will be constrained by several other development criteria. First, we need to prepare students to pass an IT industry certification. Second, we have an extremely tight development schedule. The course needs to be delivered at the beginning of July. And third, we need to keep our sanity and avoid burnout. Each of us have family responsibilities and other commitments that would be neglected by working 80 hours per week. So our challenge is to prepare students for real-world success, help them achieve an industry certification, deliver the course on time, and maintain our physical and mental health.

Because we don’t have unlimited time and resources, we’re forced to do “good-enough” work in each of these areas. Fortunately, we’re employed by a company that supports the ideal of work-life balance. And we have significant control over content development decisions. For example, every concept we teach does not require a lengthy (and expensive) video presentation. We can also reuse some material from other courses.

In this scenario, none of our development constraints force us to give up on instructional quality or to work 16-hour days. They encourage us to prioritize our development efforts and to work more efficiently than we otherwise would.

In the end, a constrained view of greatness can actually be empowering, as long as we have the autonomy to make difficult decisions and the willingness to help each other when we personally fall short.

Character Transformation

William James

Aristotle argued that extreme vices, such as willful self-indulgence and stinginess, are incurable. Such a claim makes Ebeneezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation all the more remarkable.

As a general rule, Aristotle is probably right. Deeply ingrained habits are difficult to change. Yet some of us are acquainted with a present-day Jean Valjean or Saul of Tarsus, someone who has overcome vicious character flaws through a sudden transformation.

Several weeks ago I rediscovered William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, which was published well over 100 years ago. In Varieties, he takes religious conversion seriously, especially when it results in an observable change in behavior, character, or personality.

At the end of his chapter on the religion of healthy mindedness, James quotes an anonymous account shared by a friend:

“At the urgent request of friends, and with no faith and hardly any hope (possibly owing to a previous unsuccessful experience with a Christian Scientist), our little daughter was placed under the care of a healer, and cured of a trouble about which the physician had been very discouraging in his diagnosis. This interested me, and I began studying earnestly the method and philosophy of this method of healing. Gradually an inner peace and tranquility came to me in so positive a way that my manner changed greatly. My children and friends noticed the change and commented upon it. All feelings of irritability disappeared. Even the expression of my face changed noticeably.

“I had been bigoted, aggressive, and intolerant in discussion, both in public and private. I grew broadly tolerant and receptive toward the views of others. I had been nervous and irritable, coming home two or three times a week with a sick headache induced, as I then supposed, by dyspepsia and catarrh. I grew serene and gentle, and the physical troubles entirely disappeared. I had been in the habit of approaching every business interview with an almost morbid dread. I now meet every one with confidence and inner calm.

“I may say that the growth has all been toward the elimination of selfishness. I do not mean simply the grosser, more sensual forms, but those subtler and generally unrecognized kinds, such as express themselves in sorrow, grief, regret, envy, etc. It has been in the direction of a practical, working realization of the immanence of God and the Divinity of man’s true, inner self.”

Notice how accurately this man describes 21st century problems, including intolerance, selfishness, and anxiety. Today we might use different terms for the physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, such as nausea and indigestion rather than dyspepsia and catarrh. But the rest of his self-diagnosis sounds contemporary.

James’s purpose in sharing the account is not to judge the literal truth value of Christian Science beliefs. For example, he is not interested in establishing whether sickness is actually an illusion or whether God is the principle of unconditional and unchanging love. He simply wants to observe and consider the practical effects of a system of beliefs. If the effects are favorable and profound, those beliefs should not be dismissed as false. Their pragmatic value can shed light on the human condition.

James shows how people with different dispositions and mindsets respond to different sets of beliefs. For example, someone who believes in the essential goodness of human nature (“the healthy-minded”) is more likely to change by ignoring evil and accentuating the positive aspects of her life. On the other hand, someone whose worldview has been shaped by a greater awareness of pain, suffering, and the ultimate futility of mortal life (“the sick soul”) will require a much different type of rebirth, a different passageway to change.

Regardless of why or how people change, the fact that they do change ought to empower us. Knowing that someone, anyone, has experienced a character transformation can have the practical effect of giving the rest of us hope — hope in the potential goodness and malleability of our own character.

With this post, I am beginning a series of features on real people who have experienced a profound shift in their way of thinking and acting. I will be investigating credible reports of character transformation. How permanent are such transformations? Can the changes be verified? What beliefs and actions generally lead to such changes?

My intent is to explore real accounts, whether they’re based on a religious conversion or a new philosophy of life and whether they result in unselfishness, serenity, unprecedented confidence, or some other characteristic of a reformed life.

