Last week, I wrote a post asking you to consider whether you were truly living your life on purpose. That post, the first of a new series, explored why so many of us are settling for jobs and careers where we find ourselves counting down the minutes until the weekend. I asked why so many of us are settling for a life we enjoy only 28.6% of the time – 2 out of 7 days of the week. The answer it seems is that many of us have sadly traded financial security for bold, daring, purposeful living.
In contrast to this path of soulless security, I proposed a new path – one that would require creativity, innovation, and hard work but result in greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Taking this path does not require us to cast aside the practicality of having to earn a living, but instead positions financial security as only one of three considerations when choosing a career path. The other two areas to consider are your passions and your strengths, and where the three come together, that is your niche – your purpose. It’s only when we are functioning out of our niche that we truly come alive and unleash all of our creative potential.
Today my question for you is, are you living a strong life? Do you know what it means to live out of your strengths? Do you even truly know what your strengths are? Unfortunately, too many of us are not great at understanding and articulating our strengths. Someone asks us what our strengths are, and we either offer a vague response or we list off a couple of things we’re good at.
“I’m a people-person.”
“I’m good at planning.”
“I have strong organizational skills.”
But have you ever talked with someone who truly seemed to be working out of their niche? Someone who seems to be living an intentional life of purpose? If you ask people like that what their strengths are, their answers are different. They’re articulate, precise, and confident.
“I’m good at building relationships with many different people and building bridges between them. I help others better communicate across department lines, so we can all work together to solve problems and try new solutions.”
“I enjoy looking at the big picture and then breaking it down into specific strategies and goals that we’ll need to pursue in order to achieve our goal. I’m good at seeing how all the different pieces and parts connect together and thinking through projected outcomes.”
“I’m good at providing structure to spaces and processes. I have a strong eye for how a person, space, or process can be better designed in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness.”
How then can you develop better answers to the question, “What are your strengths?” The first thing to do is cultivate a correct understanding of what a strength really is. Too often, we think a strength is only something we are good at. That’s not really true though, is it? I’m confident that there is something you are good at, but you hate doing. For me, I’m excellent at math. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure the lowest grade I ever got in any math class throughout my college career was a 97%. And yet, I never considered a job in finance, accounting, or as a math teacher. Why? Math didn’t inspire me. I might have been good at it, but to me, it was boring and tedious work.
A strength is not just something we’re good at then. That’s only part of the equation.A strength is something that we are good at and we enjoy doing. It’s something that leaves us feeling energized and fulfilled after we’ve been doing it – even though we might feel physically tired. And often, when we are working out of an area of strength, we “get in the zone.” Minutes and then hours just seem to fly by. There are times I’ll get inspired and start designing new curriculum or planning for a keynote around 9pm, and the next thing I know it’s 3am! My body then reminds me that I’m tired, and I need to go to bed, but overall I have a sense of excitement and fulfillment. That’s how you know something is a strength.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer you a few ways to start identifying your strengths. First, there are some great resources available like StrengthsFinder 2.0 that offer you an online strengths assessment. While a powerful tool, especially if you feel completely stuck when it comes to thinking about your strengths, it’s not enough. A strengths report is a great starting point, but it doesn’t help you clearly see how those strengths are lived out in your daily life.
The next two approaches to identifying your strengths are much more personalized and require you to set aside time to intentionally consider and reflect on your experiences and abilities. While similar, one is focused on the here and now while the other focuses on your personal history.
In regard to considering your strengths in the here and now, strengths expert Marcus Buckingham suggests carrying around a small “strengths notebook” with you for a week a two. Every time you find yourself doing something that you enjoy, feeling as though you are performing quite well, or experiencing a sense of satisfaction from a job well done, write it down. Then, at the end of that week or two, make time to review your journal and examine what you wrote down. Are there any common themes? Do you see any patterns emerging? Those are your strengths.
There’s also great insight to be gained from reflecting on your past. Research has shown that although we mature and our values and beliefs may change, the core of who we are tends to stay consistent over time. If you loved competition as a child, you’re still going to be competitive as an adult. When I was in sixth grade, there were two fourth grade girls on my softball team. I loved encouraging them and helping them learn new softball skills. I also remember talking to them and giving them advice about fourth grade, and more importantly on what it would be like when they got to fifth grade and had to change classrooms and teachers twice a day for the first time. I still love mentoring and investing in others.
So, grab a piece of blank paper, turn it side-ways, and draw a time-line across the bottom (five year increments usually work best). Then, start filling it in. What things were you good at growing up? What did you enjoy doing as a kid? What are your most energizing memories? Think back as far as you can. What did you love doing in kindergarten? Elementary school? Middle school? High school? College? When you’re done, once again look over everything you came up with – are there any common themes? Are any patterns emerging? Your timeline is the story of your strengths played out throughout your life.
Now, there are a few of important things I want you to keep in mind while you complete either the notebook or timeline activity. First, suspend judgment. Don’t over think it! You’ll get to analyze the data later. When you are first writing things down either in the moment or that you remember, don’t edit yourself. Just acknowledge it as a moment where you felt strong and fulfilled. Then, at the end, go back and look over what you wrote down with a more analytical eye.
The second thing is write down whatever comes to mind. Don’t discount anything; nothing is too small. One of my earliest strength memories is coloring inside the lines with my grandma. While seemingly insignificant at first glance, when you look at my whole timeline, you’ll see that it’s the start of a pattern of striving for excellence and spending one-on-one quality time with the people I care about.
Third, consider experiences from all areas of your life not just work. Don’t limit yourself to experiences in a professional setting. Our strengths are not just evident at work. They are a part of who we are, so they come out in all areas of our lives – our relationships and experiences with our family and friends, school experiences, hobbies, house projects, volunteer work, etc. Like I mentioned earlier, I was naturally mentoring my teammates and friends long before I knew what “mentoring” was.
Finally, consider sharing your results with some you trust and who knows you well. Perhaps that’s a spouse, friend, mentor, colleague, parent, or executive coach. Sometimes we are blind to our own uniqueness. Sometimes a strength comes so naturally to us that we don’t recognize how special it is. That’s why getting an outside perspective from a trusted source can be helpful.
Overall, while this process is fairly simple, it can provide tremendous insight. Just like most things in life, however, you get out what you put into it. So grab a notebook and a pen and make it a point to pause throughout your day. Then set some time aside one evening or weekend to work on your timeline. Reflect, reminisce, review. Recognize what it is that you do well and leaves you feeling fulfilled. Realize your strengths. Put them to work. Live a strong life.