Dr Maike Neuhaus
Understanding your strengths: why + how (incl. 5 strategies)
Meryl Streep once said, “What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength”. I treasure this quote because it’s about strengths: It intuitively explains what strengths are – an aspect of you that noticeably stands out. It highlights the positive (strength) in something so seemingly negative (being weird). And, it emphasises an element of uniqueness – something that only you can have (being different).
Let’s talk about character strengths.
In a nutshell, strengths are the virtues in the way we act. They are our unique superweapons. Similar to personality traits, strengths are relatively stable and likely to accompany us throughout life (but remember that this does not mean they can’t be cultivated). They are not just the lack of a negative trait - they involve will, can be cultivated, and are measurable.
So what exactly are they?
The truth is that there is still a little disagreement among researchers with regard to the nuances of how strengths should be defined as well as how we should use our insight into our own strengths. But this is just the nature of research and if you ask me, it doesn’t really matter, because all views offer different insights that we can use to broaden our own self-knowledge and cultivate our self-leadership skills.
Depending on your existing level of self-knowledge, you might have a good understanding of your strengths already. But if you’re unsure, here are 5 things you can do to explore them.
1) Think about your past
Most of us have made experiences in the past that highlight our strengths. You may even recall people saying something like 'that is so you', 'you've always been good at that', or 'that's you in your element'. So, one way to understand your strengths is to reflect on that:
What talents have you always had?
Did you have any particular aptitudes at an early age already?
Think about times when you were challenged: What did you do to get through the challenge?
Think about when you were successful: What did you do to attain success?
2) Think about more recent times
In addition to reflecting on the past, you can ponder anything that energises you or puts you into a state of flow. These activities typically hold information about our strengths:
Pay attention to what you feel drawn towards every day. What activities are you attracted to?
Which ones give you energy or a strong sense of engagement?
What activities make you lose track of time?
When do you perform exceptionally well?
What do you talk about or do when you sound confident?
3) Now think about your weaknesses
If you feel uninspired by thinking about your strengths directly, in can help to do the exact opposite and reflect on your weaknesses:
What drains you?
What do you dislike doing?
What do you often fail at?
What things do you typically procrastinate on?
Hopefully, answering these questions has given you insight into your strengths already. However, if you’re still tapping in the dark, you should know that you’re not alone:
Research shows that most people struggle when prompted to list their own strengths; but apparently, we’re really good at writing long lists of our weaknesses.
I’m sure there’s a really good human cognitive evolutionary explanation for it, because if not, well – then that’s just depressing.
Anyway, what we are great at is apparently writing long lists about other people’s strengths, which brings us to your next option.
4) Ask others
Do you have people in your network who seem to know you better at times than you do yourself? I do. So, why not harness that and ask them about your strengths?!
5) Take an online test
If self-assessment is not your cup of tea, you can use some tools to explore your strengths as well. There are many different strengths tests out there – some good, some absolutely rubbish. So, let me share with you my favourite one: The Virtues-in-Action or VIA Character Strengths Survey.
The VIA Character Strengths Survey, which was developed by Psychologists Professor Martin Seligman and Professor Christopher Peterson. The VIA explores what’s best in people, their virtues or positive traits of their personality that are present when they excel. And this is exactly what drove the development of this tool. Peterson and Seligman were interested in the characteristics people show when they flourish rather than when they’re at a deficit or suffer mental illness, which was the focal point for psychological research at the time.
Based on their research, they developed the Character Strengths and Virtues Handbook. This handbook distilled these characteristics down to six overarching virtues (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence) and 24 associated character strengths, which are the mechanisms to living these virtues.
You can take the VIA test online for free - head over to https://www.viacharacter.org/. If you do take it, which I highly recommend, you will receive a report of your three biggest character strengths in order of your greater to your lesser strengths. You can also purchase reports that are more extensive. One last note: the via is also sometimes used to profile personality, which can make its purpose slightly confusing. However, Seligman does not perceive these character strengths as highly innate or fixed, but malleable to some extent.
Happy strengths exploring! Maike x