Inner Strength For Life – The 12 Master Virtues

Our journey of growth in life can be described as a journey of developing both insights and also virtues/qualities. This article maps out what are the main qualities to develop, and what particular strengths or gifts are gained from each of them.

For some, the word “virtue” may have a bit of a Victorian puritanism associated with it. This is not my understanding of it, nor is this the spirit of this post. Rather, a virtue is a personal asset, a shield to protect us from difficulty, trouble, and suffering. Each virtue is a special sort of “power” that enables us to experience a level of well-being that we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Indeed, “virtue”comes from the latin virtus (force, worth, power).

Let’s take the virtue of equanimity as an example. Developing equanimity protects us from suffering through the ups and downs of life, and saves us from the pain of being criticized, wronged, or left behind. It unlocks a new level of well-being: the emotional stability of knowing we will always be ok.

The same is true for every virtue discussed in this writing.

Developing virtues is not about being better than others, but about developing the potential of our own heart and mind. The philosophers of ancient Greece, Buddha, the Yogis, and the Positive Psychology movement all value the cultivation of certain personal qualities. In this essay I attempt to systematize these core strengths into 12 “buckets”, as many of them share common features.

Each of these virtues, rather than being an inborn personal trait, are habits and states of mind that can be consciously cultivated using a systematic approach.

There are many books written about each of these virtues. In this post I can only cover a brief introduction of each, and suggest some further reading. Finally, I have separated them into virtues of mind and heart only for the sake of exposition – in truth there is great overlap between both.

Let us begin by talking about the need to develop virtues holistically.

Balanced Self-Development

We all have certain personal qualities more naturally developed than the others. And our tendency is often to double-down on the virtues that we already have, rather than developing complementary virtues. For instance, people who are good at self-discipline may focus on getting even better at that, and overlook the need to develop the opposing virtue of flexibility.

There is no doubt that we need to play our strengths. But when we focus solely on our strengths and use them to overcompensate our weaknesses, the result is often not good. We can become victims of our own blessings.

Let’s take the case of a person whose natural strength is compassion and kindness. In certain relationships this might be abused by other people (directly or indirectly). Dealing with this situation by becoming kinder would not be wise. Instead, the opposing virtue of self-assertiveness (the courage of setting boundaries), is to be exercised.

Here are some other examples of virtues that are incomplete (and potentially harmful) in isolation:

  • Tranquility without joy and energy is stale;
  • Detachment and equanimity without love can be cold;
  • Trust without wisdom can be blind;
  • Morality without humility can be self-righteous;
  • Love without wisdom can cause harm to oneself;
  • Focus and courage without love and wisdom is just blind power.

It took me years to get to this precious insight – and I’ll probably need a lifetime to learn how to implement it. 😉

Funnily enough, afterwards I discovered that this was already a concept praised by the Stoics. In Stoicism, it is called anacoluthia, the mutual entailment of virtues.

The point is: we need to focus on our strengths, but we also need to pay attention to the virtues we lack the most. Any development in these areas, however small, has the potential to be life changing.

Have a look at your current strengths. What complementary virtues might you be overlooking?

Virtues of Mind

Courage

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin

Related qualities: boldness, fearlessness, decisiveness, leadership, assertiveness, confidence, magnanimity.

Courage says: “The consequences of this action might be painful for me, but it’s the right thing to do. I’ll do it.”

Courage is the ability to hold on to the feeling “I need to do this”, ignore the fear mongering thoughts, and take action. For a few, it is the absence of fear; for most, it’s the willingness to act despite fear.

Examples: It takes courage to expose yourself, to try something new, to change directions, to take a risk, to let go of an attachment, to say “I was wrong”, to have a difficult conversation, to trust yourself. Its manifestations are many, both in small and big things in life.

Without courage we feel powerless. Because we know what we want to do, or what we need to do, but we lack the boldness to take action. We default to the easy way out, the path of least resistance. It might feel comfortable now, but in the long term it doesn’t make us happy.

Recommended book: Daring Greatly (Brené Brown)

Tranquility

“The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater his success, his influence, his power for good. Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.” – James Allen

Related qualities: serenity, calmness, non-reactivity, gentleness, peace, acceptance.

Tranquility says: “There is no need to stress. All is well.”

Tranquility involves keeping your mind and heart calm, like the ocean’s depth. You take your time to perceive what’s going on and act purposefully, without agitation, without hurry, and without overreacting. On a deeper level, it means to diminish rumination, worries, and useless thinking.

