In Pursuit of the Good
My Twenty Words
Published on November 1, 2011 by guest author: Steve LeBlanc
Several years ago my behavior at a social event had appalled me. I had acted in an intolerably immature and selfish way, and my abhorrent conduct had been on display for all to see. I was unbearably ashamed. I remember lying in bed at night miserably wondering how I had become the kind of person capable of acting in such a manner.
Then it slowly dawned on me that this type of behavior wasn't entirely new to me. I began to replay various scenes from my school days and early adulthood, and realized that I had often acted in a similar way during those years of my life as well, but had not been self-aware enough at the time to recognize it. I became conscious of the fact that my behavior at the social event was not an isolated incident, but symptomatic of a long-standing character flaw. I grew ashamed again, for the younger versions of myself, and resolved to change. I became more conscious of other personality faults, and desired to overcome these faults as well. I wanted to become a better person. This article describes a few thoughts I've had regarding the stages of my (not nearly completed) journey of self-improvement.
Upon commencing this project I believed (and still do) that I had a decent understanding of both my personality strengths and my character flaws. I had determined that my greatest strengths were tenacity, confidence, and an honest desire to do what is right, and that my greatest weaknesses were self-absorbedness, a tendency toward boastfulness and self-aggrandizement, and a propensity to be impassive to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others. I could further itemize my weaknesses by admitting that I tend to talk too much about myself, sometimes interrupt when others are speaking, brag about my accomplishments, talk too much in general, and for the most part am not as unselfish as I would like to be.
It did not escape my attention that nearly all my identified weaknesses appear to result from self-centeredness. And I admit that I tend to be self-centered. It follows that in my case improving my character must necessarily involve a reduction in self-centeredness. However, I don't think the case is quite so simply stated. I have long thought that most peoples' greatest weaknesses parallel their greatest strengths (and vice versa). If this is true, my strengths are likely intimately connected with my weaknesses. And this does appear to be the case. It seems (to me at least) that my particular manner of self-centeredness manifests itself in the tenacity and confidence that I count as personal strengths, as well as in the various varieties of self-absorbedness that I believe are character flaws. So while it is certainly true that I need to be less self-centered, any effort that involves nothing beyond a general attempt to become less self-centered is probably not the right approach. I do not want to eliminate my strengths along with my weaknesses, which could occur if I eliminate that part of myself responsible for both.

I needed a more sophisticated approach. I decided not to merely focus on those aspects of my personality that I wanted to eliminate, but rather to construct a positive model of the person that I wanted to be, and to focus on becoming as close to this model as possible. It was important that this be a realistic model. It wouldn't do to just select someone whom I admired as a model, if their basic personality was too different from my own; I would be fighting against my very nature in trying to attain that model. I instead tried to determine who the best person I could be would be. This involved accounting for both my strengths and my weaknesses. For instance, I am a confident person who is very tenacious in striving to accomplish what he wants to achieve. What is the best way for me to be? Can my character flaws be jettisoned in a way that still allows the best part of me to subsist?

Even though I identified my strengths and faults, and constructed a mental image of the person I wanted to be, I still found it difficult to change my character to the extent I desired. I was fascinated to find that the act of contemplating the model of the person I wanted to be was in one sense extremely powerful and in another sense completely futile. On the one hand, whenever I kept this mental image in front of my mind, I truly became the person I wanted to be.

My strengths remained my strengths, and my character faults seemed to vanish with hardly any effort on my part. On the other hand, this was useless given the fact that it seemed impossible to keep this mental image in my mind for any significant period of time. I would put the image in my mind, and start the day off well. Five minutes into my first meeting at work, however, my mind would already have moved on to the details of the day. Before I knew it all of my character flaws were manifesting themselves all over the place. I was interrupting people during the meeting (because what I had to say was obviously most important), and trying to ensure that the results of the meeting favored me over the others involved. I would head back to my office and only then remember who I really wanted to be, and regret my actions.

This continued for some time, and I experienced very limited success. I eventually realized that even the best person I possibly could be would still likely be a person with a predisposition toward displaying the character flaws that I have yet to overcome. Therefore, I needed to aspire to be a person who realizes that he has these predispositions, and acts accordingly. Doing so would involve tempering these dispositions as much as possible. It would also involve putting into place positive behavioral processes that can serve as checks against the behaviors associated with my character flaws. I determined to develop a method and routine that would continue to remind me of who I wanted to be, while simultaneously helping to guard against my negative predispositions.

This led me to my current method. I resolved to discover which twenty words would best help me to become the person I wanted to be, should these words be regularly present in my mind. These twenty words would not necessarily paint a precise picture of my model person. Rather, they would be tools to help in my project of self-improvement. For instance, my model might have an important personality trait that I already possess and have no fear of not retaining, and so I might not have included a word that relates to this trait. However, I might have included words that do represent what I believe to be positive aspects of my basic nature, simply because I find it helpful to be reminded that these are positive aspects that deserve to remain front and center. Of course, I was sure to include words that directly countered my character flaws. I chose whatever words I thought would be useful specifically for me. For whatever reason, I tended to choose words that represented fairly generic positive personality traits. I chose words that I understood in my own way (perhaps in a way different from standard usage). The words I selected were:

1. Strong

2. Relentless

3. Confident

4. Audacious

5. Creative

6. Imaginative

7. Happy

8. Optimistic

9. Healthy

10. Calm

11. Responsible

12. Spiritual

13. Moral

14. Wise

15. Intellectual

16. Modest

17. Taciturn

18. Interested

19. Generous

20. Loving

I typed these words into a file on my computer (for safe keeping), and wrote them onto a small sheet of paper (to carry around with me). I have since developed a routine for reading through this list of words. I read them when I first get into the office in the morning, and before and after meetings. I read them before coming home after work. I try to read them each and every time I remember that they are with me; it only takes half a minute to read through them, after all. I am trying to make this collection of words an integral part of my life that reminds me of what I need to focus on if I am to become the best possible version of myself.

I still cannot say that I have made tremendous progress towards eliminating my character flaws, but I do believe that I am doing better than before. Obviously I cannot apprehend my model at all times and think and act accordingly, so I have no grand illusion of ever becoming a perfect person. It is not even possible to continuously keep these twenty words in my immediate consciousness.

But I hope that through spending an appropriate amount of time on self-evaluation, and by hammering these twenty words into my subconscious to the point that they habitually appear when I am considering different courses of action, that I can achieve a fuller and less sporadic awareness of my character, and the ways in which I wish to improve it. I believe that bringing at least some level of this type of awareness to one's daily activities is a necessary first condition for making any significant progress toward enhancing one's character. I must strive to achieve this first condition, and then the act of improving my character can truly begin.

Steve LeBlanc lives in Lebanon, N.H., with his wife, son and two cats. His many interests include philosophy, theater, music and writing.

User Comments
Kathleen | November 02, 2011 16:16

Wow...I am truly impressed by this effort. You're inspiring me to try to do this myself. I recently had a bit of a reality check and I'm trying to figure out what weaknesses led to the situation I find myself in. I'll try your approach. Thanks for sharing.

Steve LeBlanc | November 02, 2011 23:24

Thanks for the comments- I appreciate it. I hope it can help. I'm sure you'll make an honest effort, and I think an honest effort always guarantees some kind of positive result in this area. Best of luck, and I promise I'll keep trying too!

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