• by Susan Sussman - Thu, 2016-07-28 13:22

What’s a “Personal Curriculum?"

We’re probably all familiar with some variation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”  This notion, that life is the teacher and each of us students with a personal curriculum, isn’t new. Ancient philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle talked about the relationship betweeen character development and life lessons. For thousands of years so have Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Far Eastern and other clergy, thinkers and practitioners. This never-ending conversation finds traction today as people around the world study yoga, Kabala, Positive Psychology, and Mussar, and as character development has become part of the educational curriculum in schools around the world.

How are a “personal curriculum” and character coaching related?  I thought you’d never ask. 

Each of the individuals and groups that study character development starts with a list of character traits.  Benjamin Franklin named 13 (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility). Positive psychology lists 24 under 6 headings, which they call “virtues.”  (Wisdom & Knowledge includes creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning & perspective; Courage includes bravery, persistence, authenticity & vitality; Love includes intimacy, kindness & social intelligence; Justice includes citizenship, fairness & leadership; Temperance includes forgiveness, humility, prudence & self-regulation; and Transcendence includes awe, gratitude, hope, humor & spirituality).

Once we gain some understanding of character traits, the idea is to expand this understanding in two different ways. The first way is by looking at any given trait on a continuum and assess where that trait is on our personal development curriculum.  Here’s an example based on the work of Chris Peterson, who wrote extensively about Positive Psychology.

Character Strength








Another example, from the work of Mussar writer Alan Morinis, illustrates the same principle.

Morinis Humility Continuum

Using the examples above, I might conclude that Gratitude is on my personal curriculum because I realize that I tend toward rudeness when I feel stressed, but Humility doesn’t show up on my personal curriculum because I usually am a strengths spotter in my interactions with others .

The second way to work on character development is by adopting a “practice.” So, what’s a practice? This is what Ben Franklin did: He selected 1 of his 13 traits to work on each week and kept a breast-pocket journal with him at all times for recording his successes and failures. With 13 character traits, paying special attention to 1 trait each week, he could focus on each trait 4 times a year. Franklin followed this plan for 50 years and felt indebted to this system for allowing him to achieve his life’s goal of contributing as much as he was capable of to society.

Character Coaching asks coaches and clients to work holistically – not just on the To-Do List but on the "Who" List.  It also encourages coaches & clients be strengths-spotters and to identify and work on their personal curriculum!

What's on your personal curriculum?