I’ve spent a sizable chunk of my career worrying about or trying to get better at things that are not my strengths. And, honestly, that’s been a waste.
In recent years, I’ve shifted my focus to understanding what my strengths are and how to leverage them. As a result, the way I see myself as a professional has changed significantly, as have my ideas about what professional fulfillment and success look like. In a nutshell: (1) I see my strengths as legit strengths, not B-list or consolation strengths; and (2) I’ve let go of the need to improve on my weaknesses.
A new perspective
The experience that helped spark these changes for me was taking Gallup’s CliftonStrengths (formerly Strengthsfinder 2.0), an online assessment that identifies and explains your top strengths. The premise of the assessment is that we devote too much time and other resources trying to remediate our “weaknesses” and should focus instead on building our strengths. In one of Gallup’s many books on human behavior and leadership, the authors argue, “If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything.” They go on to ask, “Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” Drawing on decades of research, they stress that doing so is essential to our success in life in general, not just at work.
Being exposed to this perspective was pretty earth-shattering for me. I’d always thought I needed to be as “well-rounded” as possible, and that the things I wasn’t great at were liabilities to me and my colleagues.
Zeroing in on my strengths
The even bigger aha moment I had with CliftonStrengths was that my strengths are considered assets to the rest to the world — not just to my mom.
There are 34 CliftonStrengths themes, and each belongs to one of four “domains”: executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking. After completing the assessment, you get a report with your results and examples of your strengths at play in the world.
Here’s what the assessment told me my top five talents are: empathy, developer (I “recognize and cultivate the potential in others”), individualization (I’m “intrigued with the unique qualities of each person”), responsibility and learner (I “have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve”). The first three are in the relationship building domain; the last two are in the executing and strategic thinking domains, respectively. None of my top five are in the influencing domain, which probably explains why I’m terrible at games that require convincing others to believe or ally with you.
Making sense of my results
I wasn’t surprised by my results, but I was a bit dismayed at first. Empathy is a professional strength? Even though my results affirmed certain skills and areas of intelligence, I thought many of the successful people I admired had strengths that were more valuable than mine — and I was at a serious deficit without them. I felt like some of mine were B-list strengths.
My friend and fellow Juggle co-founder, Jen, struggled with something similar when she did the CliftonStrengths assessment: “Some of my strengths and weaknesses seem like they don’t align well with my job. Honestly, even though I’m mostly comfortable with who I am, I’m jealous of other people’s strengths — I know some of them would make my life easier.”
I also worried that my results weren’t optimal for management responsibilities, which I was interested in and seeking more of at the time. How could I be a leader with these strengths — without being more of a visionary, or an influencer who could rally people around a cause?
But the more I learned about my results — and the more I saw them in action in my work experience — the more I found them validating and empowering. I do have leadership skills, and there are many aspects of management that I enjoy and excel at. So what if I’m not much of an influencer? And so what if I don’t have as many strategic thinking strengths as I thought I was supposed to have? Thank goodness there are people out there who are and do. I definitely want to work with and for them.
Of course, there are many self-assessment tools out there, and CliftonStrengths is just one of them. And while I’m partial to its approach, it’s really the experience of self-assessment I’m endorsing here. If you haven’t done anything like this before, or if it’s been awhile, I recommend giving it a try.
Rethinking professional growth
The topic of strengths is the subject of a recent Harvard Business Review podcast episode and article. The authors argue that managers who work with employees to try to build their weaknesses into strengths are wasting their time. “The journey to excellence is going to be built out of what is currently really working with you,” they say. Your weaknesses aren’t areas of growth — it’s your strengths that you should work to develop further.
The other thing they said that I can’t stop thinking about is this: “[…] Excellence is narrow, obsessive, single-minded and very diverse from person to person.” This goes back to the fallacy that you should aspire to be well-rounded. You shouldn’t. At least, not if you want to be “excellent” at what you do, whatever that means to you.
This reminds me of what pastry chef Stella Parks told The Juggle about her career path. A self-described “niche burrower,” Stella has focused on digging deeper into what she’s really good at and enjoys, which is testing recipes repeatedly with clinical precision and writing about what she learns. She’s had opportunities to move into management roles, but she’s not interested. “[…] find a job you’re good at that suits your skill set as a human being,” she says, and have the self-awareness and guts to let go of the rest.
So I’m working with the strengths I’ve got, which are different from but not better or worse than yours. How do you play to your strengths? Leave your tips in the comments!
(Nothing in this article is sponsored. Oh, and all of the HBR quotes are from the podcast episode, not the article. I highly recommend checking out both.)