March 13, 2017

Failing to Discover Your Strengths Is Hindering Your Life

Steve Harvey is grilling you live in front of thousands. As you stand there in your bikini, trying not to ogle his Muppet-unibrow mustache, he asks, “What is your greatest contribution to the world?” You have about three seconds to forgive his insipid question and respond before the audience deems you an idiot. Can you answer?

You're on the spot.

You can wake up now.

Grandiose questions are trite. Most of us can’t hope to effect change on the scale of “world,” but failing to know your strongest features will hamper your whole life.

Know Thyself

Consider the frustration you’ve had while performing tasks that took no account of your talents. Recall the stress of solving a problem for which you were not gifted. For one moment, force yourself to relive the job that sucked your soul dry every day.

The first job I had was in a podiatrist’s office filing away patient records in between rounds of cleaning up toenail clippings. “Somebody had to do it, I guess,” he says through gritted teeth.

If you want to angle your life away from such tedium, you need to pinpoint and cultivate your strengths. In addition, you should be able to put them into words.

One of the most enjoyable, enlivening things I have ever done was to sit down a year ago and make a list. There is nothing like seeing your most powerful abilities before your eyes.

Yet I understand that making such a list might be difficult for some people. I have always been ridiculously introspective. At times it has been paralyzing. When I was a kid at McDonald’s, I noticed that if I ate my burger first I felt too “full” to finish my fries. However, I also knew that this was simply a mind game because I would never leave a burger unfinished. I started eating my fries first and have rarely failed to finish a fast food meal ever since. I know myself pretty well.

If you cannot identify your motivations and tendencies from scratch, try these questions for a start:

  • What do your best friends like the most about you?
  • What kind of problems does your spouse or coworker bring to you before anyone else?
  • For which projects are you others’ first choice?

Your answers to these questions begin to tell a story. For example, they may clarify your strong points as a parent. They can also morph easily into your responses to job interviewers.

Making a List, Checking It Twice, Wondering Why It’s Boring As Rice

One reason writing a resume is so deadening is that we usually just list what we have done with no concern for whether we were any good at it. That, to me, is like eating plain rice accompanied by no other foods, which I cannot do.

Here is my list of activities at which I am proficient:

skills list

But even proficiency is just a surface level. You have to dig deeper to get a helpful reading on yourself. This is a good guide:

  1. Trim the list of work you’ve done, limiting it to what you’ve done well.
  2. Trim that list again to what you’ve done happily.
  3. Trim the remaining list once more to what has left you energized.

You may be confused about that third cut. If I’m ever in a beauty pageant and quizzed on my best contribution, I would almost immediately respond that one of my most useful skills is the ability to digest a concept, simplify it, and make it relevant to teach. I would also sing for the talent portion because it is possibly the most enjoyable thing I offer to both myself and others.

Teaching and singing also leave me wired; I seem to have more energy after doing these activities than before.

I hope your life includes stories of similar endeavors.

“By Your Powers Combined…”

skills list families

Soon after making my list, I went one step further and analyzed it even more closely. I grouped the items, matching each ability with others to make little families.

It might also interest some readers to know that, in my brain, each skill group is related to the group above or below it. Maybe the fact that songwriting closely neighbors preaching explains why the songs I write are so wordy.

It is worth explaining that by the time I made my proficiency list, I had been reading books and listening to podcasts on similar subjects for well over a year. Don’t be overwhelmed. Pace yourself.

When you start not only grouping your gifts but combining them, you can start to imagine some interesting situations for your life – maybe even a new career. Last November, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, described this concept beautifully on The Joe Rogan Experience (listener discretion advised):

“[S]tack together what I would call ordinary skills until your stack is different than anybody else’s. So, in my case, I’m not a great artist. You know, I didn’t take any writing courses. But I’m pretty good at drawing, and I’m pretty good at writing, and I’m a little bit funny, so I put ‘em together and I can do a comic strip. ‘Cause it’s rare that you get somebody who’s, let’s say, in the top ten percent of three different things. But it’s not hard to be in the top ten percent of things if you’re going after them.”

Once again, take your time before you get to this combining step. It’s a bit of a process.

In Steve Harvey’s case, maybe he’s not a great reader-of-index cards. But he’s pretty good at talking, he’s got a measure of charm, and he’s pretty good at surgically affixing the eyebrows he burglarized off poor Bert from Sesame Street to his upper lip, so he puts it all together and he can be a memorable host.

Healthy, Not Haughty

I recently applied for a position at a local theater, hoping to make use of my writing and creativity for their development and marketing department. The manager replied to inform me that 80% of the job would consist of managing their customer database. No thanks. Because of my list, I have clarity about which opportunities to ignore or chase down, and I am equipped to put myself in the path of the ones that fit me best.

Thinking deeply about yourself and identifying your best features is well worth the effort. It’s not self-serving for its own sake – you are recording how you will affect all the people in your life! It’s personal, and it’s interpersonal.

And articulating those strengths is not arrogant. It’s necessary.

I waited 33 years to invest the time. Don’t waste another day.

2 Comments on “Failing to Discover Your Strengths Is Hindering Your Life

Dan Z
April 25, 2017 at 2:10 pm

I enjoyed reading this. Nice work, and good advice.

April 25, 2017 at 2:16 pm



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