Step 1 towards Greatness: Find Your Strength

Many of my friends and colleagues, including myself, came across the question of “what should I do?” at some point in our careers and lives. Most of us struggle to answer. Of course, this is not simple because answering it involves many personal preferences and depends on the opportunities and constraints. From my experience and after speaking to many of my mentors, knowing what we are naturally good at is usually a good starting point. This sounds simple, but often overlooked. How come we often do not think about our strength?

One reason may be that our system emphasizes on identifying and improving our weakness. In schools, teachers usually ask us to spend more time on our worst classes. At work, our managers may ask us to prioritize our areas of improvement. Please do not get me wrong. It is important to meet the minimum standards so that, for example, we need to graduate and pull the necessary weights for the team. The point is that most of us gradually forget the importance of knowing what we are good at, cultivating our strengths, and organizing our lives around them.

Nilum Panesar, a student in the B.A.B workshop and majored in Philosophy and Sociology, wrote this blog to help us re-discover the criticality of finding our strength, shed some light on defining our strength and self-identity, and explore a few tactics to doing so better.

How important is it to know your strength?

Research and popular opinion is coalescing around a strength-based learning approach. Academics and entrepreneurs largely agree that it is important to focus on your strengths: research finds people who focus on their strengths usually make better decisions, have better personal and professional relationships, excel in their careers and even turn out to be better leaders. This is largely because of their ability to efficiently allocate their time towards leveraging their strengths instead of struggling to build an expertise that currently does not exist. A quick search online finds an endless assortment of quizzes to discover your true strengths, numerous blog posts on finding out who you are and what you are good at.

Why is it hard to find your strength?

However, while there seems to be agreement amongst professionals on the benefits of sticking with your strengths, research is also beginning to discover the difficulty in discerning and defining our strengths accurately. Psychologists Nick Epley and David Dunning, in several studies, have exhibited the propensity for individuals to self-report characteristics such as their kindness, logical thinking and reasoning skills with heavy inaccuracies. Similarly, Tasha Eurich, organizational psychologist and TED speaker found similar results through the research reported in her new book on self-awareness, Insight. For instance, in a study of over 13,000 working professionals from various industries, researchers found close to no relationship between their self-assessed performance and their objective performance ratings. There are in fact several internal and external barriers which make it difficult to discern accurately who we are, from who we think we are, and who other people think we are and what our consequent strengths and weaknesses are.

Social psychologists Stryker and Burke see our self-identity/self-awareness linked to the different roles (student, teacher, consultant, woman, etc.) we take on. These roles are arranged in an hierarchy depending on how important we consider them, and who we are around. These roles come with different social expectations: as a student you might be expected to attend class, listen to your professor and procrastinate all major projects (kidding). The role of an entrepreneur might be inspiring leadership, out-of-box thinking and poor organization skills (again, kidding).

How does this relate to discerning our strengths? If our self-identity is in fact arranged in a hierarchy of roles and these roles depend on who we are interacting with and how high up on our “role hierarchy” the role is, we might reflectively view certain characteristics to be strengths only because of who we are around and what we are doing. Conversely, we might have a role identity (entrepreneur) – and assume we have all the skills/strengths that come with this role identity even though we don’t. Furthermore, another trouble emerges because different roles have sometimes conflicting expectations: for example, the roles of student and entrepreneur might have conflicting expectations on time allocation. Since we arrange these roles in a hierarchy, our behaviour will mirror the role of the most important roles – in which case, we might be a better student than entrepreneur, or vice versa. Does this mean we don’t have any “true” strengths?

According to Herbert Mead, philosopher and social psychologist extraordinaire, our self-identity is always defining itself – it is constantly re-evaluating and redefining itself in relation to social relations with other people as well as against different political, social and economic institutions. In this way, a person’s identity is formed in a reflective and reflexive way.  

Perhaps then, our attempts to discern our true “strengths” is always changing, since the way we view ourselves and our abilities is coloured differently depending on the lens used to view the world. This lens is developed over time and shifts depending on where we are and who we are around. While it is difficult to ever disentangle these ideas and contexts in a way to discover our authentic being and our authentic strengths, there are a few strategies which can help us get closer to our true self and our true strengths.

What can we do to make finding our strength easier?

Tasha Eurich and other research notes that asking for feedback from a diverse group of people is a good gauge of who we are and what our strengths are. It is key that our feedback come from diverse groups – our friends, family, colleagues, mentors, dentists, etc. as we often act differently within different groups. Furthermore, by surrounding ourselves with diverse sets of people, the better we can get at gauging and disentangling our transcending strengths, from our “expected” strengths.

