Monday, August 2, 2010

Personal Strengths - We Are What We Repeatedly Do

How do we come to be strong as individuals? How do we come to be brave, patient or persistent? Are we born that way?

Without any knowledge of how the brain works, about 2,500 years ago Greek philosopher-scientist Aristotle pretty much nailed it by using common sense to explain what he observed in human behavior:

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle, Greek philosopher (B.C. 384-322)

It may sound a lot like the cliché, “Practice makes perfect,” but Aristotle is correct that being who we are comes from repetition of behavior to form behavior patterns.

Today, neuroscientists explain that behavior patterns happen when the brain cells involved in the behavior become physically connected to each other in a network called a neural pathway. We aren’t born with this efficient hard-wiring. Rather, the separate brain cells involved in the behavior are stimulated by usage to grow tiny filaments called dendrites. By repeating the behavior over and over, the dendrites  eventually connect the cells with each other into a network called a neural pathway. At this stage the behavior pattern is said to be ingrained, meaning the mental processing is so efficient it feels effortless and automatic. Indeed, the behavior may be executed even without conscious thought.

We use words like skills, habits and personal strengths to describe these behavior patterns. We can learn bad habits as well as good habits - any kind of behavior pattern at all. All it takes is repetition over time. We can develop addictions as well as character strengths. As Aristotle said it so well so long ago, "We are what we repeatedly do."

Because the brain cell connections are physical, the patterns they enable are hard-wired...and permanent. So if you want to break a bad habit, your challenge is to grow a new alternative neural pathway. You don't actually get rid of old, unwanted behavior patterns. You learn new ones that give you more satisfaction, which means you'll use them more and the old ones less.

The good news is that once you learn how to swim or ride a bicycle, the skill will stay with you for the rest of your life, even without using the skill for years.

More good news for people pursuing a learning journey: You can grow stronger by simply doing the right things consistently over time. The behavior may seem uncomfortable and clumsy at first, but it becomes easier the more you do it.

Do what, then? Develop which patterns, then? This is the primary focus of my work - the personal strengths and people skills which help us achieve success in life and work.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

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