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Mental virtues are not something most of us think about to any great extent. We tend to look at virtues as being character traits – courage, kindness, loyalty, loving – rather than relating them to the way we think. But the way we think influences everything about us, so it’s worth recapping the list of six cerebral virtues highlighted by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

  1. Love of learning: Being inquisitive is valuable. Some people are more naturally curious than others, but we should all want to learn more. At the very least it keeps our brains active and that in itself helps to keep us sharp well into retirement.
  2. Intellectual courage: Going against the grain is tough and it takes a lot of courage to hold unpopular views. As Brooks notes, the subtler side is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions – when to be cautious and when to be daring and be willing to contemplate outrageous ideas. 
  3. Firmness: You need to have conviction in your beliefs and not give up at the first hint of opposition. But you also don’t want to be so rigid that you can’t mould your thinking when new facts emerge. It’s about being mentally agile and aware.  
  4. Humility: A tough one for academics, as prestige is not easy to obtain. But only the arrogant believe they have truly mastered a topic. There is always someone to learn from and more ideas to explore. 
  5. Autonomy: In simple terms, thinking for yourself. Questioning what you hear and read, rather than blindly accepting it as gospel. But also knowing when to take guidance and from whom. The best teachers are always the ones that want you to challenge them and ask questions. 
  6. Generosity: There is no point sitting on life lessons and experience. We need to share our knowledge and be gracious in how we do it. That means taking the time to talk with people to champion their growth. 

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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