I want to be inspired by authentic stories of personal change.

Responding to Anxiety with Courage and a Glimmer of Hope

Aristotle

As the number one mental health issue in North America, anxiety is often a debilitating problem for both teens and adults. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that up to 25 percent of teenagers suffer from anxiety disorders. While most forms are highly treatable, the majority of sufferers do not seek professional treatment.

The relentless nature of anxiety can provide a rigorous test of character. Many sources of anxiety, such as toxic family relationships and economic hardship, give rise to a sense of hopelessness. But compassionate friends and loved ones can help those who suffer to discover the courage, wisdom, and inner strength to move forward.

Social scientific research suggests that people with anxiety often underestimate their capacity for courage. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Clemson psychologist Cynthia Pury and her colleagues make the distinction between general and personal courage. They report that when most people think about courage, they see it as a fearless and confident attribute possessed only by others. This is the definition of general courage—the type of heroic effort we recognize and praise in other people. Personal courage, on the other hand, is the type we might ascribe to ourselves. People with the self-awareness to see their personal actions as courageous tend to define courage as a response to vulnerability, anxiety, and fear. In fact, this is the type we see most often in real life. Ordinary people become heroes when they rise up to do what needs to be done — in spite of weakness.

Aristotle would likely agree with modern social science that anxiety, fear, and self-doubt are built into courage. He suggests that courage is not founded on personal strength or a feeling of invincibility. Instead, it’s built on the conviction that we’re acting in the service of a noble cause, regardless of how prepared we are for battle. According to Aristotle, knowing that we’re doing the right thing empowers us to manage the pain that frequently accompanies self-sacrifice.

Without a doubt, moving forward in the face of chronic anxiety takes courage. But taking courage is not easy when an intensely negative and overpowering emotion is flowing through our minds. Telling someone to “stop worrying” or to “have courage” is almost always misguided advice. To cultivate courage, we need at least a slight glimmer of hope. This hope can come from a trusted friend who convinces us that relationships can improve and that our personal goals are worth fighting for — even against all odds.

Many therapists recommend a simple activity to help anxiety sufferers step away from their emotions and allow the more rational part of the brain to reclaim executive control. The first step is to articulate and then write down a concrete list of things we’re worried about. Sometimes the very act of identifying what lies behind an oppressive emotion can offer immediate relief.

The second step is to separate the items in our list into two categories: things we can control and things we can’t. Most of the things we worry about include both aspects, one that’s well within our power to influence and another that’s almost entirely beyond our control. For example, if I’m worried about an upcoming test at school, I should realize that I can control how much time I study for the test. But I can’t guarantee a passing score and I can’t control what my peers or my instructor might think of me if I do poorly. If I’m worried about attending a social gathering, I can control whether I approach people with a smile and a friendly greeting. But I can’t control whether or not a stranger likes me based on her first impression.

The worries we can’t do much about are frequently the most paralyzing because they’re accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. If spelling them out on paper doesn’t help us let them go, we can try other techniques like mindfulness breathing exercises or taking a walk in nature. Whatever relaxation method we choose, at some point we need to embrace the fact that some worries impose an unreasonable burden that we can’t afford to carry.

So what about the things we can control? Recent studies on test anxiety have found that at least some stress can be a good thing. Students who tend to do well on exams learn to embrace their anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and positive mental energy. Rather than trying to stop worrying about an exam, they transform their anxiety into excitement. They commit themselves to a plan of study and then anxiously immerse themselves in what they can control. In the language of character development, they create the conditions for courage by resolving on a plan of action.

Anxiety is an urgent public health challenge with no easy solutions. But gentle encouragement and honest self-appraisal can often provide the hope we need to face our fears with courage and grace.

Practical Wisdom as the Cure for Shortsightedness

In recent years, business leaders have become more attuned to a problem known as “short-termism,” or the tendency to focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term innovation. Executive management teams are driven by shareholders to reduce costs in an effort to raise quarterly profits. But when companies refrain from investing in things like employee training and research and development, they typically become less innovative and less profitable in the long-term.

The problem of short-termism is not isolated to big business. In their obsessive focus on an upcoming election, politicians neglect the most difficult, time-consuming problems. They focus instead on cheap legislative accomplishments designed to enthuse their core supporters.

As individuals, we often embrace the pleasure of the moment at the expense of long-term physical and emotional health. Our marriages and family relationships suffer as we immerse ourselves in online gaming and social media.

