How to Develop Character: The 2 Mindsets You Need

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth" by John C. Maxwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you actively look for ways to help other people? Do you act compulsively or deliberately?

According to John C. Maxwell, building character should be your primary goal in life. He suggests two mindsets that will help you do this. First, continually seek opportunities to serve others. Second, consciously act in alignment with your values.

Keep reading to learn more about Maxwell’s advice on how to develop character.

How to Develop Character

Maxwell claims that the foundation of personal growth is good, strong character. By his definition, having “good, strong character” means that you embody three universally-valued traits: honesty, integrity, and generosity. Additionally, you’ll consistently act in accordance with these values, even when it’s inconvenient or challenging.

Maxwell emphasizes building character not only because it ensures that you achieve your potential—the ultimate goal of personal growth—but also because it maximizes your potential. Let’s explore how strong character contributes to each of these outcomes.

Let’s explore Maxwell’s advice on how to develop character.

Mindset #1: Seek Opportunities to Serve Others

Maxwell says that you should generously invest time, energy, and money in ways that benefit the lives of others. For example, you could volunteer or donate to a charity that helps people in need. Serving others will expand your capacity for generosity, which is one of the three traits Maxwell says comprise a healthy character.

(Shortform note: Maxwell encourages building character by giving to others—but before doing so, you may need to nurture your sense of generosity. Research suggests that compassion is the emotional basis for generous behavior—so if you’d like to become a more generous person, start by cultivating your sense of compassion. One way to accomplish this is through loving-kindness meditation, during which you actively wish the best for others in your life.)

Mindset #2: Consciously Act in Alignment With Your Values

Maxwell argues that, in any situation, you should practice integrity by making a conscious choice to act in alignment with your values instead of acting impulsively.

(Shortform note: While Maxwell encourages you to always live according to your values, most people end up making some moral mistakes throughout life. According to research, you’re most likely to make these mistakes when you don’t fully grasp the ethical implications of a decision or when you feel social or situational pressure to behave immorally. If you notice yourself neglecting your values, try to understand the consequences of your actions or to change the circumstances that influenced you to act immorally. For example, if you value kindness but snap at your loved ones when you’re stressed, work to understand why you snap and take steps to reduce your stress.)

Exercise: Build Character Through Practicing Your Values

Maxwell says that it’s important to build strong character if you want to grow and that you can strengthen your character through practice. In this exercise, you’ll practice acting in accordance with your values.

  • What would you say are your most important values?
  • When did you recently fall short of one of your highest values? What happened, and why do you think you missed the mark?
  • When might you have an opportunity to embody that value in the coming week? Could there be more than one opportunity?
  • What can you do to make it easier for yourself to put that value into practice when the opportunity arises?
How to Develop Character: The 2 Mindsets You Need

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Here's what you'll find in our full The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth summary:

  • Why personal growth is essential to living a meaningful life
  • How to build strong character and live with integrity
  • How to envision, commit to, and pursue meaningful goals

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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