3 Character Traits That Lead To Success

What is the best way to learn? There are no right answers to this question but I know there is one way that has worked for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks called it “dialectic” which was, for them, just another word for conversation. Talking with others and asking questions has also been called the Socratic Method. I know from experience that my life and education has depended on this approach to learning and living. What follows are the words of Jane Chin. She is in a modern Socratic teacher. She helps executives, academics, and individuals to learn about how best to develop themselves in STEM fields. She’s also been a keynote speaker at many places such as University of California at San Diego Annual PhD Conference, the Baylor College of Medicine & MD Anderson Cancer Center First Annual Presidential Career Symposium, and the University of Virginia Women in Math and Sciences Conference.

While what she does for living is impressive, her role as an alumni interviewer for an Ivy League School has given her a chance to share her wisdom with students hoping to be accepted. Her post on the website Quora.com on what she’s learned from talking with students will help educators, students and families understand what makes for a successful conversation and, more importantly, what makes for a successful student and contributing citizen.


Standing Out Amid a Sea of High Achievers: College Application Edition

For the past few months, I had been very active meeting with prospective college student applicants to my alma mater, as part of my volunteering with its alumni admissions ambassador network.

I met with graduating seniors from 7 area high schools. I wanted to meet as many of these young people as I feasibly could, partly because I wanted an insider’s perspective on life as a high school student in today’s extremely competitive times.

Students I’d met with were a select group: I knew that for me to meet with them, they would have a level of achievement and maybe confidence to apply to an Ivy League institution. I knew that I wouldn’t be meeting with slackers, or young people who were new to goal-setting. In other words: I knew that these students would be among the best students in their graduating class.

If I had to distill for myself what impressed me the most about the students I’d met, I’d say it wasn’t embodied in any one specific person, but are commonalities among the young people I admired most. These commonalities are:

1. Courage.

One student, who started out fixated in engineering, decided she wanted to go into animal science. She met with a tremendous amount of resistance, because she was good in math and science, and as a female applicant, she would be “preferred” as a gender minority in STEM careers. She also had long-term peer relationships who were set on the engineering path. Her courage to stay on her new decision, and her courage to admit that she really did not know what she wanted to do with her life, stayed with me.

Being courageous isn’t a dramatic act of rescue or revolution. In real life, courage takes more subtle form. You are courageous when you are honest about who you are, instead of pretending what people say you should be. You are courageous when you think for yourself, and make decisions about your career and life, even as you listen to many unsolicited opinions of people who barely know you.

You are courageous when you admit, “I don’t know enough to know the answer to this question, but here is what I do know, based on the work I have done exploring.” It is not easy to live in unknown; we humans prefer certainty and declarations. Society also mistakes declarations with intelligence, when declarations are decisive and does not necessarily come from intelligent decision-making.

But young people feel tremendous pressure to act as if they already know what they want to be, and have their futures planned out. Guidance counselors regularly discourage high school seniors from entering “Undeclared” or “Undecided” as their majors, cautioning that this would make the students less attractive to top universities. It makes me question what the actual purpose of a university is to be: attractive a bunch of people who think they already know everything, or people who can say, “I am not sure, isn’t this why I am here, to learn and explore, so I can make more informed choices?”

2. Self Knowledge.

When I speak with some of these students, I almost forget these are 17 year-olds who have just begun their future and I am more than twice their age. Some of these young people have spent time learning about the person they are. What made one high school’s valedictorian particularly memorable, is his strong sense of self-knowledge: he has put in effort and time to learn about the person he is, and given much thought into the person he wants to become. This came about because of leadership retreats that his high school provides its students; I wonder how common these leadership retreats are among high schools. I suspect, not very common, and only limited to particular organizations or clubs that aren’t part of the school’s core curriculum.

Young people with deep self-knowledge are the ones who show depth in thinking. Their self-knowledge allows them to question premises they receive from their environment: they are conscious of their own biases, limitations, and mental filters. As a result, they have learned to take alternative perspectives, to imagine how people unlike them may look at the same situation and draw different conclusions. These young people show high levels of empathy towards others. One of the things they had to learn is “boundaries”, where they have to draw lines between their empathy or sympathy, and moving forward in the bigger picture. This type of balance is not easy to achieve for most adults, when we have to learn to say “No” when we fear emotional consequences of saying no.