Of course, some of us have the opposite problem. For the sake of future financial security, we become workaholics, neglecting our families who need us to be fully present in their lives now.

So how can we become more adept at pursuing two goals at the same time, responding to present needs while preparing for the future? From the perspective of character development, the answer is practical wisdom.

Practical wisdom is what allowed Abraham Lincoln to preserve the union and abolish slavery. His ability to hold these two disparate goals in his mind at the same time explains his openness to legislative compromise and gradual emancipation. Accomplishing both goals would require unimpassioned judgment and carefully planned legislative and military strategies.

According to Aristotle, practical wisdom is the ability to deliberate well about human action. He contrasts theoretical wisdom with practical wisdom, which takes into account the messiness and complexity of real life. Where theoretical wisdom can provide clear, rational guidance for an ideal world, practical wisdom recommends middle-ground solutions that accommodate more than one point of view. Seasoned mentors can help us find otherwise hidden paths through the thorny problems of real life.

Practical wisdom is developed as we gain experience working toward more than one goal at the same time. For Aristotle, the goals of practical wisdom are shaped by the other moral virtues, such as courage, self-control, fairness, and generosity. If these virtues define the ends of human behavior, practical wisdom determines the means toward those ends. The real challenge comes when the demands of different virtues conflict with each other. For example, the virtue of honesty regularly conflicts with kindness, such as when expressing our honest opinion about another person would be unnecessarily hurtful.

We could say that practical wisdom is the executive virtue that harmonizes conflicting goals and finds a reasonable path to solve intractable problems. In most cases, balance and moderation are its guiding principles: considering the needs of the present and the future, caring for both the body and the soul, and strengthening both our relationships and our personal well-being. The hallmark of practical wisdom is confidence in one’s rationality, in one’s ability to resolve moral dilemmas and formulate creative solutions.

As a modern society, we probably don’t value practical wisdom as much as previous generations. But it may be the cure for short-termism in business and in life.

There are at least three major obstacles to cultivating this type of wisdom. The first is that compromise and moderation are unpopular. In politics, they connote weakness and a lack of conviction. Voters are typically more attracted to a candidate who refuses to compromise her firm and unyielding principles. In business, an executive who turns down the financial security of a promotion to spend more time with his family will likely be labeled as dimwitted. But those who possess practical wisdom know that life is too complicated for one-dimensional measures of success. They know there is more than one goal worth pursuing. Wise politicians know there is more truth out there than they currently comprehend. Sometimes practical wisdom dictates a radical and revolutionary fight for truths we hold dear, but most of the time it places us on a middle ground.

The second challenge is that our emotions tend to inhibit our rationality. Emotions are part of our humanity. Without them, virtues such as kindness, generosity, and compassion would remain undeveloped. But practically wise people know that the consequences of unbalanced emotion include reckless behavior and blind spots in our thinking.

The third obstacle to practical wisdom is that our knowledge and perception are limited. Reconciling the demands of the present with the needs of the future requires a level of foresight that we often lack. Because we all have limited life experience, it’s essential to engage in dialogue with those who have different perspectives.

The widespread problem of shortsightedness calls for a revival of practical wisdom in both public and private life. With a willingness to compromise, better emotional balance, and greater openness to others’ insights, such a revival can become a reality.

Practicing Hope in the Presence of Suffering

For too many of us, hope is in short supply these days. Americans have lost trust in the large institutions that have sustained their hope in previous generations: church, government, business, and civic organizations. In communities all over the country, rates of drug addiction, depression, and suicide are increasing.

But rich sources of hope are always available. For example, the birth of a child inspires a pristine hope, transforming the way we think about the future. For at least a few glorious moments, a mother’s agony gives way to a joyous sense of optimism. Her future is no longer a rigid extension of past and present troubles. History has been interrupted by a gift of boundless potential.

Not long after childbirth, the realities of parenthood quickly set in. But when we become discouraged, the indelible memory of holding a newborn baby for the first time can serve as a touchstone in time to restore our hope.

Where does hope come from? How can it impact our present difficulties? And how can we share hope with others?

The writings of medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas claim that hope, as a theological virtue, cannot be developed naturally. He observes that the moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, and justice can be cultivated through self-discipline and good habits. But faith, hope, and the highest form of love must be infused into our souls as divine gifts. In other words, Thomas infers that hope is not an innate part of human nature.

But Thomas’s theological insight seems a bit extreme. My personal experience with hope tells me that it can be cultivated and refined. With greater effort, hope can become more of a default mindset in our lives.

