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Lecturer Ellen Dreezens: How character building improves you and the world

Look at your course of study as an experience rather than as a diploma you are buying, truly reach out to others and offer them something of yourself – a smile, a compliment, a small gift - and, be your own hero. In her Last Lecture, Ellen Dreezens, lecturer in the Liberal Arts and Sciences program, shares her life lessons and offers some advice. On character building and how to make your own life and that of others a little better.

Ellen Dreezens' Last Lecture on character building

In her life, Dreezens – who is 38 now – has given a great deal of thought to her own finality, which prompted her to pick it as the topic of her Last Lecture.  After all, the idea of the Last Lecture series is to talk about things you would want to share with the world before you pass away.

Dreezen’s mother died when she was four years old; her father passed away when she was 21. For a long time, she thought that like her mother she would die at 33, until she turned 34. Meanwhile she is getting used to the idea that she may well live to be 88.

In this Last Lecture, she shares what life has taught her so far and she discusses this seen from the perspective of character building. To truly build character, she warns the people in the audience, you need to be both self-critical and critical of society, and a responsible citizen besides.  You also need self-confidence, grit (determination), and perseverance.  What you get in return is that you become a responsible, mature, and committed person practicing solidarity and willing to cooperate with others.

This fits in very well with the attention Tilburg University pays to character building in the Tilburg Educational Profile. This is an important element, because it makes Tilburg University students and alumni well-equipped to further develop their talents, to increase their knowledge, and to contribute to society. Dreezens has four pieces of advice to give: Be delighting, experience rather than buy, reach out to others, and be your own hero.


Dreezens has four pieces of advice: be delighting, experience instead of buy, connect and be your own hero.

1. Be delighting

Her first piece of advice is to “Make others and yourself happier.” “Do this in your own way.

You do not need big presents – a small gift, a compliment, a sweet message or a smile is enough. People tend to copy other people’s facial expressions, their gestures, and even their accents.  And if we do so, we like each other better as a result. It facilitates interaction and makes it easier to forge ties. But it is not an easy thing to do. You need to be prepared to be vulnerable, to set aside your pride and your prejudices, and show empathy toward others”

2. Experience rather than buy 

“Your life is the sum of your experiences. So make sure you invest in experiences rather than in material things.

Experiences are more fun to discuss and you tend to look back on them with fondness, a phenomenon known as positive reinterpretation.  Experiences bring about intrinsic growth and result in better social relations.

A striking thing is that as people get older they derive more happiness from common experiences. While bungee jumping might have made you feel happy when you were young, when you are older it tends to be the people around you that make you happy.”

3. Reach out to people

“Get out of the ivory tower of science and talk to people involved in what you are researching.

Our brain is structured in such a way that making connections make us feel happy. This can be done in two ways: through sympathy and through empathy. The latter is better, because it means you are really putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Adopt an attitude of imperfection and humility, do not judge others, and accept that making mistakes is allowed.”

4. Be your own hero

“How can you keep on developing yourself? By seeking out people who in many respects are like yourself, but in some areas cause you to have an allergic reaction. Those are the ones in particular that you can learn a lot from. What they have a little too much of, you have too little of. 

Take honesty, for example. If you are too honest, you need to learn to be more diplomatic. But what you do not need to do is to keep your opinion it to yourself, that is the other extreme. Learn from role models in your environment, not from unattainable heroes.

Do so by taking small steps at a time, otherwise your brain will panic and resistance will be the result rather than a valuable learning experience. Be brave, for yourself and for others, for courage is contagious.

And last but not least: Be yourself. Realize that there is a wise person as well as a bad person inside of you, and that you can learn more about yourself from both of them.”