Everybody’s good at something. Yes, even you. Yet it’s easy to doubt yourself when you’re surrounded by a growing legion of multi-talented people, seemingly achieving amazing feats at younger and younger ages. When we compare ourselves to high achievers who’re being celebrated for making their unique mark on the world, we may feel inadequate, until we realise that the main difference between average and outstanding people is that the latter group has learned to identify and use their strengths on a regular basis.
Positive psychologist, Ed Diener, describes strengths as those “pre-existing capacities that energize us and lead to our success and best performance….they come naturally to us.” Intuitively, many of us know that there are things that come naturally to us, which we excel at; while others require greater effort, even exertion, to accomplish. Without exception, using our natural talents brings us greater joy and fulfillment; and the more we use those talents, the greater our chances of being outstanding.
Strengths also underlie our greatest achievements and provide our biggest areas for growth. While in the past, people were encouraged to be aware of and to manage their weakness, following decades of scientific research, the growing consensus is that we should focus on using our strengths as the path to excellence, meaning and engagement.
If for no other reason than that it’s fun, I encourage you to think about what energizes you and do it on a regular basis. For example, do you naturally take charge of situations and show exceptional leadership qualities; or do you have a unique way of looking at things – are you a visionary, or an innovator? If you’re having trouble thinking of something you’re good at, what do people regularly compliment you for? Using your innate strengths often will lead to more peak experiences, or in the words of leading scientist, Barbara Fredrickson, “people who have the opportunity every day to do what they do best ÔÇô to act on their strengths ÔÇô are far more likely to flourish.”
While I am a big advocate of simply paying attention to what makes us feel good and pursuing it as the primary route to success, there are actual tests that have been devised to help us discover our unique strengths. Here are a few you might like to try.
The first is the StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath of Gallup. Although I trust nothing more than my own intuition, I found this test’s characterization of my strengths to be rather accurate. After computing my answers to a series of questions related to my personality, the StrengthsFinder listed and described my top five strengths, or themes, which included being strategic, futuristic and being able to see the connectedness in all things, amongst others. The results also provide insights into what makes one stand out; as well as ideas for action in each of the top five themes.
Another test you might like to try is the Values in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths questionnaire, developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, found at www.authentichappiness.com. It tests twenty-four ubiquitous character strengths ranging from curiosity and love of learning, to wisdom and zest for life; and ranks our top five signature strengths. After taking the VIA about four times over the course of several years, I found that that my signature strengths not only remained more or less constant, but the times in my life when I was happiest and making the greatest strides, was when I was making a conscious decision to use my signature strengths.
Far more important than simply discovering our strengths, is crafting our jobs and daily lives in a way that enables us to use those strengths. While this may require some innovative thinking to begin with, it really is the key to fulfillment. Did you know that scientists have discovered that finding new ways to apply our strengths leads to individuals who are both content and most productive at work? It’s the difference between people who describe themselves as having a calling, which is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake; and those who have a job, which simply pays the bills. It’s also the difference between people who find meaning and engagement at work, versus those who dread work and achieve less on a daily basis.
Even if you don’t feel like taking a test, do give some thought to what lights you up. What do you characterize a play which to other people might feel like work? That is your strength. Instead of sheepishly imitating what other people do best, or worse, trying to discourage them from using their gifts because it makes you feel insecure, find what you love, your unique strengths and use them on a regular basis. That is the source of your greatest power.