How To Identify Your Strengths And Harness Them

It was another hot summer day, two years from when we encountered my 8 year old self. Having successfully absorbed advanced math skills, I was ready to have some fun.

What was my 10 year old self’s concept of fun? It was a crazy idea of intertwining two different book series that I adored!

I began developing a storyline that would bring the two worlds of characters together. What if there was a society at a boarding school that uncovered and solved mysteries? Where would it be set? My vocabulary was limited, but I had enough enthusiasm to make up for that deficit.

Unfortunately, I never progressed beyond the first short story. I relied too much upon feedback and encouragement from those closest to me. It seemed odd to them that an Indian girl would spend most of her summer days reading and attempting to write fiction. I didn’t protest, I wasn’t sure that there was a future in writing. There was no compelling voice that urged, “Identify your strengths and harness them!”

identify strengths and harness them

Now that I have spent a decade understanding the roles that strengths play, I recognize that initial spark of talent to be something labeled “Intellection“.

My talent profile reads “A good book or a well-written magazine article can transport you to other cultures or centuries. The printed word — whether on paper or on a computer screen — is your passport to new destinations.” Alas, I will never know whether capitalizing on that overwhelming desire to convey ideas in print would have led to anything!

I won’t lie, my natural ability for science and math continue to serve a purpose in my career. I may not feel ecstatic when working with numbers, but it continues to be a core competency in my consulting work. Having posed this exact question to people that I have met, I can unequivocally say that leveraging natural talents is fundamental to long term success and happiness. I feel very fortunate to be able to recount this story and make a case for strengths to you.

1. What is a strength?

Open up a dictionary and you will find strength defined as “an inherent asset or a quality which makes the possessor strong”. I prefer the definition provided by Marcus Buckingham, “consistent near perfect performance in an activity based on natural talent.”

Simply put Strength is a function of Talent aided by Knowledge and honed by Skills. If one wants to pursue perfection in their career, a good starting point would be their strengths. Everyone, whether we acknowledge it or not, has talents. The goal here is to recognize authentic talents, not what you are able to fake, but what is almost as unique to you as your thumbprint.

Talent is a pattern of thought or behavior that you repeatedly apply to every activity. Humans are born with billions of synapses (connections) in the brain. As we age, the connections that are used most often endure and those that aren’t atrophy. Talent becomes a by-product of ideas that captivate you at an early age imploring you to research, learn and practice. Talent is not always determined by genetics or environment, more often than not it is a matter of chance or exposure to concepts that intrigue you.

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.”

— Lao Tzu

Since talents are the strongest neural connection, it is logical that our strongest traits rely on them as a foundation. In our effort to build on our strengths we need to discover our innate talents. Here are some indications of when an attribute is a talent:

  • It is consistent - You can repeat your ability to perform this activity time and again. No special circumstances or environment are necessary for you to invoke this ability. Isaac Asimov, the legendary science fiction writer, wrote and published over 500 books. His talent lay in creating works of fiction with a clear conversational style and fast paced storyline that his readers loved. He replicated his success in writing through his consistent ability to deliver a work of fiction that engaged his readers.
  • It is performed perfectly – Michael Jordan at the age of 50 and long past his retirement(s) still holds the highest points per game (ppg) in the NBA and ABA (30.14 ppg). Michael’s story is well known to everyone. He was a versatile offense basketball player with many moves he could draw upon even under adverse circumstances. Compare that to his average performance in baseball with a decent batting average and a tolerable number of strikeouts. Yes, it was obvious that baseball was not his talent. Was it really a surprise when he quit baseball and returned to win 3 more NBA championships?
  • It is based on a natural talent – Bill Gates honed his natural talent of developing applications at an early age. As a young software programmer he was extremely frustrated with DOS (“DOS is ugly”) and became convinced that GUI applications were the future. This led to his passion for creating software products that enhanced the user experience. Although his strategic positioning of Microsoft at the dawn of the PC era was brilliant, the ongoing operation of his enterprise was a drain on his creative resources. Fortunately for him, it happened to be a strong talent of his partner Steve Ballmer. Gates was able to focus on development of new products and later shift his attention to leading philanthropic efforts.

Hence talent becomes the underpinning of your strengths.

2. Assessing your strengths

There are many tests available in the marketplace that will help you assess your talents and strengths. I have listed a few tests below that perform this assessment in different dimensions and provide analyses of your profile (free registration or purchase may be required for some).

  • Dr. Martin Seligman’s 24 strength assessment - A Brief Strengths Test that compares your strengths in specific dimensions (such as Love of Learning, Leadership) to the others in your statistical group (based on age, gender and location).
  • Kolbe Conative Indices – The A Index identifies the ways in which you can be most productive. You approach to a situation will differ based on whether you are a Fact Finder, Follow Thru, Quick Start or Implementor. The B Index measures your expectations with regards to performance in your current role. Comparing Kolbe B Index result with the Kolbe A Index result yields insights into how to leverage instinctive talents at work.
  • Tony Robbins DISC Assessment  – This assessment is an interpretation of Dr. William Marston’s behavioral dimensions – Decisive, Interactive, Stability, Cautious.
  •  Gallup Organization StrengthsFinder - This may be said to be a true talents assessment test compared to the prior tests that focus on behavioral profiles.

