If you read personal development books, you know that they tell you to be good, happy, proactive, decisive, wise, assertive, bold, fearless, independent, collaborative, ethical, willing to do whatever it takes… and more.
And somehow, we are expected to be all these things all at the same time.
But nobody ever tells you how to be all these things at the same time.
This seems like an impossible list of things to be and reconcile in our minds, let alone in our actual behaviours and actions.
But there is a way.
The Problem With Aspirations
Some people try to solve the aspiration conundrum by being everything at once — but this does not work. It is difficult to be independent and collaborative at the same time.
Others try to change their behaviours, capabilities, skills or beliefs — but this is not a problem that can be solved at those levels of thinking.
We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.— Albert Einstein
That quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, and he is correct.
What we need is a form of higher-level change that trickles down and automatically takes care of our beliefs, behaviours and more.
You may be thinking: Great, I have my core values.
But, all the things we want and aspire to be are not quite as high-level as our core values. And we’re limited to having around only five core values.
What we need instead, is a Virtue System.
This is a system that helps in our personal and character development, lets us work out what is important to us, and then pushes us to go live that.
What Is a Virtue System?
As I wrote about in Virtues, a virtue is a behaviour, quality or demonstration of “high moral standards”.
A Virtue System is a list of these virtues in a document that is handwritten or typed out.
In practice, these virtues form the demands that we make of ourselves because we know that they are the right things to do.
By living these virtues, we lead ourselves to happiness and a life of our own making.
Setting up a Virtue System
Setting up a virtue system is simple.
We open a document in our digital note app or get out a sheet of paper.
And then we select our virtues.
These could be the classical Stoic virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
They could be Benjamin Franklin’s virtues of temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.
Or you can choose from the full list of virtues provided at the end of this article.
Then you add them, one-by-one, to your own list of virtues.
If you need to, you can define what they mean to you.
And you can categorise them however you wish.
At the end of this process, you will have a list of virtues that you can easily read over and reference at any time.
The First Virtue Is Always Goodness
The first virtue on your list will always be goodness, and it can be the hardest virtue to live.
Most people do not live with goodness.
This is not because they are evil — the vast majority of people do things with good intentions.1There is a small fraction of humanity that really is evil though. For example, narcissists.
It is because they are not willing to hold themselves (or others) to a high standard, even when it benefits themselves.
Because people are lazy. They are apathetic. They make excuses.
They value status and prestige more than being good. They will sell out for money, fame and resources.
It does not help that modern culture depicts “breaking bad” as being cool.
As Seth Godin says:
The first rule of the game — “All players must agree to not cheat.”
And yet many people do so because it’s the easy way out.
So, how do we live with goodness?
Goodness is living with authenticity, with true independence.
It is knowing what you stand for and being willing to live it, even to your own detriment.
Past societies called this honour, which is a notably absent concept in today’s world.
Being good is having what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls having soul in the game.
Most people today have skin in the game, which is not bad. Entrepreneurs, business people, creatives and more all be hustlin’ which is a good thing.
But very few people today have soul in the game, where they understand their principles and are willing to fight for them, even at their own expense.
Using the Virtue System
To use your virtue system you simply refer to your list of virtues in the morning, as part of your morning ritual.
You also refer to it in the evening by asking:
“What virtues did I live today?”
And know that it’s perfectly fine to not live every virtue every day — the point is that you lived some virtues.
You do not need to be or live all your virtues simultaneously at every moment of the day. You live them when you can, and that’s good enough.2Your really important virtues will form your core values anyway.
As you come across new virtues in your life, you simply add them to your list.
List of Virtues for Your Virtue System
Here is a list of virtues, pulled directly from my own virtue system.
I have categorised them based on how I view them and practise them. You should re-categorise them based on how you view them and practise them.
Character trait virtues
- Being Inhuman
- Brio. Enthusiasm, vigor, vivacity, verve.
- Contempt for death
- Energetic / High energy
- First-hand experience
- Justice. Integrity.
- Order. All my things have their places; each part of business and life has its time.
- Playfulness. Spontaneity, fluidity, physical movement, laughter.
- Prudence. Cautiousness, concern for the future.
- Well-being. Character, luck.
Keeping things going virtues
- Contempt for failure
- Equanimity. Calmness and composure in difficult situations.
- Grit / Perseverance
- Hard work
- Reverence. Respect for the task at hand.
- Self-efficacy. Belief in self, developing oneself.
- Self-reliance. Ability to succeed at difficult tasks eventually.
Lifestyle choice virtues
- Efficiency. Not wasting things, doing things right.
Mind and attention virtues
- Deliberate analysis (of opportunity)
- Industry. Optimise time usage, no unnecessary actions.
- Inner power
- Rationality (logic)
- Serenity. Calmness, tranquility, not affected by trifles.
- Volition. Willpower.
- Affection (for others)
- Magnanimity. Wise giving, forgiveness.
- Philanthropy. Belonging to a global community of humans.
- Pull others up
Taking action virtues
- Resolution. Follow-through to completion.
- Right action
What To Do Next
Set up your virtue system.
Select your virtues.
And use them daily to live, as you were meant to live.
- There is a small fraction of humanity that really is evil though. For example, narcissists.
- Your really important virtues will form your core values anyway.