Another point is to set goals: the act of goal setting giving you clarity on what is truly important to you and what qualities and skills you have the most interest in leveraging. With that, there is merit in finding where our interest lies – because usually what we find most interesting coincides with corresponding skills we would be willing to put in the work to utilize and develop. Ultimately, it is important to recognize the reflective nature of who we are, and what we are good at. Getting the most out of our strengths is a mix of deep introspection into our interests, building diverse networks and gauging feedback from all those around us. It is a continual, reiterative process but the rewards are worth it.

I hope this blog ignites your inner voice to start exploring your identify, questioning your existing understanding of strength and weakness, shifting your priority to cultivate things you are good at, and eventually re-organize work and life around your strength. As a result, doing all these, I hope, will lead you to a clearer path forward and more fulfilled career and lives.

Further reading:

  • Strength Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Amazon)
  • Decisive: Making Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath (Amazon)
  • The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer (Amazon)
  • Insight: Why We're not as Self Aware as We Think by Tasha Eurich (Amazon)

Interview Insights: Do Not Over Prepare

“I get nervous and forget what I prepared to say in interviews. What is wrong and how do I do better?” — This is a very common issue from students and even experienced candidates.

In this post, I want to share a key insight I learned after conducting many interviews in the past 3 years. The answer is simple: do not over prepare, allocate more mental capacity for real time listening and responding.

Let me play out two scenario from my own experience. Hope these examples can provide context for what I am sharing.

Scenario 1 — I was a student being interviewed

I sat down in the lobby of 30 Wellington Street (the old Deloitte office). My palms are getting a bit sweaty because I was about to have my final round interviews with two Partners (the bosses). I did a quick look up on their profiles the night before. One Partner led consulting on the nationally, the other was the head Partner at the largest client. Knowing this only made me feel more uneasy.

I waited at lobby for about 10 mins. I kept rehearsing all dialogue scenarios I could possibly imagine and read through my resume over and over. Shortly after, I was sitting in the office with one of the Partners. He wrapped up his email and turn to me with a smile, and asked “So, what do you think of Apple Watch?”

“WTF? I didn’t plan for this question! The news came out only this morning …”, hammering myself in my imagination while trying to stay composed. I forced a smile and started saying whatever came to my mind.

5 mins later, he asked “Nice, you read this book too? What do you think?”

“Sh*t …”, I started to blank out and wanted to get out of the room.

Scenario 2 — I was a recruiter interviewing students

I was running to an interview scheduled at 3:30. I looked at my watch, my heart started to pump really fast because I was delayed by a client meeting. The worst part is that I didn’t even see the candidates resume yet.

Without knowing the experience of this student, I was trying to warm things up and asked “Did you see the tea machine prototype we are testing for a client in the cafe?” (no, we don’t just build slides)

The student said: “Yeah, it’s very cool.”

I asked: “do you think it will work in Toronto?”

The student blanked out for about 1 minute, then started to ramble for another 5 minutes. I wonder what was going on in his mind.

Over preparation means trying to rehearse all possible scenarios and fixate answers to pre-defined scripts. Many students hope to impress the interviewers by reciting a series of well-crafted stories. Doing this clearly does not work. Many people still get nervous because they know, deep down, that there will be unexpected questions and off-script conversations.

From these two examples, you should see that, although there are common interview questions and formats (e.g. business or technical cases), which you should prepare fore, randomness and fluidity do exist. This is because interviews are not as mechanical as many of you might imagine — interviews are natural dialogues. Remembering some details, listening to questions, and responding with details appropriately and articulately are the core elements in any conversations.

Unfortunately, all of us have a limited mental capacity to remember, listen, and respond. Since we simply cannot predict all the questions, the key for doing better in interviews is to allocate more thinking power to listen and responding dynamically, instead of trying to memorize answers. I actually feel a lot more relaxed, confident, and fluent in interviews and even important meetings, such as client sessions, team meetings, etc.

So, how can you improve your interview performance by feeling less nervous, appearing more confident, and coming across as genuine? 