For the sake of uniformity, I adhere to Buckingham’s lexicon of talent themes. The Gallup organization developed the original strengths finder based on 30 years of data gathered from over 2 million interviews with individuals in all walks of life.  The test reveals your predominant talent themes, the areas where you have the greatest potential for a strength.

When you start inspecting your talents, you will notice certain qualities emerge. Assessing your strengths correctly depends on recognizing the talents that display all of these qualities.

  • Working on an activity that is a talent gives you intrinsic satisfaction and demonstrating it feels like its own reward.
  • The desire to work on this activity doesn’t depend on circumstance, motivation or inspiration. In fact you are constantly seeking more opportunities to immerse yourself in it.
  • You literally have a yearning for this talent. When you are in a situation that exposes you to this talent, the attraction that you feel is irresistible.
  • The factual knowledge for the talent may be learned. However the experiential knowledge and refined implementation is developed over time.
  • It is likely you exhibited this attribute at an early age and have shown steady improvement as you matured.
  • Your execution of this activity may have attracted comments from peers, teachers or family members who have been astonished at your effortless ease.

3. Harnessing your strengths

Now that you have a better understanding of your innate talents and strengths, it is important that you put them to work right away. If you are an employee, you need to review your current roles and responsibilities; your development action plan, to determine the changes you can to better leverage your strengths in your current role. If you are an entrepreneur it may benefit you to focus on activities that call for your strengths and seek help for the activities that are impede your performance.

Here are 5 reasons why your strengths matter now more than ever before:

  1. Since a young age neural pathways have been forged along your talents. It is easier to strengthen the existing pathways and almost impossible to form new ones. Natural Talents are one of the key elements of an authentic life.
  2. If you are not providing an outlet to express your strengths, you may end up sabotaging yourself in your current career. Martha Beck refers to this as the “essential self trying to course correct the social self”. Heeding to the yearning will ensure that your essential self and your social self are in sync.
  3. We have limited time at our disposal to invest towards personal development outside of career and family commitments. Every learning opportunity that we engage in needs to be with the intent of extracting the most return on that investment. Your best return on investment will be in those areas that are your strengths. You may at best remediate or contain the damage if you were to devote your attention to your weaknesses. Why not divert that energy where it will serve a better purpose?
  4. In the future, most individuals will change jobs every 4 years. The sooner you start working on your strengths, the better you will be able to position yourself for any roles you may undertake in the future.
  5. This final reason is closest to my heart. The next generation is constantly observing and learning from us, their parents. Imagine the impressions they have formed if they have been brought up in an environment of fixing weaknesses! Instead imagine if they were to observe their parents employing their talents and the ensuing satisfaction. Imagine if these kids were to be raised with a view that work is not to be dreaded but desired.

Next Steps

  • Take one or more of the strengths assessments indicated above to determine your talents. Are you a language or numbers person? Do you enjoy interacting with people or do you prefer to work in quiet introspection?
  • Maintain a daily journal for a few weeks. Track activities, flagging ones that come to you naturally and you derive pleasure from. Find activities that you struggle to perform and ask yourself why.
  • Recall a specific skill that you exhibited as a child (such as writing or art) that you haven’t used in a while.  Take a class or offer to volunteer and exercise that skill!
  • Explore job functions that you have been intrigued by but not had a chance to explore. At the next meeting with your manager speak to him or her about the possibility of exploring that job function.
  • Consider taking up consulting to acquire a different skill. I left my job at a financial firm and consulted with another company. Consulting gave me an opportunity to reclaim my love for software design and writing. Changing your environment may allow you to play up dormant talents.
  • Work with a coach to discover your talents. Create an action plan to put your strengths to work.

Image Credit: jjpacres

Do you concur that your greatest progress and triumphs will be in your areas of strengths? If you disagree can you provide an example of a weakness that you have overcome and how has that served you with respect to your goals? Have you taken any strengths assessments before? If so indicate which ones you found most illuminating and how.

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2 Responses to How To Identify Your Strengths And Harness Them

  1. Autumn Zab June 20, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    Great read! I concur – and to add on — if you love what you are good at, you are even more successful. I’ve worked for great leaders that knew their strengths or talents well – they used them and also understood their weaknesses. It wasn’t that they knew how to overcome their weaknesses that made them good, it was that they recognized them and knew they were a blind spot they needed help covering.

    • Kay Fudala
      Kay Fudala June 21, 2013 at 12:04 am #

      Autumn, Thanks for visiting and commenting! I love that analogy, to be aware of and strategize around blind spots. I haven’t had the opportunity to work with leaders who have let themselves be vulnerable enough to admit weaknesses, let alone work around them. I really admire that.

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