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.