Here are a few tactical suggestions:

  1. Reduce mental capacity spent on memorizing and accessing information. To do so, you need to know your content. Yes, you still need to prepare. But start doing this at least 1–2 weeks before the interview. Instead of looking at and reading your resume, try replaying the scenario in your mind. Our brains work better with experiential rather than textual information. The key is not to recite information, but being able to sift through details when you need to describe them dynamically based on the situation.
  2. Limit mental capacity spent on absorbing shocks. This usually happens when we hear unexpected questions, which may lead to the battle of voices in our minds. You should accept the fact that there will always be unexpected questions. This is a mindset change. I, personally, found this change had greater impact on many aspects of my life. Being comfortable to face uncertainty allows me to be more relaxed, ironically, but always attuned to new information and be ready to respond.
  3. Lower mental capacity spent on the mechanics of structuring response, especially in real time. Developing the mechanics of creating a clear and influential message takes some practices. A good way to do so is to have thoughtful and constructive debate with your friends at dinner tables, bars, or any social setting. Find a topic that you and your friends need to pick a position, then share your views and supporting facts in order to convince each other or defend your position. Such low risk setting allows you to consciously practice the mechanics of listening, thinking on the spot, articulating your points, and responding to a dynamic situation. The less effort you spend on the delivery mechanics, the more capacity you have to think through the content, logics, and details. These are the keys to any meaningful and impressive response.

By practicing these techniques over time, I hope you can be more confident by trusting your brains that they know the content, be more relaxed because you expect and embrace uncertainty, and be more fluent in articulating responses under any unforeseen situations. 

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback, as always.

An Interview with Jeff Wu, Bain & Company | A Day in the Life of a Management Consultant

Part of B.A.B's mission is to share more insights to different aspects of daily work in consulting and analytics. In this post, my buddy, Jeff Wu, provided a glimpse into his days working at Bain & Company as an entry level consultant. Jeff recently finished his MBA from INSEAD and will be returning to Bain.

Jeff also writes regularly to explore human potential through a collection of stories. He hopes to offer a glimpse into the deepest, most subconscious parts of your mind to help you discover your true potential. Check out his blog at 

“Okay, so you’re telling me, there may be a problem in the marketing message, and how customers perceive us as a platform and its suitability for them?” asked the Head of Marketing at a leading Fintech we were working with. It wasn’t an easy message to deliver to the guy in charge of all marketing campaigns and branding, to tell him that it’s been all wrong, which is why average AUM (Assets Under Management) per client has been stagnant.

“Yes, that’s the gist. Our current working hypothesis is that the marketing is geared a little too far to the young professional segment. You see it in all the ads. It’s been super effective in helping you guys acquire, well, exactly that segment. However, the youngest demographic also happens to be the poorest. So naturally, contribution size and follow-up contributions tend to be quite limited. Understandable. If you’re comfortable with this question, shall we move onto the next one?”

It was a Friday evening, around 8:30pm. So, no, I wasn’t jumping with joy, walking the Head of Marketing through a 30-question customer survey that we were hoping to launch early the week after. However, it was important and time-sensitive, so it had to be done. The survey would be part of a broader project to help this Fintech client understand “Why growth has stopped altogether?” This isn’t growth in the sense of users – that’s been on fire. But, being the vanity metric it is, user growth doesn’t always translate into profit or even revenue growth. There was a team of 2-3 consultants that would be conducting full-scale, 8:30am-7:00pm focus groups to uncover some of the latent, more subconscious insights around customers’ preferences, perceptions of the brand and platform, and what would encourage them to switch to the platform. I was part of the “quantitative research” sub-team, using a survey to quantify the magnitude of the problem (and inherently, the opportunity).

Leading up to the survey alignment call, I had been preparing the survey for a few weeks, refining the questions with the engagement manager and senior consultant on the team. You may be thinking “seriously, a few weeks to prepare a survey questionnaire?” Yes, seriously, and here’s why: first few days, you start with a broad structure of what insights you’re hoping to uncover that will prove or disprove the overarching (team) hypothesis of why growth has been stagnant. Around end of week 1, early week 2, you will have, say 3-4 sections of insights you’d like to acquire, and thus begin brainstorming the comprehensive (and I mean comprehensive) long list of questions within each section. A section could be titled “Why prospective clients don’t join”, while another could be “Why current clients don’t contribute more funds to their account”. You get the idea. Once you’re armed with the long list of questions, you align with the team to slim it down to a feasible quantity (for survey takers), and by that time, 2 weeks have flown by. In week 3, you’ll have the realistic set of survey questions ready, and you begin coding it (either yourself or with a survey vendor). In my case, I worked with an external vendor, and did a week’s worth of pure iteration.

“Hey Josh, thanks for hopping on the call with me. I wanted to quickly discuss a few changes in the survey. On page 2, question 3…”

Taking a step back, my role as a junior consultant (back then) was to run that quant workstream, deliver the insights that will help the client get back on track, and in the process, learn a thing or two about the industry and how to best solve the problem (both individually and with the consulting team). As a consultant becomes more senior, his or her responsibility grows to managing multiple workstreams, more directly interfacing with the client, and mentoring junior team members, passing on valuable tacit wisdom and advice on how to do work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably.