Play to Your Strengths

One of the things I’m trying to remind myself of this year is “play to my strengths”.

Truly understanding ourselves — our tendencies, preferences, abilities, and the impression we give to others — is enormously important to leading a successful and satisfying life. We often overlook our strengths because they come easy to us. We rely on them so frequently that they almost don’t exist in our minds. We’re typically see our weakness much more often, since it’s more obvious why we struggle than why we succeed.

What is a strength?

The Gallup Organization provides a few useful definitions for us:

A strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity. Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.

There are things we do easily, that come naturally to us, that we enjoy and that we are good at — that are not as easy for others. These are what Gallup calls our talents. When we develop area-specific knowledge and practice related-skills, we can use our talents to consistently provide near-perfect performance.

For instance, strengths of mine include summarizing articles, books, and concepts, assessing people’s intentions and moods while in conversation, picking up on new concepts quickly, making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, people, and organizations, and finding ways to make even bad situations seem like opportunities for growth or improvement.

On the other hand, there are things I’m not great at: creating super detailed lists or schedules, plowing forward on work that doesn’t excite or inspire me, getting to inbox zero, writing with neat handwriting, saying no to requests, and getting places on time, to name a few.

Why We Should Use Our Strengths More, Not Less

From a psychological perspective, our talents, the things we naturally come back to, are things that we are likely to enjoy doing. If we enjoy doing them, then practicing them won’t feel like a chore. We’ll experience success sooner, and be motivated to keep working on it.

Things that we aren’t good at, are going to take a lot of willpower to push toward, and given that willpower is a limited resource, that leaves less for everything else. You’re not as likely to practice it, and you won’t experience success as frequently.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fix glaring weaknesses, but there’s a point of diminishing returns that it doesn’t make sense to keep pursuing, because there’s an opportunity cost.

Steve Jobs Wasn’t a Great Designer

We all revere Steve Jobs today as nearly single-handedly making people care about design. (Think 1998 – 2012) But while Steve deeply appreciated design, he was not really a designer himself, in that he could not really design anything on his own. And while he could understand technical concepts, he was also only a mediocre programmer at best.

But, he was great at evaluating the future potential of new projects/products, communicating that potential in a compelling way, and be extremely convincing / intimidating in person.

Those strengths were ones he worked on throughout his career and probably what allowed him to be so successful. If he decided that he really shouldn’t start Apple until he became a better designer or programmer, we would probably be living in a very different, less-well-designed world.

Discover and Capitalize on Your Strengths

So as a reminder to myself, and a reminder to all of us:

We rise and fall because of what we are great at, not what we don’t suck at. We can contribute and achieve the most when we focus on what we do best, and rely on systems, technology, and teammates to help support the rest. The world needs our strengths.

If you don’t know what your strengths are, I have two suggestions:

  1. Come up with a list of at least 5 people you know – friends, family, coworkers – and write them a short note. Explain to them you’re trying to develop your strengths in order to be a better person and professional, and ask them to share with you three things that they think you do particularly well, that stand out in their mind. You might find some more details in this Reflected Best Self exercise in HBR.
  2. Take StrengthsFinder by the Gallup Organization. Based on 300k interviews and taken by over 13M people, there’s a lot of rigor behind this assessment and I highly recommend it. The latest and greatest book in their lineup is Strengths-Based Leadership.

And if you’ve taken the assessment and are curious as to my 5 top talent themes from my assessment in 2012, they’re:

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