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Heart Mind Will

What character is and why it matters

Here’s an adage you may have heard before:

Watch your thoughts, for they become your words.

Watch your words, for they become your actions.

Watch your actions, for they become your habits.

Watch your habits, for they become your character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Aristotle likewise conjectured that character is the sum of our acquired habits. Good character, he argued, was consistently acting, thinking, and feeling in ways that are beneficial to others as well as ourselves.

What does psychological science have to add to these age-old questions: What is character? And why does it matter? 

Like scientists who study anything, scientists who study character find plenty to disagree about. One area of unanimous agreement, however, is that character is plural

Any parent who makes a list of the qualities they hope their children will grow up to embody will want a long piece of paper to do it. 

In my research, I find three families of character strengths. 

Strengths of heart encourage relating to other people in positive ways. They are interpersonal—either in the sense of an ethical and loving posture toward friends, family, and close others or in the sense of civic virtue, including our duty to our neighbors, our country, and the world beyond our borders. 

Character Lab is grateful to the scientists who wrote our Playbooks on gratitude, kindness, honesty, purpose, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence

Strengths of mind encourage active and open-minded thinking. In this day and age, these intellectual virtues may seem in short supply. All the more reason to intentionally support their development.

Character Lab thanks the scientists who wrote Playbooks on curiosity, judgment, decision making, creativity, and intellectual humility.

Strengths of will encourage the achievement of goals. These are intrapersonal insofar as they enable you to triumph over self-doubt, indecision, inertia, and other obstacles to a desired future.

Character Lab is proud to share its scientist-authored Playbooks on growth mindset, proactivity, self-control, and grit.

There was a time when your character was assumed to be an inherited disposition that, good or bad, would never change. But modern research suggests the opposite. As Eleanor Roosevelt has been credited with saying: “Character building begins in our infancy and continues until death.”

At any age—and most critically during our formative years—our interpersonal, intellectual, and intrapersonal habits can be cultivated. This is why our 15 Playbooks include over 200 specific Tips—actionable advice, based on science—for how to do so. 

Although Character Lab as a nonprofit is sunsetting this June, the content we have curated will continue to be available at The sun has only just begun to rise on the vision of a psychologically wise adult in the life of every child—a possibility that promises to make the world a better place for everyone.

Don’t assume that character is fixed. And don’t get hung up on whether the proper term is “character” or “social-emotional competencies” or “noncognitive skills.” A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Do model, celebrate, and enable character strengths of heart, mind, and will. When he was just 18 years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. had the wisdom to declare: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” 

With endless gratitude,


Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab. She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and co-host of the Freakonomics podcast No Stupid Questions.