What's Happening in Character?

Performance Character and How to Foster It

Posted by Eduardo Briceño on Thu, Sep 18, 2014 @ 12:09 PM

“It takes real character to keep working as hard or even harder once you’re there. When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, ‘More than ability, they have character.' ” ― John Wooden, quoted in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck

describe the imageWhat is performance character?

Performance character is a set of dispositions that drive effectiveness, such as striving to learn and improve, having self-discipline, and persevering. It is made up of beliefs and behaviors that enable people to grow their capabilities and meet their goals in any area of life, be it school, sports, relationships, or work. It is different than moral character, which refers to moral qualities such as kindness, integrity, and respect.

Why performance character?

An important part of growing up is developing performance character. It equips us to clarify our goals, improve both our strengths and our weaknesses, take on challenges, seek out effective strategies, work well with other people, and get things done. Performance character helps people thrive and reach their goals, especially in today’s complex and rapidly changing world.

How to foster it

Parents and teachers have long known that hard work and perseverance help students succeed. But when a student has little interest in effortful work, or a low tolerance for challenges and setbacks, parents and teachers often find it difficult to change those dispositions. So how do we build performance character?


Carol Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a key lever that drives these dispositions: a growth mindset, which is the view of intelligence or abilities as qualities we can develop, as opposed to qualities that are fixed. It turns out that people who view abilities as malleable also tend to have three important beliefs and dispositions:

• they view effort as something we can all benefit from,

• they seek out challenges, and

• they respond resiliently to setbacks, understanding them as part of the learning process.

In contrast, people who see math, athleticism, creativity, or other abilities as something some people have in a fixed way and others don’t, tend to stick to what they already know how to do well and don’t focus on learning, so they improve less and achieve lower levels of performance and success.

Research shows that telling students to “pay attention”, “complete your homework”, or “try harder”, doesn’t tend to work well if it is not combined with some way to shift students’ beliefs about abilities from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. While positive messages like “try again” or “set your goals high and don't stop until you get there” sound great, they’re not nearly as effective as messages like “the more you practice the smarter you become” or “the harder you try the better you get”. The second set fosters a growth mindset because it conveys that abilities are malleable.

Aside from saying that we can change our abilities, we can teach the hard evidence that abilities can be developed. We can study brain plasticity, the stories of how great achievers built their abilities, or the self-management and learning techniques that drive improvement. And most important, we can live and model a growth mindset. See these growth mindset-building resources to get started.

Topics: character, parent involvement, moral character, teachers