For Christians, hope centers on the life and mission of Jesus Christ. In his Theology of Hope, contemporary German theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains how Christ’s resurrection proved that history is not a closed system of occurrences, with each event constrained by what came before. The resurrection brings “to light the incomparable hitherto non-existent and new.” As such, it reveals new possibilities for the future as well. For Christian believers, knowledge of the resurrection has a creative, transforming effect on the present even as it redirects our gaze to the future. This ultimate hope provides “the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”

Moltmann’s main argument is that hope is much more than a belief in the afterlife or a concern with the end of times, when all suffering will cease and peace will reign on the earth. On the contrary, hope transforms our lives here and now. Moltmann is concerned that too many Christian believers overlook the possibilities of happiness and change in the present. Their otherworldly gaze can rob the present of its meaning and significance.

According to Moltmann, hope is not found in the stoic acceptance of present suffering that waits patiently for the end of times. Instead, the wholeness and inclusiveness of hope “draws the future into the sufferings of the present.” Just as the hope of a glorious resurrection must confront the tragic brutality of the cross, we cannot ignore the reality of violence, suffering, and death on our own path to hope.

So what if the new life and healing we hope for never comes? If Moltmann is right, the power of hope can illuminate our path to creative new possibilities even when our most fervent desires remain unfulfilled. Paradoxically, hope can liberate us from clinging to rigid expectations and outcomes.

What we hope for is often inconsistent with our present experience of pain. Consequently, Moltmann affirms that hope contradicts experience. Because hope stands in stark conflict with our experience of suffering in the world, it inspires us to make meaningful changes in the present. According to Moltmann, “That is why faith, whenever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience, but impatience.” Hope gives us the courage to act.

This brings us to our final question: How can we inspire hope in ourselves and in others, despite our circumstances? Here are a few practical suggestions. First, we can sit down and list three things we’re grateful for in the present moment. Social scientific studies have proven that consistent gratitude improves mental health and builds reservoirs of hope.

Second, when we catch ourselves in the midst of a negative thought, we can mentally rewrite that same thought from a more optimistic perspective.

Third, we can practice and promote hope while at the same time acknowledging the reality of anguish and adversity. Our own hope lifts others when we empathize, console, and minister to their needs.

Finally, we must never stop looking for new sources of hope. We find it in an earnest prayer, in the unlimited potential of a newborn baby, in the fresh possibilities of a new friendship, and in the creative power of a new day that makes a break from the past.

Character and the Art of Persuasion

Aristotle

Two of my sons recently finished doing summer sales in California. They were both successful and pleased to have made enough money to pay for their college tuition in the fall. But cold-calling people on their doorstep was a tremendous challenge, especially in a crowded market where several other companies were scrambling for their business. They typically knocked on at least 100 doors before closing a single sale.

Most of us have mixed feelings about facing a salesperson on our doorstep. If they come across as obnoxious and overly aggressive, it’s easy to turn them down. We resent manipulative sales tactics, even if we might need what they’re selling. But when they appear knowledgeable, trustworthy, and respectful, we’re much more open to persuasion. The sight of a lonely sales rep working diligently in the heat of the day might also trigger an emotional response, evoking our sympathy and compassion.

Regardless of how we feel about solicitors, It’s clear that the art of persuasion plays an important part in each of our lives. When we’re in the market for products and services, we pay attention to advertising campaigns and sales pitches before making a purchase. In a democratic society, we listen carefully to political candidates who want to represent us. We sort through the rhetoric of political parties, hoping to discern between truth and error.

As parents and coaches, teachers and community leaders, we accept our own roles as persuaders and rhetoricians. Ideally, we serve others with gentle encouragement, teaching by example and avoiding coercive, authoritarian techniques. But we all fall short at times, especially when children or other adults refuse to listen to reason. Our frustration leads us to employ the same sort of scare tactics and beguiling arguments that we despise in dishonest salesmen.

Aristotle himself had mixed feelings about the art of persuasion, or the techniques used in rhetorical discourse. The sophists gave rhetoric a bad name, training their students to persuade others through questionable methods that disregarded truth. But Aristotle believed it was still important for his students to understand rhetorical methods. Not only did they need to recognize when they were being deceived by others, but they also had the civic responsibility to promote truth through logical and honest means.

Aristotle identified and expounded on three forms of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to power of persuasion that flows from the character and trustworthiness of the speaker. Pathos describes the emotional aspects of an argument. And logos is the use of reason or logic to convince others. Thousands of years after Aristotle, today’s high school English teachers and debate coaches continue to promote his understanding of the three primary means of persuasion.

