It’s all the rage nowadays to give the advice, “Play to your strengths.” But how can you know what your strengths really are? Here are five ways to do it—four that work and one that doesn’t.
Have you ever found yourself talking to a friend or family member who is trying to figure out what they should do with their life? If so, you likely asked them, “What are you good at? What are your strengths?”
In most cases, the most accurate response to that question is: “I don’t know.” Because if the person did know, they wouldn’t be trying figure out what to do with their life. They’d already know what they’re supposed to do (they’d still have to find someone to pay them to do it; but that’s a different question).
The fact is, most people don’t know what their strengths are. Some of them will come right out and say that. Others will hem and haw and say things like, “Well, I guess I’m good with numbers,” or, “I think I’m a people person.” But that hesitation and lack of specificity just show they don’t really know.
So how do you figure out what your strengths are? Here are five strategies, listed from least effective to most effective:
(1) Let others tell you who you are.
This is probably how most people try to figure out their strengths. It’s a terrible approach, but it’s the path of least resistance. In fact, it starts from the moment you’re born and persists all through your childhood and teen years and right into young adulthood.
That’s what makes it so awful: young, innocent ears hearing other people tell you about you. You don’t know any better, so all you can do is believe them.
What’s wrong with that? Only the fact that not everything you hear is true. Oh, yes, it’s often well-intended. I mean, what parent or sibling or teacher or friend wants to lie to their child/sibling/student/friend? They would never mean to do that.
And yet. . .they unwittingly end up telling a lot of untruths because everything they say is filtered through the lens of their own subjective impressions. There’s no way they can crawl inside your skin and experience the world as you experience it. They can only tell you about you as they experience you. Some of what they tell you has merit to it. But a lot of it is totally bogus.
Again, they mean no harm. But what they say sometimes causes great harm, because you then start believing things about yourself that simply aren’t true.
You may disagree with me here, and that’s fine. We could debate this all day. My bottom line is that no one is a better expert on you than you. So watch out for letting other people tell you who you are. That strategy just doesn’t work.
(2) Pay attention to consistent, positive feedback from others.
I know, I know. It sounds like I’m completely contradicting what I just said. And I would be if consistent, positive feedback from others were the same thing as letting others tell you who you are. But it’s not. There’s a world of difference.
The main difference is that one is subjective and the other is objective.
For example: here’s a little boy who draws a picture of a giraffe in kindergarten. It’s cute. It’s something his mother tacks up on the refrigerator with a magnet. And she tells her little boy something about himself: “Oh, honey, you’re so creative!”
Is he? The truth is, we don’t know. One drawing does not a Rembrandt make. But Mommy says he’s creative. So what’s that little boy going to believe? Especially if every time he does a craft project or brings home some creation from art class, Mommy praises him by saying, “Oh, honey, you’re so creative.” That may be anything but true. It's only Mommy’s subjective impression.
Meanwhile, a little girl in that same kindergarten class illustrates a simple story and takes it home. Her mother looks at it and says, “Oh, honey, I really like this story!” That’s positive. And it’s true. The mother is telling something true about herself.
That girl continues to illustrate stories and then write stories, all the way through school and into college. And most every time, someone makes a positive comment on it. They like it. Or they find it fascinating. Or they can’t stop reading it. Or they tell her they shard it with a friend. Or they marvel that someone could come up with such interesting characters and plot lines.
After enough of that consistent, positive feedback, there’s only one conclusion that girl (who eventually becomes a young lady) can come to: “I seem to have a real strength in creative writing.”
The reason she gets that consistent, positive feedback is because she does, in fact, have strength in creative writing.
Key word: consistent. Key word: positive.
Even if all feedback is inherently subjective, as long as it’s consistent (there’s a lot of it) and positive (it’s mostly affirming and validating), collectively it all forms objective evidence you can take to the bank.
(3) Pay attention when your efforts meet with success and effectiveness.
To some extent, this is a continuation of the previous point. Except that you don’t necessarily have to hear from others when something “works.” You can tell whether your efforts are bearing fruit.
For example, a boy digs a garden in his back yard and plants vegetables in it. The vegetables sprout up. He tends the plants. Lovely, vibrant zucchini and radishes and carrots and tomatoes start ripening on the vine, and a basketful of vegetables shows that the boy has a green thumb—especially when he gets those results year after year, and he becomes increasingly sophisticated in his ability to grow vegetables under a variety of circumstances.
What about failure? Does that automatically mean someone isn’t cut out for a given task? By no means. Everyone’s going to fail sometime—even if one is gifted to a task. Failure’s just a part of life, because there is so much outside one’s control.
But genuine strength in an area tends to correlate with more success and less failure. And even when failures come, they tend to provide extra motivation—not defeat—to the person who is truly gifted to the task. They don’t throw in the towel just because they had a bad outing. Instead, they try to figure out what went wrong and learn to avoid that breakdown going forward—which makes them that much stronger and more likely to succeed.
(4) Joy and satisfaction from your efforts.
The telltale sign that your giftedness is engaged in an activity is that you gain energy from doing it. You enjoy it. Your heart is in it. You find it satisfying.
What strengths are you using when you’re in those moments? If you’ll pay attention, you’ll discover that those are strengths you tend to use on a fairly consistent basis, often without even thinking about them. They’re natural. They’re instinctive.
Which brings us to the best and most powerful way of discovering your strengths. . .
(5) Look for a consistent pattern of motivated behavior.
Giftedness expresses itself again and again in your life. That’s the nature of the phenomenon.
That being the case, you can use your giftedness to identify your strengths in a very objective way. The process involves going back to those moments in your life when you were doing an activity you really enjoyed doing and where you actually did something or accomplished something (as opposed to just a milestone event like a birthday or graduating from high school). You analyze those activities to identify the abilities you were actually using to accomplish them.
If you analyze six or eight or more of those activities, you’ll discover that certain abilities keep popping up fairly consistently. Those are your core strengths. Those are the “tools” that you keep using whenever you’re in the “sweet spot” of exercising your giftedness.
I have a free resource on The Giftedness Center’s website to help you with this inquiry, called Discovering Your Giftedness: A Step-by-Step Guide. It gives you everything you need to pinpoint your core strengths, along with many other aspects of your inborn giftedness. Give that exercise a try, and then let me know what you discover!
What About Taking a Test?
By now, you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the numerous tests, profiles, and inventories available today for identifying people’s strengths, aptitudes, styles, and other aspects of their personalities. Aren’t those tools the simplest and most accurate means of finding out who you “really” are?
Maybe. But maybe not. However, that’s such an enormous topic that I’ll have to talk about it in my next post. See you then!
Question: Describe for me the most helpful approach you’ve ever found to identifying your core strengths?
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