Examples: Taking a deep breath before answering an email or phone call, or before responding to the hurtful behavior of someone else. Being ok with the fact that things are often not going to go as we expect. Not brooding about the past or worrying too much about the future. Shunning busyness in favor of a more purposeful living. Not living in fight-or-flight mode.

Without tranquility we expend more energy than what’s really needed. We experience a constant feeling of stress, anxiety, or agitation in the back of our minds. And sometimes we may be fooling ourselves thinking we are being “active” or “productive”.

Recommended book: The Path to Tranquility (Dalai Lama)

Diligence

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” -Winston Churchill

Related qualities: energy, enthusiasm, passion, vitality, zeal, perseverance, willpower, determination, discipline, self-control, resolution, mindfulness, steadfastness, tenacity, grit.

Diligence says: “I am committed to this work / habit / path. I will continue it no matter what, even in the face of challenges, discouragement, and tiredness.”

Some may say that it is the most essential virtue for success in any field – career, art, sports or business. It is about making a decision once, in something that is good for you, and then keeping it up despite adversities and mood fluctuations.

Examples: Deciding to stop smoking and never again lighting acigarette. Deciding that I will meditate every day and keeping that up, like a perfect habit chain. Showing up to train / study / work in your passion project day after day, regardless of how you feel. Always getting up as soon as you fall. Having an unbreakable, almost stubborn, determination. Treating challenges like energy bars.

Without diligence we can’t accomplish anything meaningful. We can’t properly take care of our health, finances, mind, or relationships. We give up on everything too soon. We can’t create good habits, break bad habits, or manifest the things we want in our lives. We are a victim of circumstances, social/familial conditioning, and genetics.

Recommended books: The Willpower Instinct (Kelly McGonigal), Grit (Angela Duckworth), Power of Habit (Charles Duhhig)

Focus

“The powers of the mind are like the rays of the sun – when they are concentrated they illumine.” – Swami Vivekananda

Related qualities: concentration, one-pointedness, depth, contemplation, essentialism, meditation, orderliness.

Focus says: “I will ignore distractions, ignore the thousand different trivial things, and put all my energy in the most important thing. I will keep going deeper into what really matters. I can tame my own mind.”

Focus, the ability to control your attention, is the core skill of meditation. It involves bringing your mind, moment after moment, to dwell where you want it to dwell, rather than being pulled by the gravity of all the noise going on inside and outside of you.

Examples: Bringing your mind again and again to your breathing or mantra, during meditation. Cutting down on social media, TV and gossip. Learning to say “no” to 90% of good opportunities, so you can say yes to the 10% of great opportunities. Staying on your chosen path and not chasing the next shiny thing.

Without focus our energy is dissipated and our progress in any field is limited (like moving one mile in ten directions, rather than ten miles in a single direction).

Recommended book: Essentialism (Greg McKeown)

Equanimity

“Happy is the man who can endure the highest and lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.” – Seneca the Younger

Related qualities: balance, temperance, patience, forbearance, tolerance, acceptance, resilience, fortitude.

Equanimity says: “In highs and lows, victory and defeat, pleasure and pain, gain or loss – I keep evenness of temper. Nothing can mess me up.”

It is the ability to accept the present moment without emotional reaction, without agitation. It’s being unfuckwithable , imperturbable.

Examples: Not going into despair when we miss an opportunity, or lose some money. Not feeling elated when praised, or discouraged when criticized. Not taking offense from other people. Not indulging in emotional reactions to gain or loss, whatever shape they take. Being modest in success, and gracious in defeat.

Without equanimity, life is an emotional roller-coaster. We are attached to the highs, which bringa pain because they are short-lived. And we are uncomfortable (perhaps even fearful) with the lows – which  also brings pain, because they can’t be fully avoided.

Recommended book: Letters from a Stoic (Seneca), Dhammapada (Buddha)

Humility

“A great man is always willing to be little.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Related qualities: modesty, humbleness, discretion, egolessness, lack of conceit, simplicity, prudence, respect.

Humility says: “There are many things that I don’t know. Every person I meet is my teacher in something.”

Humility is letting go of the desire to feel superior to other people, either by means of wealth, fame, intelligence, beauty, titles, or influence. It’s about not comparing yourself with others, to be either superior or inferior. In the words of C.S. Lewis, True humility is not about thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. In the deepest sense, humility is about transcending the ego.