One of Aristotle’s lesser-known but essential rhetorical concepts is the tense of an argument. Tense has to do with how our argumentative goals relate to the past, present, and future. The purpose of judicial rhetoric is to establish guilt or innocence based on past events. This type of persuasion is used in the court of law.

The purpose of epideictic rhetoric is to convince an audience to more fully embrace the values of the community. This type of persuasion operates in the present tense, used most often at funerals to praise those who embody certain values. The third type of persuasion is called deliberative rhetoric, which commits people to doing something in the future.

So judicial rhetoric dwells on the past, epideictic rhetoric illuminates the present, and deliberative rhetoric empowers us for the future. In mastering the art of persuasion in our personal lives, we need a clear understanding of our rhetorical goals. Do we want to prove someone’s guilt or innocence? Do we want to promote values? Or do we want others to act? Unless we work in the law profession, we’re typically better off arguing about the present or the future. For example, successful parents don’t waste much time blaming their children for past mistakes. Instead, they focus on helping them act with confidence and hope in the future.

Once we’ve established our primary goals in persuading others, we’re in a much better position to choose a suitable means toward those ends. This brings us back to ethos, pathos, and logos. We draw upon our character strengths and experience to give our words greater credibility. We share stories, express empathy, and use humor to make our audience more emotionally receptive to our logic. And finally, we make our case using a series of rational arguments.

As straightforward as Aristotle’s rhetorical analysis sounds, we all know it’s easy to disregard the art of persuasion and turn to force and other improper means. In these moments, perhaps we need to pause, calm our emotions, and try a little harder to imitate the qualities of a good-natured, deliberate, and trustworthy salesperson.

When Busyness Becomes a Substitute for Deliberate Parenting

My family and I recently returned from a memorable vacation to Yellowstone National Park. For three days, we were awestruck by the wild wonders of the park, including a dramatic eruption of Old Faithful, vast herds of bison roaming the Hayden Valley, and the majestic power of the lower falls rushing through the canyon. While in the park, we had no cell phone reception. Thankfully, we were forced to disengage from the perpetual call of responsibilities back home. Each evening, instead of checking our smartphones, we played board games in a cabin we rented in West Yellowstone.

Our vacation ended too soon and we quickly plugged ourselves back into real life. We came home just in time to reset the sprinkler system and save our dying front lawn, complete a late club soccer registration, and help our older son pack his bags for a summer sales job in California.

Admittedly, keeping busy has its advantages. The kids rarely complain of boredom and we don’t have much time to worry about whether life is meeting our expectations. But our time in Yellowstone reminded us of the benefits of slowing down and being more fully present with our children. We enjoyed a small taste of what Henry David Thoreau describes in Walden:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

We can learn to live deliberately without building a cabin in the woods, but it’s hard when we find ourselves in the midst of a dizzying schedule of daily activities. Busyness is a problem when we allow others to define and order our family priorities and when we stop paying meaningful attention to our children and their challenges. Most parents would like to live more purposely in the present, to take more time to notice their children, and to face neglected problems with an intentional strategy. But we too often lack the urgency or perhaps the wisdom to pause and purposely break free of our addiction to the busy life.

So how can we alter our frenetic lifestyles and embrace more deliberate parenting? First, we need to find a way to focus more consistently on our highest priorities. If it’s been a while since we’ve consulted with family members in defining and ordering those priorities, this is the first step. Without a well-defined list of family priorities, we’re like sailors lost at sea without nautical charts, driven wherever the winds take us.

Ideally, family priorities dictate which events and activities end up on our calendars each week. But even with careful planning, heavy social responsibilities inevitably take us off course. PTA meetings, church activities, sporting events, and music lessons are all important, but they can easily get out of control. This is why we need to set aside regular blocks of time to reexamine our lives and assess our priorities. A monthly family council can be used to check our bearings and set a new course, dropping unessential activities that are distracting us from quality family interaction and relationships.

Cutting down our list of daily activities can help us pay greater attention to parenting challenges that require patient and calm deliberation. Mental illness, bullying, learning disorders, and video game addiction are just a few of the formidable challenges faced by today’s parents.

Abraham Lincoln’s advice to lawyers applies to parents as well: “When I have a particular case in hand, I…love to dig up the question by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fires of the mind.” Like Lincoln, we can cultivate the ability to give undivided attention to our most deeply rooted problems. Anger, frustration, and moving on to the next activity can all divide our attention and leave our problems unsolved.

