Improve Your Life by Embracing Your Strengths

October 2nd, 2009

StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom RathMost people don’t have a good understanding of what their strengths are, and even those who do often neglect them in favor of focusing on their weaknesses. This may very well be preventing you from living a better life.

Because our shortcomings tend to draw the most attention and frustration, it’s easy to focus on them more so than our strengths. As such, many people work diligently on improving their weaknesses to balance their strengths, but this may be one case where balance isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The Inspiring Story of Rudy

Chances are that you’ve seen the movie Rudy or are at least familiar with the story. The main character had always dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame, and despite being much too small to play college football at this high of a level, he was determined to do it anyway. Through sheer persistence, he was able to gain acceptance into Notre Dame and earn a spot on the football team’s practice squad. After four years of brutal and physically punishing effort, Rudy was given the opportunity to suit up for the final game of his senior year and watch from the sideline. The coach even put him in the game for the last two plays. During the second and final play of his college career, Rudy sacked the quarterback and became one of only two Notre Dame players to ever be carried off the field in celebration.

It’s a truly great story and one that reinforces the concept of chasing a dream regardless of how unfavorable the odds may be. However, it’s also a case of following the path of the most resistance and raises a compelling question. Is less than a minute of glory worth years of brutally hard work and the constant frustration of being limited by your shortcomings? Perhaps in some cases it is, but there’s definitely a better and more enjoyable way to live life that can lead to just as much glory, if not more.

Do You Enjoy Your Job?

Unfortunately, the majority of the population is unhappy with their job and dreads returning to work each Monday. According to Gallup polls that surveyed more than 10 million people worldwide, only one third of those questioned strongly agreed that their job provides them with daily opportunity to do what they’re best at. Out of 1,000 of remaining people who felt that they lacked this opportunity, not a single one of them was emotionally engaged in their job. According to Gallup, people who have the opportunity to exercise their strengths every day are 6 times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than 3 times as likely to describe their quality of life as excellent. That’s a significant difference!

Life is certainly about more than just your job, but because you spend a significant portion of your waking hours at work, being engaged in a job that you enjoy can make a significant difference in your life. The ideal situation is to earn an income by doing something that you’re passionate about and would be involved with even if money weren’t involved, but this isn’t always possible, and when it’s not, the next best scenario is to find a job that allows you to focus on your strengths as much as possible. Even if you do have a job that you’re passionate about, it may frustrate you more than you realize if it doesn’t align with your strengths.

Why Strengths are More Important than Weaknesses

As in Rudy’s case, it’s possible to be passionate about something that you’re not well suited for, or in contrast, have no interest in doing something that you have a tremendous talent for. However, we all have multiple strengths and multiple interests, and as such, it’s almost always possible to identify something that you excel at and also enjoy.

Imagine if Rudy had a talent for soccer that he never discovered. If he applied his incredible work ethic to this talent, perhaps he could have been a star player in college and a successful professional athlete with a rewarding and exciting career. Even if his passion for soccer wasn’t quite as strong as it was for football, it would be hard to think that this isn’t a much nicer scenario.

Hard work is often essential to the enjoyment of pursuing and accomplishing challenging goals, and when applied through a natural strength, it tends to be much less frustrating and much more rewarding.

Identifying Your Strengths

Although sports are a convenient example of how important talent is, understanding your strengths goes much deeper than physical ability. In many cases, our strengths are part of what defines our personalities, and as such, they have an impact on almost everything we do.

StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath is an interesting book that helps you to identify your strengths and provides you with suggestions for developing each one. The StrengthsFinder assessment is based on 34 “themes” which are the most common strengths and talents that were identified from Gallup’s 40 year study on this subject. Buying the book entitles you to take the online StrengthsFinder assessment which identifies your top 5 themes.

My Strengths

To give you a better idea of how the system works, and for the sake of discussion, I’ll describe my top 5 themes which are Learner, Achiever, Relator, Analytical, and Deliberative.

Whenever you take an assessment like StrengthsFinder, it can be fascinating to read results that describe you so well and even make you realize things about yourself that you weren’t aware of. As someone who is very introspective and has done assessments like this in the past, I wasn’t very surprised by my StrengthsFinder results, but they did inspire me to change my perspective on several of my natural tendencies.

Learner: It’s unmistakably evident that I love to learn. If I have a strong interest in something, I’ll devour every bit of information that I can find about it. I absolutely love the excitement of learning something new, the challenge of putting it to use, and the anticipation of how it might improve my life. In fact, this appetite for new information, along with my desire to share it, is much of my inspiration for this website.

Achiever: I’ve always been a hard worker, and when I really want something, I’ll work tirelessly to accomplish it, sometimes to the point of it being a detriment. Although this is something that I’ve known for a long time, StrengthsFinder presented it in a way that I never considered. Now I realize why I prefer small projects and why I get frustrated if the end of the day approaches without any real sense of accomplishment.

Relator: I tend to approach new relationships with caution and prefer to have a small number of close friends than a large number of acquaintances. Although I originally disagreed with this being one of the 5 themes that defines me most, it does make some sense after giving it more thought. My initial reaction was probably based on my perception of this behavior as being more of a weakness than a strength. Ironically, this emphasizes the most important aspect of StrengthsFinder which is to embrace natural tendencies instead of resisting them.

Analytical: I’ve known since high school that I prefer to work with numbers and scientific concepts. Since then, I’ve realized that I also have a persistent desire to determine the root cause of a problem and that I have a preference for objective data and logical thinking. I also enjoy identifying patterns and relationships between concepts and facts. I suppose that a Mechanical Engineering degree, 11 years as a Software Engineer, a fascination with the workings of the human body, and a life changing passion for identifying the root causes of poor health make it pretty obvious that I value this strength and am proud of it.

Deliberative: I tend to be a reserved and somewhat private person who prefers to work alone, and although I thoroughly enjoy simple and innocent humor, I typically approach problems and challenges with a very serious attitude. I also like to plan ahead and be prepared for any difficulties that are likely to arise and have a high regard for honesty and sincerity. Prior to taking the StrengthsFinder assessment, I never appreciated these characteristics as something that I should favor and pay close attention to.

There’s another theme called Intellection which is used to describe people who are thinkers. I’m quite surprised that this wasn’t one of my top 5 themes. I’m almost always in deep thought. In fact, it sometimes makes me completely oblivious to my surroundings and even makes it a challenge for me to focus on mundane but important tasks like driving. I wonder if I might be missing something or if this is small sign of inaccuracy in the assessment. It would be interesting to know if Intellection would be my 6th strength.

It’s About Much More than Your Job

One of the things I don’t like about StrengthsFinder 2.0 is that it’s clearly geared for business professionals. In the grand scheme of life, business is just one small part, and I think the principle of embracing strengths has much more potential when applied to life in general. By doing so, the benefits should not only improve work life, but also family life, social life, and even the time spent enjoying hobbies and interests.

I think StrengthsFinder applies particularly well to family. After all, family is all about strong relationships and a strong sense of understanding, support, and acceptance for one another. Learning about the natural tendencies of your family members is an excellent way to foster this. I had my wife take the StrengthsFinder assessment and it made me realize a few things that will allow me to more easily relate to her when our perspectives differ.

Unfortunately, if you’d like to have your family take the StrengthsFinder assessment, you’ll have to buy a separate book for each person. If you read the StrengthsFinders message board, you’ll see that Gallup has received some well deserved criticism for this.

What About You?

I’d love to hear about your experiences with StrengthsFinder 2.0 or any other similar type of assessment that you’ve tried.

Stay informed of new articles by email!