Tomorrow I race the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile—50 miles of tough climbs on a hot day against a challenging field. I am not afraid but eager and expectant. I won’t be afraid on the start line, and I won’t be scared if I am pressed to make a move at a pace that I might not be able to sustain. To be clear, this race might go terribly for me. Anything can happen over 50 miles, and maybe my legs won’t show up. I could be really tired or struggle over the relentless hills. But, if this race does not go well for me, it won’t be because I was not brave. The reason I can say this is that I have been practicing bravery in my sneakers.
What this looks like on a regular basis is that I attempt paces I might fail at. I plant surges into runs when I am tired and am not sure I can maintain the pace. I run with people who are faster than me. And I show up to races and practice being confident, rather than fearful. I practice being brave in my training so that it is an impulse—my second nature. This way, when courage is required of me, I won’t have to deliberate in the moment about how to respond because I will have formed the right habits.
Now imagine this: It is the final night of an academic conference. There is a soiree—drinks and conversation to end the evening. I walk in and notice the only two people I know are already engaged in conversations. I walk a small loop around the room, staring at the floor, and I slide out the side door, too nervous to start a conversation. I look down at my dressy shoes. It seems I am only brave in my sneakers.
Local Versus Global Traits
I have written in the past about the role athletics can play in our character formation. We acquire virtues by practicing them, and athletics can provide an opportunity for this practice. “Men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” (1) If we want to acquire the virtues, we have to build the right habits. Structurally, then, participating in a sport is helpful for character formation because it is a domain in which we apply the logic of ‘practice.’ We wake up every day and repeatedly do the same things, with the set intention of improving.
However, we might wonder why it is, that while we practice being brave, perseverant, or prudent in our running, these qualities are sometimes confined to the context of sport. Stated differently, we speak about sports as having a formative role in our character, but it seems these excellences do not always transfer into the rest of our lives. They are local traits—qualities specific to one sphere of life (in this case, running)—rather than global traits—qualities that define us in every aspect of life. An example of what I mean is this: I can run for up to 48 hours at a time, but sometimes I read for an hour or two and become convinced I need a break. I have more perseverance in my running than in the rest of my life, and this is a problem. Maybe you have this problem, too.
The Beginnings of Virtue
It might be helpful to note that for the ancients like Plato and Aristotle, athletic training is only the beginning of character formation, not the whole of it. Athletics, along with poetry, are employed at the start of one’s education to serve as a propaedeutic to formal learning, shaping learners to have productive habits of mind and to be disciplined enough to be teachable. After that comes grammar: Students are provided with virtue concepts so they can identify excellences, abstract them from a specific context (like athletics), and practice them in other spheres of life. Then comes logic—developing a student’s prudence and teaching them how to think clearly, to become better equipped to respond to reasons.
Throughout this process, students are exposed to exemplars—excellent or admirable people who embody certain virtues—so they can learn from and imitate them. (2) A wide range of exemplars from different backgrounds and roles can demonstrate what a virtue looks like in different areas of life. For example, courage for a firefighter will look different than courage for a philosophy student, but both involve finding the mean between recklessness and cowardice. Perseverance in running, perseverance in reading, and perseverance through a difficult time in my life will all look different, yet all demand I remain under a burden. To cultivate the global trait of perseverance, I need to practice being perseverant in any and all circumstances where the virtue is relevant. And this is important to me. I do not want to persevere exclusively on the occasions when I am wearing my sneakers because I am a person first, not just a runner. I wear other shoes.
Athletics can be a great start to character formation, positioning us to form good habits. But if we want to develop virtues beyond sport, these are my suggestions:
Be honest about your character. You are probably a mess. I am a mess. It’s a human thing. Thankfully, like athletic fitness, character is something that we can actively improve. But it helps to start from a place of self-recognition—acknowledging specific character defects. Write them down. After all, this is what we do at the beginning of a training block: We record our baselines. Then we can see our improvements as we go.
As a note, sometimes it helps to have a good friend to provide some insight. Friends are great for honest appraisals and accountability, in much the same way that we benefit from having running buddies.
Practice the virtues. Listen, runner. I know you know what practice is. Why is it that every day, we practice being the type of runner we want to be, writing out plans and not missing a beat, but then we have a laissez-faire approach to who we are in daily life? It’s strange. Instead, we can apply the same ‘training’ mentality to the rest of our lives. We become just by doing just acts and honest by speaking truthfully, even when doing so is hard. We do these things, and then we get better at them.
Practically, virtue training can look like this: Pick a virtue concept, and make it your focus virtue. Define it, and reflect on how it might apply in different areas of your life. Practice that virtue—maybe for a month, or just as long as it takes to develop a good habit. As with athletic training, anticipate that it will feel difficult at first, but with practice it will get easier over time.
Develop your moral imagination. Surround yourself with role models—not just great runners but with people you admire in other domains, too. Ask yourself what it is you admire about them, then imitate their excellences, in your context. Read stories about heroes and villains and examine whether you see any aspects of yourself in their characters. Talk to friends about virtues and vices—about the qualities that make people flourish, and the qualities that do not. Read biographies of amazing people. See if you can identify the processes of development these people underwent to cultivate virtues. Nobody starts out virtuous. Virtues are intentionally acquired.
I stand outside the conference soiree, looking down at my dressy shoes. I realize the only way I am going to be courageous outside of running is if I practice my courage, in the same way I do in running. I re-enter the room and introduce myself to a few people. I am awkward! But I survive. Eventually, I’ll be as brave in this context as I am in my sneakers.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you have character traits you that are more local than global, or those which are definitely global? Can you talk about this?
- What are this moment’s ‘baseline virtues’ for you? And how would you like to develop them more?
- Nicomachean Ethics II.2.4
- Nicomachean Ethics, I, vii, v.