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Character-Switching​ & The Pursuit of the Poised Life

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If we're to reach our potential, we must pursue the integrated life; we must strive toward being one-faced. Our aim is to be like those integers we learn about in math class: whole numbers, devoid of cunning; what you see is what you get.

Figure 1: John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success." Poise, which approaches integrity from a unique angle, is located in the second row from the top.

Figure 1: John Wooden's “Pyramid of Success.” Poise, which approaches integrity from a unique angle, is located in the second row from the top. You can read more about the pyramid here.

I'm not moralizing here — “you have to do this because it's what good people do.” Instead, I'm arguing integrity is strategic; it's a time-tested method for not wasting energy. John Wooden, who referred to his career as that of a teacher despite achieving fame as a basketball coach, actually calls this Poise in his Pyramid of Success. (See Figure 1.)

From Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life:

Most people think of poise as calm, self-assured dignity; but I call it “just being you.” When we have poise, we're not acting, faking or pretending. We're not trying to be something we're not, nor are we attempting to live up to others' expectations. Therefore, when we are being who we really are, we'll have a greater likelihood of functioning nearer our own level of competency.

Striving for the integrated life doesn't mean, of course, that I act the exact same around my wife, Crystal, as I do around my students in second hour. Linguists observe the human tendency to “code-switch” based on who we're speaking with [1], and I certainly code-switch in a broader, behavioral way as I navigate daily transitions between teaching and parenting and husbanding.

But Wooden anticipates this point. Again, from his Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life:

If someone who lived in a rural area was invited to the Governor's Ball, that person would adjust his or her outward appearance and behavior to fit the social constructs of the event; but with poise the person doesn't even attempt to change who he or she really is. If we have poise, we won't be concerned about what others think. Outside influences won't change who we are or what we try to be. We'll never try to be anything other than who we are. The young people of today would say to a poised person, “You're not a poser.” Poise keeps us… at ease with ourselves, and as long as we're at ease with ourselves, we're going to function nearer our own ability.

Of course we'd dress up for the Governor's Ball. Of course I wear slacks and a tie when I teach and sweatpants if I'm home with my children. The problem isn't when we code-switch, but when we character-switch.

If one period I'm teaching students I supposedly care about and the next period I'm gossiping about them with other teachers, that's character-switching. Just like code-switching, character-switching is nearly unconscious. You don't go out and decide that you'll be someone with integrity issues, someone blind to the reality that everyone else sees. You slip into the disintegrated life, the many selves, bit by bit. The temptations to character-switch are real, and the realer we are about our own propensities for giving into them, the sooner we'll deepen our grasp of Wooden's poise and the integrated life. First, accept that you struggle here. Second, analyze the problem and relentlessly pursue it's solution.

It's not by accident that Wooden places Poise near the top of his pyramid. You don't stumble upon it; you build it on a foundation of other hard-won habits. But the reason this matters for us as educators is because I don't think, for the long haul, we can become the educators we set out to be if we make peace with character-switching. Ryan Lochte's recent embarrassment is one more story in a long line of them where the achievement of ultimate success in one realm is tenuous without integrity. The stories of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods are more extreme examples of this. When we allow tiny instances of character-switching, they act like cracks in a sidewalk, worsening over time if left unaddressed.

So let's bring it home with some questions for reflection, remembering that my aim here isn't to condemn but rather to help you see where you might improve the degree to which you fulfill your potential.

  • In what ways have you made peace with character-switching?
  • At what times of the day does it tend to happen, and what do you need to do to disrupt this habit and replace it with something that gets you closer to being the person you want to be?
  • What excuses are you using to justify yourself in such behavior?

May we see this journey for what it is.


  1. NPR has some good pieces on code-switching that I would like to use with my students soon. Here's “How Code-Switching Explains the World” and “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch.”

3 Responses to Character-Switching​ & The Pursuit of the Poised Life

  1. James August 31, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Hi Dave – great post and I’m bummed we didn’t get to meet up in Las Vegas this summer.

    I’ve been reading recently some stuff written by Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at USC who spends quite a bit of time discussing the integrated and DIS-integrated life. He talks about how an integrated life frees up energy that is normally spent on conflicting desires and appetites.

    A “hurried” life is the greatest enemy to an integrated life. The external demands of career, reputation, and appearance often fool us into neglecting the more discrete inner life where we get centered and find poise.

    A Hebrew rabbi once said that you could become the most successful and respected person in the world, but if you neglect the inner life it would be as if you had gained nothing. Our students have a lot more to benefit from teachers who are poised and centered.

    • davestuartjr September 2, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      James, Dallas Willard is the man. I read The Divine Conspiracy at different times in my life when I need a wheel alignment. That rabbi was right, my friend. I missed seeing you as well. I know it will happen again!

  2. Thomas Shepherd November 7, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

    I genuinely feel like I’ve made leaps and bounds in the way that I approach “reading to learn,” “writing to learn,” and “speaking to learn,” but I can’t help but feel that much of what I do in the classroom falls upon deaf ears because of my teaching style and personality. How would you all approach making students feel comfortable and a part of the classroom enviroment while still remaining genuine? In other words, what is the best way to balance being prickly and sarcastic while at the same time not frustrating students?

    I attempted the only rational solution I could think of at the time, changing my attitude, but it didn’t work. I’ll elaborate below:

    At the beginning of this school year, I tried to be more affectionate with the students, modeling myself after an older grandfather-like teacher in my building (and, in a way, after my perception of you, Dave, in the classroom). The kids quickly saw right through it. It wasn’t genuine and was a good example of character switching; I’m terse and satirical in all of my roles and throughout my day. They knew enough of me from older students or from my exchanges with other staff in the halls to know that I wasn’t a very “loving” person. While my attempts at sarcasm and satire are always intended to point out problem behavior and not to injure (which does usually work with a large number of students), there are always a handful of students that find my manner offputting and upsetting.

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