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What Are Your Defining Moments?

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Reflecting on Important Moments in Time

We all have moments in our lives that can be considered “defining moments”– times when a certain thing happened that changed our life trajectory. Taking time to reflect and focus on these moments can improve your life.

Consider this first date I had 14 years ago. After a stagnant and uncomfortable dinner, we walked out of the Mexican restaurant together. I had many thoughts swirling around as I held the door for my date: “This is it. I’ll never go out with this beautiful woman again,” and I ruminated, “All my efforts to find the courage to ask her out in the first place are down the drain. I guess I blew it.”

But, among the negativity, I had another thought floating around in my mind. It was a small but persistent thought: “Give it one more try.” I listened to that thought. And so, as we walked to the car, I kicked a stone into the bushes and with my chin at my chest, I mumbled, “Um, do you want to go get some coffee or something?” She replied, “Sure!” I was flabbergasted. The evening and coffee shifted into high gear and a wonderful connection ensued. That woman later became my wife.

That moment – my kicking the stone and deciding, “Don’t give up just yet. Give it one more try. Just one more” – was a defining moment for me. One of the character strengths at play was perseverance (a mid-level strength for me, but one I can bring forth powerfully when I need to), and another strength was hope (one of my signature strengths which drives most of what I do in life). Both of these strengths played a life-changing role for me.

This defining moment impacted my identity – who I am. I learned that when something is really important to me I give things that extra push and effort. And I have my hope strength always looking for possibilities and opportunities in my life, even if it is only one thought among a cloud of detractors.

As I examine the situation, I see that there are meta-strengths, often called “virtues,” also at play. Courage is a virtue that helps us to step up during these moments. I had to overcome the thoughts of “I can’t,” “but I might fail,” and “what’s the point?” At the least, I had to act courageously, even if I didn’t feel so brave in that moment.

This story represents the 4 steps of a positive intervention called the Defining Moments Exercise. Want to give it a try?

Here are the 4 steps to practice the Defining Moments Exercise:

1.) Defining moment:

Name one moment in time that has had a positive effect on you. Preferably, choose a moment in which you took action in some way. This moment doesn’t have to be dramatic, simply any moment that has had a meaningful impact on you.

2.) Character strengths:

List the character strengths you used in that situation. Which character strengths did you bring forth? How did you express them?

3.) Identity:

Explore how this moment has shaped who you are. How has this moment contributed to your identity? No matter how small, how has it affected your view of yourself?

4.) Courage, Wisdom, Humanity, or other virtues:

Step back and view the bigger picture. Were you enacting virtues that helped you mobilize your strengths in that moment? Many individuals rally their courage in order to take action in their defining moment.


While the Defining Moments Exercise has not been fully tested, it has been used with success around the world in workshops, courses, and in Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP) groups. Future research will bear out the potential benefits. In the meantime, my anecdotal evidence reveals the following benefits:

  • Increases savoring. Individual understand their past more clearly and cherish impactful moments in their life.
  • Builds self-efficacy. Individuals realize past successes are connected to their internal strengths and therefore move forward in future endeavors with greater confidence.
  • Improves positive memory recall. While every defining moment might not be positive, the opportunity to see the positive in core events of the past is always present in this exercise (helps with access of positive autobiographical memory).
  • Enhances positive self-perception.


Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.