This virtue is especially needed for overachievers and “successful people”.

Examples: Accepting your own mistakes. Learning to see virtue and good in others. Not dwelling on vanity and feelings of inflated self-importance. Being genuinely happy with other people’s successes. Accepting the uncertainty of life, and how small we are.

Without humility, we live stuck in an ego trap which prevents us from growing beyond the confines of our self-interests, and also poisons our relationships.

Recommended books: Ego is the Enemy (Ryan Holiday), Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue

Integrity

“Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” – Mark Twain

Related qualities: character, justice, honor, truthfulness, sincerity, honesty, responsibility, reliability, morality, righteousness, ethics, idealism, loyalty, dignity.

Integrity says: “I will do what is right, according to my conscience, even if nobody is looking. I will choose thoughts and words based on my values, not on personal gains. I will be radically honest and authentic, with myself and others.”

Like many virtues, integrity is about choosing what is best, rather than what is easy. It invites us to resist instant gratification in favor of a higher type of satisfaction – that of doing the right thing. It’s not about being moralistic, but about being congruent to our own conscience and values, in all our actions.

Examples: Refusing to distort the truth in order to gain personal benefits. Sticking to our words. Acting as though all our real intentions were publicly visible by others. Letting go of the “but I can get away with it” thinking. Not promising what you know you cannot fulfill.

Without integrity, we are not perceived as trustable or genuine. We make decisions that favor a short term gain but are likely to bring disastrous consequences in the long run.

Recommended books: Lying (Sam Harris), Yoga Morality (Georg Feuerstein)

Wisdom

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” – Aristotle

Related qualities: intelligence, discernment, insight, understanding, knowledge, transcendence, perspective, discrimination, contemplation, investigation, clarity, vision.

Wisdom says: “Let me contemplate deeply on this. Let me understand it from the inside out. Let me know myself.”

Unlike the other virtues listed so far, wisdom it is not something that you can directly practice. Rather, it is the result of contemplation, introspection, study, and experience. It unveils the other virtues, informs them, and makes their practice easier. It points out the truth behind the surface, and the connection among things.

Without wisdom, we don’t really know what we are doing. Life is small, often confusing, and there might be a sense of purposelessness.

Recommended books: This depends on your taste for traditional and philosophy. Here is my list.

Virtues of Heart

Trust

“You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” – Steve Jobs

Related qualities: optimism, faith, openness, devotion, hope.

Trust says: “There is something larger than me. Life flows better when I trust resources larger than my own, and when I see purpose in random events.”

Trust is not a whimsical expectation that things will happen according to your preference; but rather a faith that things will happen in favor of your greater good. As Tony Robbins says, it is the attitude that life is happening for you, not to you.

Examples: Not dwelling on negative interpretations of what has happened in your life. Trusting that there is something good to be learned or gained from any situation. Having the feeling that if you keep true to your path, things will eventually work out ok.

Without trust, life can feel lonely, scary, or unfair. You are on your own, in the midst of random events, in a cold and careless universe.

Recommended book: Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach)

Joy

“Remain cheerful, for nothing destructivecan piece through the solid wall of cheefulness.” – Sri Chinmoy

Related qualities: contentment, cheerfulness, satisfaction, gratitude, humor, appreciation.

Joy says: “I am cheerful, content, happy, and grateful. There is always something good in anything that happens. I feel well in my own skin, without depending on anything else.”

The disposition for joy is something that can be consciously cultivated. It is often the result of good vitality in the body, peace of mind, and an attitude of appreciation. It is also a natural consequence of a deep meditation practice, and the letting go of clinging.

Examples: Feeling good as a result of the positive states you have cultivated in your body (health), mind (peace), and heart (gratitude).

Without joy we are unhappy, cranky, gloomy, pessimistic, bored, neurotic.

Recommended books: The How of Happiness (Sonja Lyubomirsky), The Book of Joy (Dalai Lama et ali)

Detachment

“The tighter you squeeze, the less you have.” – Zen Saying

Related qualities: dispassion, non-attachment, forgiveness, letting go, moderation, flexibility, frugality.

Detachment says: “I interact with things, I experience things, but I do not own them. Everything passes. I can let them be, and let them go.”

Letting go is the most essential skill for overcoming suffering. It doesn’t mean that we live life less intensely; rather, we do what we are called to do with zest, and then we step back and watch what happens, without anxiety. It doesn’t mean we don’t love, play, work, or seek with intensity; but rather that we are detached from the results, knowing that we have full control only over the effort we make.