French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil describes why it’s so difficult to maintain our focus: “Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” She continues: “That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” Indeed, it’s usually easier to stay busy with shallow concerns than to dive into the deep end. But sustained focus on concrete problems opens our minds to fresh strategies and provides new hope for ourselves and our loved ones.

The key to more deliberate, intentional parenting is largely a matter of replacing busyness with greater focus: prioritizing family activities and removing unnecessary commitments, deliberating over our family’s challenges, and being fully present when we’re with each other.

Online Learning as a Study in Character Development

“In front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first. But when you come to the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard.”

– Hesiod, Works and Days

Educators often warn students that online learning is not for everyone. Some students who perform well in a traditional classroom setting struggle to complete online courses. So what factors have the greatest impact on student success?

Social scientific research indicates that many students simply lack the motivation and persistence to take advantage of online resources. In this post, I’ll explore five tips that can help any student become a better online learner.

1) Find your motivation

What motivates you personally to learn online? Online courses can empower students with the advantages of greater convenience and learning efficiency, more timely feedback, and lower costs. Sometimes these benefits provide all the motivation you need to complete an online course, or even pursue an online degree.

However, the lack of face-to-face contact with a devoted instructor and mentor can be an obstacle for some students. One way to overcome this obstacle is for learners to maintain frequent contact with fellow online students. Online peers can supply valuable insights on how to work through personal challenges with technology and maintain motivation throughout a long semester. (1)

Family members can also provide vital support and encouragement when they understand the benefits of online learning. If you need additional incentives, enlist friends and family members to help you set up extrinsic rewards for persisting in the online learning process. A weekend getaway, a movie night, or another well-earned break can provide a light at the end of your online learning tunnel.

2) Courage before confidence

The courage to undertake something new often precedes confidence in doing so. This is particularly true for students who are less experienced with internet technology. When you begin an online course, it’s natural to experience self-doubt and fear.

You will need to move outside your comfort zone and embrace the risks that come with trying something new. Very few worthwhile pursuits ever come with a guarantee of success. And the fear of failure can severely limit your confidence in learning online.

But confidence and hope have never been manufactured out of thin air. This is where personal courage comes into play. A team of psychologists at Clemson University recently explored the characteristics of what they call personal courage. (2)

While we typically see in other people a fearless and confident courage, personal courage tends to be more about acting in the face of difficulty, fear, vulnerability, and anxiety. When you find and exercise your personal courage, you will begin to experience the small successes that lead to confidence in an online learning environment.

 3) Transform anxiety into excitement

Recent studies on test anxiety have found that students who do well on exams possess the ability to transform their anxieties into greater concentration and excitement. (3) These students are able to manage a moderate level of stress to help focus their minds and provide the mental energy to persist in problem solving.

Of course, high levels of anxiety over taking an online exam or using unfamiliar technology can be debilitating. Many students find relief from intense stress by identifying and writing down a list of their specific worries. Such a list can be divided into two columns: things you can control and things you cannot control.

For the things you can control, like preparing for an exam, formulate a plan for resolving the anxiety (e.g., schedule ample time for exam preparation). For things you cannot control, like having to take an exam, embrace your anxiety and channel it toward greater focus and determination to succeed.

4) Cultivate disciplined study habits

Aristotle promoted a simple idea that is as true today as it was 2,400 years ago: Human beings love to fall into routine, to cultivate deeply-rooted habits. When we develop habits, we naturally expend less mental and emotional energy in figuring out what to do and how to do it.

A set of tasks that was initially strenuous or tedious becomes natural and easy to perform. Something that was originally irksome is now pleasurable. Students who take the time to cultivate rigorous study habits learn to enjoy studying with greater ease and consistency.

Set aside a block of uninterrupted time to study every day. Avoid the distractions of cell phones, email, and social media. Wake up early in the morning or find a quiet study room during the day. By maintaining a consistent habit of studying at the same time every day, you’ll soon discover the reality of online learning pleasure.

A recent study suggests that time management skills and disciplined study habits are even more important in successful learning than favorable attitudes toward instructors or personal interest in the subject matter. (4)

 5) Persistence is more important than intelligence

This tip is perhaps the most important for online learning excellence. Becoming a more independent learner and adapting to new online technology requires persistence. Persistence is even more important than knowledge and intelligence. (5)

If you’re relatively new to online learning, then you need to expect some small failures along the way. You might stumble on your first assignment as you figure out how to access online learning resources. You might find that you need to switch to an unfamiliar web browser, or upgrade to a faster computer.

If you do face obstacles with learning technology, be sure to communicate early on with your online instructor or course administrator. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in resolving your difficulties. But whatever you do, don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes and be patient with the quirks of your online course.

