When it comes to personal development, take this unconventional approach

Why doubling down on your strengths and managing around your weaknesses leads to excellence

Written by Andrea Gorman

When I was in first grade, my teacher asked our class to think about how we would each describe ourselves. I went home that day and asked my mom, “How should I describe myself?” Our conversation at the dinner table was filled with thoughts and feelings that I now know to be deep introspection. We discussed my love of school and involvement in dance, soccer, and piano. Because of these many activities, I settled on the word ‘well-rounded.’ For years, this word became foundational to my strategy of self-improvement — I was going to strive to become good at everything.

It wasn’t until college that I started to reject the idea that I should be well-rounded. While I loved my upbringing of sampling different activities, and I fundamentally believe that we should take on new challenges that push the limits of our comfort zone, I realized that I can’t and shouldn’t excel at everything. I reached a point where I knew long-term success would escape me if I didn’t start to leverage and maximize what I did well. I experienced immediate results in terms of greater joy and productivity.

In addition, I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long, immersive leadership development retreat during my sophomore year of college. Through this experience, I explored concepts related to integrity, relationship building, risk-taking, and authenticity, and walked away with a number of tangible tools to pursue a new-found vision: A world where everyone understood their gifts and talents and felt valued for them.

Fast forward to today, I am a leadership educator and Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach bringing my vision to reality by helping individuals and teams begin to identify, appreciate, and invest in their talents.

Gallup defines talent as our natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. Our talents become strengths through intentional investment. When we invest in our greatest talents we may be reflecting on their intricacies, learning to appreciate their power, or developing them through practice. The act of investing in talent looks different for everyone, but the outcome is the same: measurable progress toward consistent and near-perfect performance, or strength.

Researchers at Gallup reveal that people who use their strengths every day are eight times more productive, six times more likely to be engaged at work, and three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life. This measurable return on investing in your strengths is significant and furthers my belief that each of us is endowed with unique talents that show up in a variety of ways. Instead of focusing on becoming well-rounded, this research suggests we should focus on becoming even more of our distinctive selves.[1]

GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF STRENGTHS-BASED DEVELOPMENT

Maximize your strengths rather than fixate on your weaknesses.

A conventional approach to personal development is identifying our areas for improvement and creating a plan to improve or “fix” those areas. While understanding our weaknesses is central to gaining self-awareness, our greatest opportunity for success lies in maximizing our strengths. Unless our weaknesses prevent us from accomplishing our goals or negatively impact others, a strengths-based approach to personal development allows us to find our power and competitive advantage within our unique talents and manage around our weaknesses.

Over the past decade, Gallup has studied individuals from almost every industry and position and has found that people who use their talents and strengths:

· Work with passion

· Feel connected to their organization

· Have more creative and innovative moments[2]

We cannot do it alone.

Those who strive to be well-rounded often believe it is necessary to be good at everything so they won’t have to rely on anyone else. However, knowing when to work independently vs. interdependently is an important skill. While it may be easier in some ways to work alone, many of the world’s greatest discoveries, achievements, and innovations come from people working together.

One of the main benefits of a strengths-based approach is that it allows for partnerships to form with others who have complementary strengths. A successful partnership may form because one individual has a strength that enhances another individual’s strength or cancels out another individual’s weakness.

For example, if a person’s strength is to jump into action and get things started, they may want to partner with someone who has strong follow-through and gets things done. In doing so, both people bring the best of who they are to accomplish more than what they could do separately. These partnerships produce the powerful equation of “one plus one equals three.”

Differences make us stronger.

The strengths-based approach also acknowledges that talents are not equally distributed, and, in fact, are as unique as fingerprints. Our talents can come so naturally that it’s like breathing and we use them every day to achieve, interpret, inspire, and connect.

Yet many teams and organizations fail to recognize that each member has something unique to offer. When individuals work outside their zone of personal strength day after day, it drains their energy and could leave them straining to meet performance objectives, approach challenges with creativity, and work effectively with others.

In contrast, high performing teams find ways to identify, appreciate, and utilize the different strengths their team members possess. When team members are able to share and develop their unique strengths, it creates a positive environment that boosts engagement, morale, and performance. Bottom line: differences do not divide us; they make us stronger.

STRATEGIES FOR DISCOVERING THE INTRICACY AND POWER OF YOUR NATURAL TALENTS

· Search for clues of talent. When it comes to figuring out what you do best, it’s important to remain open. Your greatest strengths can be discovered when thinking about your childhood or most recent success. What brings you joy? What are you doing when you lose track of time? What pulls you to one activity over another? What do others turn to you for help with? Answering these questions can point you in the direction of your talents.[3]

· Ask close family members and friends. We learn so much about ourselves through the lens of another person. Although it may seem awkward, ask your close family members and friends to share what strengths they see in you. Like a mirror, they will reflect back all of the positive things they see in you that you might not even realize yourself. Compare what you learn from them with your own realistic self-appraisal.

· Own and apply your talents. Our talents are varied and dynamic. There is power when we lean into them and consciously seek out ways to apply them. One strategy is to prepare a weekly to-do list and to consider how you can use your talents to accomplish each item. Build in time for reflection at the end of each week to make meaning of how you used your talents, gain insights, and determine better ways to productively apply them moving forward. When we take responsibility for practicing what we do best, we discover our greatest opportunity to make a difference.

[1] Rath, T. (2007) StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press.

[2] Krueger, J., & Killham, E. “The Innovation Equation.” Gallup Business Journal.

[3] Gallup administers the CliftonStrengths assessment to help individuals discover and make the most of their unique talents. Visit www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths for more information.

This content is part of the Innovation Alley initiative at Marquette University. If you’re interested in thinking differently, acting boldly, and delivering real, meaningful change, then check out the website and sign up for weekly updates.

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