At the deepest level, detachment is a disillusionment with external desires and goals, and there is the realization that the only reliable source of happiness is internal. It also involves not holding onto any particular state.

Examples: Not being anxious about what the future brings. Letting go when things need to go. “Opening the hand” of your mind and allowing things to flow as they will. Having the feeling of not needing anything.

Without detachment, we suffer loss again and again. We can be manipulated. The mind is an open field for worries, fear, and insecurity.

Recommended books: Letting Go (David R. Hawkins), Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away (Ajahn Chah)

Kindness

“The more you lose yourself in something bigger than yourself, the more energy you will have.” – Norman Vincent Peale

Related qualities: love, compassion, friendliness, service, generosity, sacrifice, selflessness, cooperation, nonviolence, consideration, tact, sensitivity.

Kindness says: “I feel others as myself, and take pleasure in doing good for them, in giving and serving. I wish everyone well. The well-being of others is my well-being.”

Kindness and related virtues (love, compassion, consideration) is the core “social virtue”. It invites us to expand our sense of well-being to include others as well. It gives us the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, and feel what they feel as if it is happening to us, and if appropriate do something about it. The result is the experience of the “helper’s high”, a mix of dopamine and oxytocin.

At it’s most basic level, this virtue tell us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. At the deepest level, it says “We are all one”.

Examples: Offering a word of encouragement or advice. Listening without judgment. Helping someone in need, directly or indirectly. Teaching. Assuming the best in others. Volunteering. Doing something for someone who can never repay you.

Without kindness, we cannot build any true human connection, and we fail to experience a happiness that is larger than ourself.

Recommended books: The Power of Kindness (Pierro Ferrucci), Awakening Loving-Kindness (Pema Chodron)

Parting Thoughts

Developing these virtues is a life-long process. We’ll probably never be perfect at them. But the more we cultivate them, the better our life becomes. And, chances are, simply reading about these virtues has already enlivened them in you.

One simple way of cultivating these virtues is to focus on a single virtue each week (or month), and look daily for opportunities to put that chosen quality into practice. Keep asking yourself throughout the day, “What does it mean to be [virtue]?”

I’m considering to creating a 6-month online study program to develop these virtues. Would you be interested in joining such a program? If so, let me know by answering a couple of questions in the survey below.

Virtues Development Survey

Thank you!

  • David Marín

    Amazing article!!!!!!! Wow!! I thought that by practicing meditation everything would be solved but there seems to be much to learn and practice.

  • Dibyendu Dutta

    Excellent post Giovanni ! You articulated profound truths with amazing ease. Thanks a lot .

  • Quintin Beukes

    Added to the helper’s high, kindness has also been linked to significant increases in serotonin… so it seems the old adage of “serving your fellow man” could be a secret ingredient to a living a fulfilling and happy life 🙂

  • Great article as always Giovanni! A course to strategically develop the virtues sounds super interesting, just filled out your little survey.

    Your advice on cultivating these virtues one at a time reminded me of Benjamin Franklin. He had 13 virtues and practiced one each week. For example, in the first week he focused on Temperance:

    “Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offense against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day.”

    A weird question: Let’s say I compared you (even further) with Benjamin Franklin. Theoretically, one could feel honored to be compared to such a great person. But since you’re fairly advanced in meditation/mindfulness/etc… I wonder what your reaction would be? Is it okay to be proud of certain things? Or is the ultimate goal to transcend an emotion such as pride as well? (Not sure, I explained that well enough.)

    Anyway, thanks for a great article!

    • Hi Nils,

      I didn’t know Benjamin Franklin had a similar practice, but I’m not surprised at all. He was a virtuous man.

      Pride is indeed something that we will eventually need to overcome. In the beginning of our journey, it is more the grosser forms of pride that we let go of – such as arrogance, stubbornness, and conceit. While pride in general may actually be a fuel for personal growth for a very long time, and only drop fully later on in the journey.

      As to your personal question, whenever remarks like that are made in relation to me, I see some very subtle thought pattern forming in my mind – which, if developed, would manifest as a feeling of pride, and the related facial expressions. But then, automatically, almost every single time, there is an immediate awareness of it, and it dissolves. The words are then just perceived objectively, and don’t register anything psychologically.

      It was not like this at all. It took a while to arrive at this point.

    • That’s a great explanation. Appreciate it.