I’m very good at creating structure. It’s one of my strengths: Getting an overview of the situation, sorting out elements that don’t belong or aren’t useful, clustering what remains into logical categories, and arranging everything into folders, lists, process steps, routines, project plans, and so on.
I thrive when I can turn a mess into something useful and organised. It’s something I could do all day, every day. It’s the perfect challenge to use my strengths of judgement and creativity.
I’m also good at maintaining structure, but it costs me tremendous energy. Maintaining spreadsheets, following up on loose ends, carrying out routines, and following process steps to a tee. I can do it, but I don’t want to. I know it’s necessary for many aspects of life and work and so I learned to do it.
But it’s not something I want to be known for. The credibility and reputation I want to have aren’t for outstanding project management and flawless execution. I will deliver on those expectations if it’s part of the job, but what I want to be hired for are other things:
- my ability to help individuals and teams analyse their situation, pick the right problem to fix, and then find a sustainable solution (… which they implement and maintain on their own)
- the design of training, workshop, and coaching sessions that aren’t merely a live version of a textbook or TED Talk, but that truly trigger growth and positive change
- my attitude to strive for excellence and have fun doing that (and helping others to experience that for themselves).
This is how we attract opportunities that allow us to do more work we love, fun projects, doing a job that more often than not feels like a hobby. And the key to that is building credibility with ourselves and with others based on our strengths.
So what’s a strength then?
There are various definitions for „strengths“. The one I like best is that our strengths are what we’re good at and enjoy doing. Example: my strengths of creating structure, finding solutions, analysing and up-levelling a current way of working.
This definition is key to separate our strengths from our talents, skills, and interests.
We can zoom even deeper into this strengths cluster and get to ‚character strengths‚. These are about 3-5 strengths that describe our positive identity, who we are at our core. They’re the intersection between what we can do and who we are: our positive personality traits that benefit us and others.
We could also describe our talents as strengths. We’re born with them, so biologically we have certain innate abilities. This could be your musical ability. But talent is only ever a promise of what’s possible and can whither if unused.
Here’s an important distinction between strengths and skills. While a strength almost always brings skill with it, not every skill is a strength. Because oftentimes we develop skills, capabilities, learned behaviours, etc. as a means to an end. But using them doesn’t light you up. You can be good at something, but if it costs you energy and you don’t enjoy doing it, it’s not a true strength. Case in point: My skills to maintain structure and organisation. I can and will do it if I have to, but it costs me a lot of energy and discipline… and I tend to procrastinate on that a lot.
When talking to others about what you’re good at, be mindful not to emphasise skills too much and instead focus on mentioning your strengths. People listen. They remember what you say and you surely don’t want to be remembered for (and subsequently be given more work in that area) things you don’t enjoy doing.
Lastly: Your interests are areas and topics that you’re passionate about, for example, any hobbies you may have. You might be good at them, but you don’t have to. Creating crooked paintings or singing off-key can be fun without excellence and mastery.
But why should you put so much emphasise on strengths?
The most obvious argument for me comes right out of the definition: It’s simply more fun to do work that allows us to play to our true strengths. But there’s also a lot of research that has uncovered countless benefits of using our strengths more often.
Studies have found that people who use their strengths more are happier. This means lower levels of depression, higher levels of vitality, and good mental health. We also experience less stress, feel healthier and have more energy.
People have also been found to feel more satisfied with their lives and through that become better at problem-solving, increase their performance at work, and experience better physical health.
Plus, knowing your strengths and using them more often and deliberately is associated with greater self-efficacy (the belief in your ability to master a task or achieve a goal), and self-confidence (the overall belief in yourself).
Simply knowing what you’re good at is the first step in building credibility as an expert.
Does focusing on your strengths mean you ignore your weaknesses?
It’s a common fear that we go overboard with our focus on strengths and what we’re good at. And through that ignore our shortcomings and weaknesses. In fact, our striving for excellence almost seems to dictate we should put more emphasis on eradicating weaknesses. But that’s neither helpful nor necessary.
We could compare our weaknesses to being leaks in the boat. All we can see is what’s wrong with us and aim to fix it. That is a valid strategy if the leak is so dramatic that it might sink the boat. In that case, yes, we should focus on fixing the leak and building skills to overcome our weaknesses.
But beyond that, paying attention only to your weaknesses means your boat isn’t moving. It might not sink, but it isn’t going anywhere either. It also creates the false notion that we could ever be perfectly leak-free and never make any mistakes or fall short of expectations. That’s a measure no human can live up to.
With the dangerous leaks fixed, it’s now time to set your sails. The sails represent your personal strengths. These are the aspects of yourself that propel you forward and enable you to achieve your goals.
Ask yourself: Of all the weaknesses I see in myself, which are the ones that might sink the boat? If you find some, address them. If you can’t find any, learn to accept yourself as a naturally flawed human and then turn to identify your strengths and use them to move forward.
Sometimes a weakness might not even be a weakness at all.
While I encourage you to use your strengths more often, it isn’t always helpful to simply use more of a strength. Imagine your strengths not being like a simple on-off switch, but to exist on a continuum where we can dial it up and down.
In that way, a weakness sometimes simply is an overused strength. In that case, we don’t have to work hard to fix a weakness but understand how we can dial down the corresponding strength to a level that is appropriate for the situation.
If you received the feedback that you’re too pushy and impatient, that might be your strength of determination dialled up too much. If you find yourself distracted and bouncing from task to task, don’t beat yourself up about it but find a way to dial down your strength of creativity when you need to focus on completing a workflow. You get the idea.
Make a list of 3-5 weaknesses that you perceive about yourself. Then ask: Might that be an overused strength? Which one? How can you dial it down to fit the context?
Let’s identify some of your strengths.
From the list below, select the 8-10 strengths that sound like you. In a second step, reduce this list even more to the 3-5 strengths that you couldn’t live without. You know you found your character strengths when the idea of not being able to use that strength for the next three weeks makes you gasp for air and feel a little panicky.
Then think of a time when you used this strength in just the right way—not too much, and not too little. What did that look like? What was the outcome and what became possible? How might you use this strength in its optimal dose more often? How might it help you with a challenge you currently face or a goal you want to achieve?