When I was young, I wanted to be a painter, and a novelist, a dancer and a historian. I discovered music in middle school and I wanted to be a professional musician. I recall, so vividly, crying on the floor in my room, when I realized that I was not going to be a professional musician. I didn’t have the discipline to develop the talent I would need. Realizing that music was not one of my strengths broke my heart.
Since then I’ve been on a mission to find my calling, my dream job, my professional strongpoint. I heard something recently that really made sense:
strengths are not things we are good at, but things that make us feel stronger and more alive
Exactly. I’m good at planning, organizing, scheduling and deadlines...for other people -- but that doesn’t mean I stayed at my advertising job. I quit. I left because I wasn't fulfilled. Many of my professional strengths were put to good use in an advertising agency’s office, but I felt like I was fading into oblivion.
Our strengths bring us fulfillment and we may not be good at what brings us the most joy. I read more about this in a blog post by Dave Ramsey. Even if you’re not the best at what makes you the most happy, stick with it - you’re more likely to be successful when you pursue something that rewards you emotionally, or spiritually.
In the spirit of the new year, I decided to check out some ways you can find your strengths.
Take a test
My sister is a career counselor at a college. I asked her what she uses to guide her students to find their strengths. Her first recommendation is Clifton Strengths and meeting with a strengths coach. She also mentioned a free (but not research based, and not the same as having a conversation with a professional) test called High5.
I really liked High5, not only because it was free, but because of the visual gradient provided for your answers. You respond to statements and questions by sliding a pleasingly solid circle left or right on a line; left towards ‘strongly disagree’ or right towards ‘strongly agree. My strengths listed from strongest to weakest are: commander, deliverer, storyteller, empathizer and time-keeper. I have the option of inviting friends to anonymously review my strengths, but I decided not to do that...yet.
Ask Your Friends, seriously.
Some strengths searches start with external feedback, and then work inward.
One is called the Reflected Best Self exercise outlined in this Huffington Post article. The test asks that you gather feedback from our friends and co-workers through stories of when you were at your best. Then, you create a portrait of your strengths based on these stories. You can buy the official exercise, designed by Laura Morgan Roberts from the University of Michigan here, or there is also a helpful worksheet.
Another article recommends reviewing emails and letters where your strengths were praised and highlighted. This is a tough exercise. The very first company I worked for let me go due to downsizing after a year. Looking back, I realize that I was not a good fit for that company. My least favorite boss send me a passive email stating that "You might do better in academia." I resent his condescending demeanor, but seven years later I have found myself considering graduate school. You can understand your strengths more by focusing on past criticisms and feedback.
To be honest, my High5 test results were initially disappointing. I wanted ‘storyteller’ and ‘empathetic’ to be at the top of the list, not 'commander'. I took some time to reflect on my strengths.
Instead of being unhappy with my strengths, I started to see them as the strongpoints I use to achieve my goals.
My top strength was ‘commander’. I like to take charge and direct. I realized that my strength is a positive thing. My desire to direct projects and be in charge of my work explains why I left a large office job for smaller jobs with more intimate teams and goals that align with my values. This blog is something that I direct within a small team.
I went down the list and saw how all of my strengths lead me to jobs, relationships and goals that I find more fulfilling. Don’t listen to the critical voice in your head. Your strengths are wonderful, and if you follow them, you’re more likely to achieve all your new year goals.