How I Found My Strengths

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Ever since I read Marcus Buckingham’s “Now Discover Your Strengths”, I was captivated by the idea of building your strengths vs focusing on your weaknesses. I had always lived by the philosophy,”if you ain’t first, your last” which really sunk into the depth of my psyche because I was/am a perfectionist (Damn you Ricky Bobby). I loved learning that everyone has certain strengths that cause them to be naturally gifted and with very little practice, they can perform exceptionally well in these areas. Similarly, no matter how much I tried in certain areas (figure skating, baton, flute, etc), I was never going to be the best in the world at these things. Sorry Mom.

In many careers, we are told what we do well and our weaknesses (aka most performance reviews). The good old sandwich technique. “Billy, you are so good at BLANK. Now, let’s go on to discuss the polar opposite and things you should probably never attempt to do again. Now let’s talk about how nice BLANK is”. This is the typical performance review rhetoric that we are accustomed to in most organizations where we touch on strengths and just as highly emphasize the areas that we suck at.

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Perhaps this starts as far back as pre-school where we are taught “right” vs “wrong” and taught opposites. There is a “right” answer and there is a “wrong” answer and there is nothing in between. And these associations leads us to see only “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad” and “strength” or “weakness”. This is all we can understand and how we start to form opinions.

This trend continues in high school where we are graded and have “good” grades and “bad grades”. The higher the marks, the happier the parents are and the more the universities will come a-callin. This gets even more complicated in subjective subjects vs objective subjects. In some classes, you could obtain 100% (math or physics) and in certain subjects, unless you are the professor, there is no way. (Try to get 100% on an essay, just try). I always felt more confident in subjects like math & physics because I can study enough to get it right.  English, on the other hand, became the bain of my existence.  No matter how much time I put in, I could never be sure what type of mark I was going to get; it was like taking an exam where you weren’t sure what the hell happened – you could have just gotten perfect or you may have failed miserably; it was just a toss-up and you couldn’t be sure until the marks were out. And what did this teach me? That I probably wasn’t great in English and that I shouldn’t pursue a writing career. If I wasn’t “good” at it because my marks dictated how I felt about the subject, I did’t want to do it anymore.

What I have experienced since university is that there are certain roles in my career that bring me back to my essay writing days (like I should be a mind-reader) and roles that I KILL it every time (Physics was my bi#%*h!). There are no “right” or “wrong” strengths but certain roles require certain strengths and enjoyment of certain strengths. Everyone has things that they are INNATELY good at.  Warren Buffet says it best when he describes why he is a billionaire – he has put his strengths to work. He knows what he is good at and he is able to focus on that 100% of the time. So if the only real difference between me and Warren is that he knows where to focus his energy, that makes this nut a little easier to crack. It really all depends on what industry you decide to go into and if your strengths align. As a parking cop, it is probably best you aren’t too empathic or no one would get a ticket. As a nurse, you best be empathetic or people may not let you touch them with a ten-foot pole.

It isn’t rocket science that human beings want to go in the direction of theirs strengths as it just feels better and is more satisfying at the end of the day. It feels good to get it right and feel confident in whatever we do. But the challenge is deeper than what it seems. In high school, I wasn’t aware of my strengths or what I enjoyed doing most because, honestly, all I really knew at that point was “I am SO done with high school”, “I like to party with my friends” and “I am ready to be an adult”! Instead, I picked a subject to study (using the eenie, meenie, miney, mo technique, blindfolded, of course) and I set off into the sunset. So logic would say that sometimes, I/we may not get it right the first time because we haven’t spent a lot of time being able to explore what we love and what we don’t love.

Which brings us to the next stage  life where we realize something might be missing. You may be in a career where you are getting paid well, things are “good” but there isn’t something that pulls you out of bed in the morning and there are days you are left thinking “what if”. What do you do? Do you risk everything to pursue your dream job in fashion by quitting your six figure salary to go work at Banana Republic?

So here is where the rubber hits the road. I have left a company, not once, not twice, not thrice but quarce! And every time I left, I risked something. For those wondering, this was the same company and I was hired back EVERY TIME for a better position. Every time I left, I found that something wasn’t resonating for me and I couldn’t settle for that and needed to take charge of my own destiny. I knew I wanted to grow in different areas that the company couldn’t offer me and so I left. I went on several adventures; I left to live in Vietnam for a year, taught English, worked with local artists and designed jewellery in Ho Chi Minh City.Vietnam

And I don’t regret any decision because it helped me gain the skills I needed and I was ALWAYS appreciative when I came back. Now, I am not recommending you try to break up and then get back together with the same company 4 times. I am telling you that sometimes you need to take a leap of faith to realize what you are capable of and that may take several leaps before you get into that “sweet spot” and fall into something you love.

For anyone that knows me, I am a risk-taker and I will throw caution into the wind because I would rather know “what if” than stay stagnant and complacent. I would rather learn to swim because I am in too deep than tread calm water and not feel that I am getting anywhere. Coming from someone who often makes these risky decisions, I have always found a way to swim faster and harder and it has propelled me in my career. I went from cleaning equipment and opening the gym for members at 6am, to being in charge of 9 fitness facilities. This is not by accident; I always take calculated risks. I jump before someone pushes me. In fact, these decisions got me promoted faster than a lot of people who had the same years of experience that I did – my accumulated experience of various roles had made me better suited in many cases. You learn more when you are constantly doing new things. This is the “drinking water through a fire hose” method.

So I guess what I am really saying is that we are all given equally powerful “super-powers” that can give us that “swish” every time, that feeling of swimming with the current or that feeling of knocking it out of the park; we ALL have these strengths but they are only apparent to those that really search for them and nurture them. No strength is greater than another; we are all unique in these abilities. It is up to you to push to find out what that really is because when you do, damn does it feel good. This is called your “sweet spot” where your abilities and passion collide; an entrepreneur’s dream.

I can’t say for sure that those strengths don’t change as we get older and wiser but I can say that the process of searching and digging for these strengths is extremely rewarding because you learn more about who you are. All of a sudden, the dots start connecting and things like piano lessons make sense – that is why I was NEVER good at piano; I enjoy more mindless activities where my brain can be creative and not be confined by structure and this is when I am at my best.

The more steps you take towards realizing your true calling, the more rewarding every day becomes. 

 

2 thoughts on “How I Found My Strengths

  1. Ashley,
    Great read; taking back control of our lives Is a challenging skill. One that isn’t taught to us; I feel this is the reason it’s common for professionals to end up working in multiple organization and different fields before they discover their true passion. Your article teen forces this. It’s not about Career development anymore, it’s about Self development and Self betterment.

  2. Ashley – I’ve always admired your risk taking abilities. The time you’ve put into exploring your own potential is admirable and admired. It also has said to others (and I can only speak for myself) that life requires risk taking to find your ‘sweet spot’ as you so graciously put it.

    Albeit – some of us are not risk takers, or so we think, so we stay put and gut it out. To some, that indeed is the risk. The challenge of seeing how things may play out if we try a little bit harder, push a little longer, fight the next fight. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

    Does the road need to be a new one? Could it be the one you carve while you stay ‘still’? All excellent questions and what I’ve gained from your sharing is that to each their own – their own road – their own passion – their own risk.

    Thank you!
    Teresa Quinlan

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