Some online resources are more accessible and instructionally sound than others and some learning management systems are more intuitive than others. But most online courses provide plenty of resources to help you navigate the learning process and gain the knowledge and skills you’re looking for.

Don’t hold back

It may be true that some students are more naturally suited for learning online. Some cultures might even be better than others in preparing students for the distinct rigors and study habits of online courses. (6)

But don’t fret about potential limitations that may or may not affect you. With a firm and disciplined commitment to study, the persistence to climb steep technology learning curves, and the courage to embrace risk in the face of personal limitations, you’ll personally have everything it takes to succeed.

NOTES

  1. See Carolyn Hart (2012). “Factors Associated With Student Persistence in an Online Program of Study: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.
  2. Cynthia L. S. Pury, Robin M. Kowalski & Jana Spearman (2007). “Distinctions between general and personal courage.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2 (2), 99-114.
  3. See Alison Wood Brooks (2013). “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143 (3), 1144-1158.
  4. M. J. N. Mendezabal (2013). “Study Habits and Attitudes: The Road to Academic Success.” Open Science Repository Education, Online (open-access), e70081928. doi:10.7392/Education.70081928.
  5. See Hart (2012).
  6. See Miguel A. Cerna & Ksenia Pavliushchenko (2015). “Influence of Study Habits on Academic Performance of International College Students in Shanghai.” Higher Education Studies, 5 (4), 42-55.

* A version of this article, “How to Make Online Learning Work for You,” was published in the October 2017, Fall Edition of Certification Magazine. Content republished by permission of TestOut Corporation.

Character Education as the Neglected Gift of Past Generations

For the past several years, I’ve designed online digital literacy courses for community college students. One of the first concepts my students learn is the difference between hardware and software technology. Hardware is essentially the technology you can touch and feel, like computer monitors, keyboards, printers, wireless routers, and microchips. Software, on the other hand, is the computer code or electronic instructions that tell the hardware what to do. While you can see the results of these instructions on a screen or on a printed page, you can’t see or touch the software itself. But the unseen software breathes functional life into the computer hardware.

In a similar way, our material world of houses, vehicles, furniture, and physical bodies would be lifeless without the intangible world of human character, values, and relationships.

In a 1960 address to college educators, my great-grandfather P.A. Christensen conveyed his gratitude for the animating presence of light and truth in human society. The classic works of literature and the enduring truth inspired by nature were for him “unearned” gifts that found their expression in the lives of ordinary people. These gifts impact the quality of our lives within the immaterial “realm of human growth and transcendence,” leading to character development and social harmony.

One of Professor Christensen’s purposes was to challenge his students’ unthinking embrace of what he termed the “gospel of work,” the philosophy that we get nothing in life that we haven’t earned, nothing that we haven’t paid for. From his perspective, such a materialistic philosophy leaves little room for appreciating the gifts that are graciously given by our fellow human travelers.

The intangible gifts of wisdom, generosity, and other human virtues constitute what I call character education. The core curriculum for this education is the overflowing beauty of nature, the abundant wealth of literature, and the supernal gifts of family and friendship.

As I reflect on my great-grandfather’s nearly 60-year-old message, my thoughts turn to the vast inequality in today’s society; for so many people, the gifts I take for granted are neither free nor readily available. Domestic violence, impoverished neighborhoods, and failing schools often substitute cruelty for compassion and overindulgence for self-mastery. This awareness periodically disturbs my sense of satisfaction as I read Aristotle in the comfort of my happy home.

Of course, I’m digressing and missing my grandfather’s point here. The more aware and grateful I am for my unearned gifts, the more likely I am to share those gifts with the less experienced or the less fortunate, those who don’t enjoy unfettered access to light and truth. I’m also more likely to drink them in deeply myself, living the timeless principles of truth in the present.

As Jesus said to his disciples, “freely ye have received, freely give.” This response is a natural flow of goods from the original source, through me, to others. I consequently have no time to feel guilty about the privileges of my life. Understanding that “where much is given, much is required,” I am more determined to share.

As a parent and educator, I approach my teaching responsibilities with a degree of humility. My eagerness to enlighten others feels presumptuous. But we give and take with an open mind and a willingness to be corrected. We engage in the conversation because of our conviction that character development and moral education are needed today—perhaps more than ever.

Character education is not a panacea that will solve all our societal problems. But any serious effort to address our problems must include it. We need principles of truth that draw upon a shared moral vocabulary. We need to be inspired by real-world examples of courage and wisdom. We need to recognize moral failure and learn how to recover from it.

