Play to your Strengths

As a personal development coach, I'm all about personal growth and that often involves challenging limitations and perceived weaknesses that are holding us back from achieving what we want in life. Lately, however, I've been seeing a lot of things written suggesting that rather than working on weaknesses, we should instead consider playing to our strengths. I recently had a conversation with a good friend about this very same topic. It's such a different perspective than the one we're used to that I've decided to write this post to take some time to mull it over and see how I feel about it.

Think about times you've received feedback. Whether it was a report card at school, performance appraisal at work or a passing comment somebody made about you. We can be told several things that we excel at or are doing well and then we're given one note on something that we could improve upon. More often than not, what is it that we focus on? The good stuff goes in one ear and out the next and we let that one piece of constructive or "negative" feedback get under our skin. We dwell on it and blow it out of proportion. This can start eroding our confidence making us feel like we're generally not smart enough, capable enough or whatever enough. So, not only have we blown up our limitations, we've also now put ourselves into a state where we can't even see or appreciate our strengths. How can we even begin to work on improvement from a mental state like this?

Conversely, imagine what would happen if we took that piece of constructive feedback and put it into perspective with all of the positive feedback we'd received. We would find ourselves in a much better mental place, feeling confident because we'd realize that we all have areas in which we can improve but we also have so many other things that we're good at. This positive mental state and energy would likely fuel us to actually take action and work on the noted areas for improvement as opposed to the paralysis we experience when we focus only on the negative.

Some proponents of the play to your strengths philosophy take things one step even further by suggesting that you forget about working on your weaknesses altogether and just focus on making the most of what you're already good at. They suggest that rather than going from below average or average to mediocre or good, you can go from good to great and really shine. Most of the articles I've seen written about this were in relation to the business or professional world. I have to admit that I'm not on-board with this more extreme perspective, especially when it comes to our personal lives, but it does highlight the fact that many of us spend much more time dwelling on what we don't have and what we're not good at and comparatively little time acknowledging what we're good at and really putting those things into action on a daily basis. This skewed perspective results in low confidence, frustration and an under-estimation of ourselves.

I've discovered by coaching people and by doing my own personal reflection that we often really struggle with even knowing what our strengths are but we can list off our weaknesses with very little effort. This can be partly explained by the fact that we all spend so much more time thinking about our weaknesses than our strengths. Also, we often don't recognize our strengths because they come so naturally to us that we undervalue them. We don't see them as special and take them for granted. It's very important to remember that your strengths are not limited to skills that you're good at. They also include your character strengths. I find that it is these character strengths that we're most likely to overlook. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, the author Shawn Achor discusses a research study in which participants became significantly happier and less depressed than controls when they used one of their "signature" strengths every day for a week.

What are your top strengths? If they don't come to mind easily, I have a couple of suggestions to get you started. First, try surveying some people who know you well and who you trust. They may be able to highlight strengths that you hadn't identified in yourself. Another thing you can do is to take the survey that was used in the research study I mentioned above. The survey will provide you with your top five signature strengths (out of a list of 24 strengths that are related to human flourishing). Go to http://www.viacharacter.org/www/The-Survey to give it a try! Mine were honesty (authenticity/integrity), judgement (critical thinking), humility, kindness and gratitude.

Although at first glance the notion of playing to our strengths may seem like we're sitting back and doing nothing, this is not actually the case. Many times, we find it challenging to do what we love or be who we want to be because of time or situational barriers and internal limiting beliefs. How many of us have hobbies that have been long put aside because of work or family commitments? How many of us feel that our kind-hearted or funny nature has no place in our corporate workplaces? How many of us know that our true passions and gifts are not being utilized at all in our current jobs? After taking a closer look, it becomes obvious that just because we're good at something, doesn't mean that it is easy to actually do that thing or use that character strength on a regular basis. Playing to our strengths is clearly not just a cop-out or taking the easy road. It involves deep reflection and requires courage to make changes in our lives that will enable us to nurture these strengths and allow us to shine. Then there's the issue of fear around standing out and shining -- but that's a whole other can of worms to be opened another time ;)

I wasn't initially sold on this concept of playing to your strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses but as I reflect on it, I'm definitely warming to it! I'm not advocating that we forgo working on areas where we want to up our game in total service of cultivating our strengths. However, I can see how beneficial it is to spend a lot more time than we currently do reflecting on our strengths and figuring out how we can improve upon them and use them regularly.

In the spirit of curiosity, let's challenge ourselves to play to our strengths. Over the next two weeks, identify your strengths, determine how you currently are or are not using them, then create a plan to start making use of them regularly. To keep it simple, try to use a different one of your strengths every day for five days (and continue on if you identified more than five). Let's see what impact this has on your happiness, feelings of fulfillment and overall enjoyment of life. It will also be interesting to observe the impact it has on those around you.

I'm so curious to hear what you guys think of this concept of playing to your strengths. I would also love to hear what your top strengths are, how you plan to use them and what was the result of you using them more. Please let me know in the comments below!!