Unfortunately, many of our experiences in life have taught us to focus on our weaknesses, on what we typically end up labeling as our shortcomings. In grade school we had those big red circles highlighting those shortcomings. Our parents likely spent far more time focusing on how to pull up our grades than they did on how to build on the areas that we excelled at and our workplace managers tend to do exactly the same. However, it is important to recognise that our performance over a range of skills will always vary. We have some activities that we will be better at than others. In the picture below, these are the 'above the line activities', those areas in which we tend to exceed expectations.
We will also always have some areas in which we fall short. Always. We cannot be good at everything, nor should we expect or try to. Unfortunately, our parents and bosses have trained us to agonize over the below the line results. We put our focus, energy and even money into improving those skills. However, for most of them, the best we can hope to do is to raise our skill level to the meets expectations line. For the most part this is fine. There are many areas in our work and our lives where being and doing 'good-enough' is, in fact, good enough! We know that there is a law of diminishing returns telling us that additional effort is not going to net us the equivalent in return, in which case that additional effort could be put to better use elsewhere.
However, there is a far larger problem. If we are focusing all of our efforts on improving the below the line skills, and not focusing on the above the lines skills at all, then we are creating a system of mediocrity. We get what we focus on. If we only focus on pulling our weaknesses up, and not on growing or developing our strengths, then our talents fall down to meet that middle red line, even while our weaknesses grow. However, in the end, we are simply meeting expectations. This does nothing to inspire or motivate us, and is therefore the problem with many corporate performance management programs.
If you are looking to advance your career, or to build your business, then uncovering and leveraging your strengths is the single most important thing you can do.It is through our unique gifts, our talents and strengths, that we add the most value. These are the skills that set us apart from the crowd. The good news is that we are most satisfied and energized when we engage in work that utilizes our key talents and strengths. This is when we do our best work, this is when we truly shine.
The little stumbling block in all of this of course, rests in uncovering just what your true gifts are. If you catch yourself denying you have any or are at a bit of a loss in identifying them clearly enough to build some career strategies around them, then follow some of the suggestions below to help you to discover your strengths.
Take an Assessment
There are numerous online tools that you can use to help you to uncover your strengths, the most popular of which is Strengths Finder. You can take their short version for free or pay a nominal fee to take the extended version for greater insights. If you buy their book (See below for link) then you get a link to take the full assessment for free. If you decide for some unbiased insight then these tools can be useful but don't take them as gospel. Use the results as a starting point of your exploration and couple them with some of the suggestions below to gain greater clarity.
Follow the Feeling
Learn to pay attention to how you are feeling over the course of your day. When we are using our gifts we will experience greater levels of energy and engagement, a sense of Flow or a feeling of being in the Zone. Time will move more quickly during these moments and we are more likely to derive feelings of satisfaction, excitement, interest and pride from activities utilizing our strengths. In general use the following to help you to uncover insights into your strengths and weaknesses.
- Strengths - are energy boosters
- Weaknesses - are energy drainers
Sometimes, to uncover our gifts, we need to get out and try new things. We often have undiscovered strengths, only because we have not explored our abilities fully. Experiment a little. Follow an interest or a passion. Dabble in something new, explore opportunities you may have given a pass on - all with an eye to discovering new abilities and talents.
Pay attention to what you do differently than everyone else. When we meet expectations, or operate below the line, we are usually just following the direction of those around us. However, when we are playing to our strengths we feel more empowered and confident, often stepping off onto our own little path. Looking for your areas of difference, in thinking or approach, can often highlight a talent or gift you have overlooked.
Gain some insight from those around you. Consider what others typically seek you out for. What help and advice do your co-workers look to you for? Often, those around us recognise our talents long before we do and will ask us for help in those areas, knowing we do it better than they ever could. However, because our true gifts may feel so natural and comfortable to us, we may downplay their value and fail to recognise that those skills don't come as readily to others. Others know the value - use their insight to build your recognition of the value.
- Exercise. Get others in your life to share a story with you - a story about when they thought you were are your 'best'. As you gather the different stories, review them looking for common themes and threads that indicate your strengths.
Of course, once you have identified your gifts and strengths, you need to develop an action plan on how to build and leverage them. Volunteer for activities that use your gifts, build a career path that utilizes and grows them, even offer support to others in the areas of your talents. All will help you to capitalize on your gifts in ways that help highlight the tremendous value you represent. For additional help with your strategies you can check out Marcus Buckingham's book on putting your strengths to work (see below).
You represent a unique blend of skills and talents that no one else has. Unwrapping your gifts allows you to offer the world the best you have and are. Focus on your above-the-line skills. Above-the-line is above average. Above-the-line is about meeting your expectations not theirs, and above-the-line is above what most others are offering, leaving you standing head and shoulders above those around you.
Great view from up there!