The Science of Building Character

I recently read an article about how two university professors were attempting to find out if science could answer the age-old question: does adversity really build character?

It’s a question I mulled for two years as I drank coffee, ate Peanut M&M ‘s, walked suburbia with Maggie May, and wrote my second book, Ordinary Hero. I mean Greek philosophy and every Tom Hanks movie I’ve ever seen reinforces the belief that overcoming adversity is how one builds character.

So what did “science” have to say?

The article states:

Since we often tell others that we’ve grown (even if we have not) to cope with the pain we’re still experiencing, since it often takes years of various recovery efforts and honest reflection to achieve some clarity towards a traumatic event, and since most evidence is anecdotal and is constrained by human memory…

…developing a true scientific understanding of character building is near impossible.

However, the article argues that throughout history, adversity has without a doubt triggered human growth.

The Egyptian pyramids, all religions, democracy, Westward expansion, and indoor plumbing are laborious results of a human community overcoming adversity together.

People really are amazing. And after enduring adversity, they do become physically, emotionally, and spiritually stronger, increase their self-esteem, and improve the quality of their relationships. However, the personal growth so romanticized by Hollywood, doesn’t happen nearly as often as most people and some research suggests.

The truth is–adversity makes us vulnerable.

Not everyone will grow from adversity.

Some adversity permanently breaks people.

Because overcoming adversity isn’t easy. It’s something I struggle with everyday. Exercising helps. Walking Maggie May helps. Eating Peanut M&M’s help. Taking naps helps. Writing to you helps.

But I know certain adversities–the death of a child or a spouse, a terminal health diagnosis never fully go away.

Yet our mysterious capacity to transcend our adversity is stronger than the adversity itself. And I believe, the antidote to adversity is to accept it and know it entered our lives at a pivotal moment to teach us, and to build our character.

The research concludes that being social creatures, people have always and will continue to need the help and support of their families, friends and communities in the wake of adversity. Establishing connections plays an important role–if not the most important role–in determining whether people allow adversity to strengthen their character.

Now, because life is like a box of chocolates, I don’t believe “science” will ever be able to provide empirical evidence to prove or disprove the old Nietzsche adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

I also believe humans are beyond science. There’s an evasive DNA strand that will never be found. The way it should be. And experiencing redemption stories together enlivens the human spirit, inspires, and, like binge watching Tom Hanks movies, empowers us to allow our adversities to build our character.

Be well,


Greetings to everyone who found me on the University of Pennsylvania’s Ataxia Clinic’s website! Thanks for stopping by. I have ataxia and though I’m not a doctor, I hope my words comfort, encourage, empower, and serve as good company on your journey.


July Book Promos for You:

Are looking for inspiration? Are you searching for a better version of yourself?

This month I joined literary forces with some best-selling authors in two awesome book promotions. Click the link below:

NEW: Hot Summer Self-Help 

Finding Freedom, Building Your Best Life

Buy Here!

Recent letters you may enjoy:

Life is Change

Adversity Also Builds This

The Most Painful Letter I’ve Ever Written to You


Jay Armstrong is a speaker and an award-winning author. Despite being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, that impairs his movement, balance, eyesight, and speech–Jay presses on. The leader of the Philadelphia Ataxia Support Group, he hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life.

For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:

1. Reading
2. Writing 
3. Exercising
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents or a drink with his friends)

Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time. 

You can also visit Jay at

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