The students who have self-knowledge also were able to give me the most specific descriptions of their decision-making. They share detailed stories about a time in their lives when they were somehow changed. They could tell me specific people who influenced an aspect of their thinking, and why their thinking changed. If they went along or against the grain in their decision-making, they could tell me all the ways they had thought about their options, and how they arrived at their decision.

The students from the wealthiest background did not necessarily show the deepest self-knowledge. One of the students’ parents was a “rags to riches” success story, living in an exclusive neighborhood. This student spoke in generalities about “helping people” in wanting to become a doctor, and it was clear that this mind set remained dependent on authority figures who may guide (or direct) the person’s path. It was a frustrating exercise for me to try to figure out this person. It was if this person did not seem to have a clear idea of one’s self, and this did not come from a lack of wealth and resources. (Moral of lesson: money does not guarantee deep self-knowledge, although resources certainly help in giving young people diverse opportunities that may cultivate depth and self-awareness.)

3. Multi-Dimensionality.

Including multi-dimensionality may be a “chicken or egg” problem: you become multi-dimensional because you are courageous and know yourself — or is it because of what you do on the whole as a person that creates opportunities for courage and self-knowledge?

There are parents who manage the career of their children, and in doing so, are smart enough to know that colleges want “well rounded individuals”. This usually means “extracurricular activities”. There are big ones of course: music, sports, and academic clubs. The scientific people will try to get their kids into research internships, the creative people into apprenticeships. You either play an instrument or a sport. You volunteer.

Sometimes the parents are enlightened enough to take their kids’ lead when engineering environments for their kids to “lead from” or “grow into”. Sometimes parents are clueless and push their kids into clubs or activities because “this sounds good”. Even then, the clueless parents can get lucky, occasionally hitting on an artery of passion for the kid in the roulette of extracurricular activities.

I don’t think the type of activities matter. Otherwise, certain activities will be better than others at encouraging “teamwork”. One stereotype is that team sports encourage teamwork, and while this can be true, being a part of a newspaper club requires teamwork as much as individual contribution. Who says that you need to play team sports to understand what it’s like to work as a team? There are plenty of athletes these days who gain notoriety as celebrity “individuals” — not team members.

What actually matters is how you weather and grow through the challenges inherent with groups of people with personal agendas get together to create or achieve. You can learn accountability and responsibility no matter what extra curricular, as long as you are conscious of your role within it. You may even be better equipped to identify opportunities of learning and growth in uncommon situations: skills that become important as you make your mark through life.

This is why I can’t say the kids who impressed me the most are all in a particular club or play a specific sport. Sometimes the most interesting thing about them is what they don’t mention in their personal statements, or how they have been taught to self-identify (as in, “I play basketball” or “I am a drum major”). Infusing your uniqueness through your activities and goals is what makes you interesting: not those activities or goals alone.

I can usually tell when some of the kids are in activities that they are forced into, or did it as a path of least resistance: they aren’t inspired by it, they are there because they have to, and their time is spent waiting for time to end versus learning or extracting value from time. Even if they don’t say “mom and dad made me,” I can tell.


There are thousands of people who give advice about admission to selective schools. Some of the things I read have helped me expand my approach to thinking about the whole process. Most of what get’s said, however, repeats what has been said for years or even decades. Jane’s words are different. I have rarely ever read advice that gives students a chance to see how developing positive character traits and interests apply far more to life than just getting in to a school. Perhaps this is because Jane’s expertise transcends undergraduate admission. Her work with executives, schools and others further along in life give her a much broader perspective than most whose focus is just on admission.

Courage is one of those traits that does not get mentioned enough to students and I’d say to just about everyone else. Self-knowledge is what the ancient Greeks advised for all of us (Know Thyself was their term) and I agree with Jane this will lead to a student and citizen who does things because they want to rather than what they think will simply help them get a competitive advantage. More and more employers look for those people who can think for themselves and can also see things across disciplines and interests. Multi-dimensionality is a trait that again will build a student’s life skills that will encourage change and growth within and without each individual.

I would like to thank Jane again for letting me post her words here. For those who want to find out more about her business, her accolades, her books and presentations please visit her LinkedIn profile.


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