Only one out of five people are able to use their strengths at work. That means 80% of people in the workplace don’t get to use their strengths, which means they are performing sub-optimally. When we don’t get to use our strengths at work, we are not being maximally effective in terms of our contribution. By doing so, we are doing a disservice to our talents and also to others.
Contrary to popular belief, a strength is not something you’re good at, and a weakness is not necessarily something that you’re bad at. According to Marcus Buckingham, a strengths-based psychology expert, we can be good at something but not have the appetite for it. For instance, we could solve the most complicated problems quite easily and get bored doing so. That is not a strength, but a weakness.
A strength is something that leaves us stronger before, during, and after we do an activity, while a weakness is something that leaves us weaker before, during, and after we do it. Our strengths are where we have the most capacity to learn and grow.
Over the course of our lives, our knowledge, skills, and values may change, but our talents will likely remain the same. That is to say that we will become more of who we already are. That is the core of us, and it isn’t going to change much. For instance, if you are detail-oriented now, you’ll be even more detail-oriented 20 years from now. That won’t change much despite what others might have you believe.
Start by taking your interests seriously. Think about the books/articles you read, the websites you visit, podcasts you listen to, etc. Think about your hobbies or special interests, such as attending a computer club or a film group. They are a strong indication of what pulls you. The point is to start doing things that interest you and stop doing things that don’t.
A strength is something that leaves us stronger before, during, and after we do it. It is also something for which we have a natural aptitude over others and that comes to us easily. In other words, we have the talents (interests and skills) for it.
Here is how to figure out if something is a strength: ask yourself before, during, and after an activity if it leaves you energized or drained. If you look forward to doing something, it’s a strength. When you find yourself “in the zone” doing that thing, it’s a strength. After you’ve done the activity and you find yourself fulfilled, it’s a strength. By the way, the same process applies to your conversations with others. That is, if you feel drained afterwards, you might want to reconsider talking to them again. And, if you feel energized after talking to others, chances are you would like to chat with them again.
As you go about your week, any time you find yourself energized due to an activity, jot it down that very moment as a declaration, like “I felt strong when…”. Don’t wait until the end of the day or week before you do this, and don’t try to embellish. Write it exactly as you’re doing it, and avoid judging it. The focus should be on how the activity made you feel, not how it sounded. For instance, I felt strong when I figured out a topic to write about for my weblog. Get really specific, then generalize it. Was it about the discovery of the topic, or was it because it was for the weblog? Or, were you so excited to learn about something new that you couldn’t wait to share it with others?
Simply recollecting your strength statements should energize you. If it doesn’t, then it’s likely not a strength. By the way, note that the focus is always on your action, not someone else. It’s not about what someone else did to you, but what you did specifically.
Any time you find yourself drained, before, during or after an activity, also write it down in the form of a declaration, such as “I felt weak (drained, bored) when…”. For instance, I felt weak when having to confront my spouse about something. This basically means I wasn’t looking forward to it, I certainly didn’t feel good during the confrontation, and it left me drained later on. Recalling your weakness statements will possibly drain you thinking about it, but they are a good starting point for where we should not be spending most of our time.
Over the course of time, your strength statements will give you a good idea about your strengths and the direction you need to move toward. They are a strong indication of what you should be taking seriously. You are interested in the things you’re interested in for a reason. Your strengths are uniquely yours — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You know more about your strengths than anyone can ever possibly know.
Working to find your strengths and playing to them is fine, but what do we do about our weaknesses? Like our strengths, our weaknesses will likely remain the same over the course of our lives. If something is a weakness now, it will be more of a weakness several years from now.
Buckingham suggests that we acknowledge our weaknesses and neutralize them. That means we stop working on our weaknesses because you will never be great at them. This is not to say that you stop doing those things that make you feel weaker altogether, though. Oftentimes, there will be things you’ll have to do because they are part of your job, which is fine as long as you spend the majority of your time cultivating your strengths and playing to them. For instance, if you do creative work, it’s possible that you might not enjoy doing admin work — the backend things that make a business run — but you have to do them to keep yourself in business.
When working in teams, partner with someone whose strengths compensate for your weaknesses (and vice-versa), thereby rendering the latter as irrelevant. Moreover, a team works best when they have synergy, which is only possible in multidisciplinary teams — people with different strengths (talents and skills). But I’ll save that conversation for a future piece.
Another thing we can do is look at our weaknesses from the perspective of our strengths. For instance, if we don’t enjoy a particular activity, we find out aspects of the activity we like, and use that to our advantage. For instance, if you don’t enjoy public speaking (let’s say for a press conference that is required as part of your job) but you like arguing, you could take questions from your audience and respond to them by making constructive arguments, which is your strength.
The funny thing is when we fall back on our strengths, it has a side effect of helping us with our weaknesses. An activity that was formerly our weakness has now turned into a strength. Working on our strengths over time can make them so powerful that our weaknesses become irrelevant in the process.
We need to take the time to understand our strengths and figure out productive ways to channel them. That is the only way we can be of greatest service to ourselves and to others in the long run. By not using our strengths, we are depriving ourselves and others greatly of the same.
(Note: The ideas from this draft have been borrowed from Marcus Buckingham’s books. I present and discuss his ideas in this essay because they bear repeating.)