March 26

Do you know your own strengths?

NowDiscoverYourStrengthsYou probably know your weaknesses. If asked, you could probably list five weaknesses in less than fifteen seconds. You've probably even tried at several points in life to minimize those weaknesses.

But do we know our strengths? What if we spent more time advancing our strengths and less time trying to minimize our weaknesses?

I recently read Buckingham and Clifton's, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and it is a great, five-star read. Their main premise is this: We all have strengths (or talents), whether those strengths are inherited or developed in childhood isn't really of interest, but by the time we reach adulthood, those strengths are permanently established. There are some areas of life in which you make significant leaps and bounds, where others struggle. You should spend most of your time and energy on developing your strengths, rather than improving your weaknesses.

Strength vs. knowledge or skill

Buckingham and Clifton define a strength as “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied” (48). So, think of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors across a variety of situations and try to sift out whether there are any patterns. If you often ask questions, perhaps inquisitiveness is a strength of yours. If you often listen whole-heartedly to others' stories, maybe empathy is one of your strengths. If you often find yourself in charge of an event and doling out tasks to volunteers, maybe delegation is a strength.

Strengths differ from knowledge and skills. While strengths develop early on and are more or less set by adulthood (so say the authors), you can acquire knowledge and skills that support your strengths. So, inquisitiveness may be a good strength for a trial lawyer to have, but you would be a poor trial lawyer without knowledge of the law and the honed skill of a proper cross-examination.

Buckingham and Clifton assert that by adulthood, you cannot gain a new strength, but you can gain knowledge and skills. Therefore, you should be self-reflective about what your strengths might be and seek to develop knowledge and skills that support those strengths.

They say this is precisely the opposite of what we actually do in the world. If you've ever had an evaluation at work, what does your boss always emphasize?

Areas of improvement or growth

Your evaluations highlight your weaknesses, and your employer may encourage you to get additional knowledge or training in an area of your weakness. Buckingham and Clifton say that it's fine to minimize weaknesses. If you know public speaking is a weakness of yours, you want to minimize your awkwardness when you have to present at a meeting. This could mean you do attend a seminar or read a book or practice a bit so that you have passable public speaking skills.

Channel your money and energy into your strengths

But Buckingham and Clifton emphasize that if you know public speaking is a weakness, don't bother pouring hours and thousands of dollars into becoming a professional speaker. You may improve, but you'll never be a stellar public speaker, it's just not one of your strengths, and it never will be.

Instead, focus on your strengths. Don't spend hours and thousands of dollars on becoming incrementally better at your weakness, when, instead, you could spend that time and money on becoming leaps and bounds better in one of your strengths, perhaps writing or statistical analysis.

How to find out your strengths

Buckingham and Clifton's book comes with a free strengths profile test. There are other free strengths tests at WorkUno and UPenn's Authentic Happiness site.

You could ask your family and friends what they think three of your strengths are and find the commonalities.

You could also (and probably should) engage in some extra self-reflection. Think back on your life and try to parse out patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors across situations. As you try to acquire new knowledge and skills, pay attention to your own reactions to see if you can determine any particular strengths.

What about you? What do you think your strengths are? What weaknesses have you probably spent too much time and energy trying to fix?

In case you were curious, according to Buckingham and Clifton's test, I am a relator to close friends, I am a learner and an arranger (delegator), and I thrive on intellection and connectedness. I also think I have the strengths of responsibility and problem-solving.

I think I've tried to spend too much time and energy trying to become better at mathematics, when, really, qualitative analysis comes so much more easily to me. (What pain and agony I experienced in a quantitative grad program!) I have also tried to push myself to be more extroverted and outgoing, when, really, I prefer quiet get-togethers with close friends.


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