In promoting this conversation, we can and should turn to the latest social scientific research. But we also need to engage with the voices of the past—our unearned inheritance from faithful, rational minds. These poets and teachers, scientists and philosophers, didn’t always get things right. They had their own blind spots and occasions of moral failure. We can refuse, for this reason, to consider their professed insights. Disillusioned with the past, we can rely exclusively on our own experience and intuition to change the future. But the foundation of such a response is both arrogance and ingratitude.

Reconciling the voices of the past with the realities of the present undoubtedly calls for a venture in faith, a precarious journey into the spiritual realm of human growth and transcendence. As I continue my own journey, I’m grateful for faithful companions—past and present—who inspire me to be better than I am.

Magnanimity and the Call to Greatness

In an earlier post, I contrasted Aristotelian pride with Confucian humility as the crown of the virtues. I also clarified that Aristotle does not advocate unjustified pride or arrogance any more than Confucius does. In describing Aristotle’s views in Nicomachean Ethics, I used Martin Ostwald’s English translation of μεγαλοψυχία (pronounced megalopsychia). While this word is typically translated into English as “magnanimity,” Ostwald prefers “high-mindedness” because the modern connotations of magnanimity don’t capture the “pride and confident self-respect” implied by the original Greek. In today’s post, I will reconsider magnanimity in the classical sense that communicates the “greatness of soul” inferred by Aristotle.

AristotleAristotle explains that a magnanimous man believes he deserves great things such as honor and respect because he really does deserve them. He is great both in the sense that he has obtained a fullness of virtue and in the sense that he possesses wealth, power, and influence. His abundant resources allow him to do much more good for others than they could do for him. While he willingly accepts legitimate honors bestowed by noble men, he has no interest in arrogantly displaying his superiority among ordinary people. In fact, he is self-effacing and unassuming among them. It is only in the presence of distinguished, influential men that he speaks openly of his accomplishments. Nonetheless, he is always more concerned with promoting truth and virtue than he is with impressing other people.

Aristotle’s magnanimous man spends his life doing extraordinary things, even risking his life when courage calls. One reason he’s capable of achieving greatness is that he does not squander his time or energy on trivial things. He never holds grudges, spreads gossip, or pays attention to small annoyances. Since he focuses his attention on the rare actions that are worthy of great honor, the magnanimous man is not in a hurry to fill his life with lesser accomplishments. He is never overly anxious or distracted by petty concerns. He is slow to act and deliberate in his choice of words.

Of course Aristotle’s ideal of magnanimity clashes a bit with our modern sensibilities. He sounds like someone who’s out of touch with reality, like a guy who has never done the dishes or mowed his front lawn. But before we reject such an ideal altogether, let’s consider how we might adapt at least some aspects of magnanimity today.

Aristotle emphasizes that magnanimity (or high-mindedness) is the golden mean between vanity and small-mindedness. While the vain man desires greater praise and recognition than he deserves, the small-minded man turns away from honors that he genuinely merits. Even worse, however, is the tendency of the small-minded man to shun wealth and power and to avoid performing noble deeds because he doesn’t consider himself worthy.

Surprisingly, Aristotle suggests that small-mindedness is a worse vice than vanity and that it’s much more common. When I examine my own character flaws, I’m usually more aware of my vanity. I care too much about what other people think of me. But as I reflect more honestly, I recognize that one of my biggest concerns is that I don’t want to come across as vain and prideful. If I’m honest with myself, this tendency to appear less than what I am (in order to impress others with my modesty), is often displayed as false humility or small-mindedness.

It seems evident that small-mindedness can prevent us from responding to the call to greatness. Each one of us possesses unique gifts that we’re capable of developing in the service of others. These gifts constitute our personal call to greatness or to magnanimity. We ought to strive for nothing more and nothing less. If I pretend that I am called to someone else’s greatness, to someone else’s honor, I’m vain. But if I for any reason refuse to accept my personal call to greatness (and the honors associated with this call), I’m suffering from a debilitating form of small-mindedness.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite themes is that each individual must discover and embrace his or her personal calling in life. Each person “has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion…. He inclines to do something which is easy to him, and good when it is done, but which no other man can do. He has no rival. For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers.…Every man has this call of the power to do some[thing] unique, and no man has any other call….”

When we find the courage to respond to our personal call to greatness, we’re capable of achieving magnanimity. Because we’re no longer competing with someone else’s greatness or for someone else’s honor, we’re free to pursue our own path with less anxiety, less vanity, and well-deserved praise.