Category Archives: Strengths

A crucial question. WHY do you do WHAT you do?

In August 1963 250,000 people gathered in Washington DC to hear Martin Luther King, Jr deliver one of history’s most famous speeches.

“I have a dream,” he said, calling for an end to racism in the United States.

This remarkable day is mentioned in an enormously popular TED talk by the author Simon Sinek.

You can find it on YouTube.

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Simon Sinek points out that in 1963 there was no website for people to find out about this speech, and very few invitations were issued.

No, people flocked there in their thousands that day because they’d heard that Martin Luther King had a passionate belief, and wanted to hear about it first hand from him.

“I have a dream,” he said.

Not “I have a plan.”

Simon Sinek uses this 1963 speech, along with other examples such as Apple and the Wright Brothers, to explain that people tend to follow leaders, causes, and organisations that understand their “Why.”

Martin Luther King dreamed of a better world through civil rights.

Apple set out to disrupt the status quo by putting computing in the hands of every person, not just every technologist.

The Wright Brothers knew they could change the world if they could show that humans could fly.

Simon Sinek’s talk is well worth a watch, as I’ve done recently on the recommendation of Annie, my trusty UK therapist.

Viewing it has led me to ask some profound questions of myself.

I know *what* I do day-to-day.

But *why* do I do it?

I’m working on this right now in a process which involves looking back at the highs and lows of my personal, business, and formative life.

It’s fascinating, and also a great reminder of how easy it is to go through life (as I have) knowing what you’re doing, but perhaps being far less mindful about why you’re doing it.

If you have a spare 20 minutes, I can highly recommend Simon Sinek’s talk – just Google his name and “Start With Why,” and my huge thanks to Annie for highlighting it.

What’s your surprising hidden talent?

Think of someone you know well, and it probably won’t be hard to identify a particular talent with which you associate them.

Back in the UK, David the psychologist explains complicated subjects brilliantly by turning his teaching into funny stories.

My friend Jane cooks up a mean Sunday roast, seemingly effortlessly.

My brother Geoff balances objects on his chin, even hefty items like bar-stools.

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Some, like David, get paid for their abilities.

Others such as Jane or Geoff demonstrate their skills to bring people together (for a roast beef dinner) or to entertain (no need to go to the circus when my brother hits town).

Fortunately, both Jane and Geoff have other great skills for which they are paid.

Very often, of course, it’s easier to see things in others than it is to recognise them in ourselves.

So stop to think for a minute.

What is it that you’re good at?

What skills do you have that your friends may admire?

It’s not always easy to identify them, so it might be interesting to ask others.

But once you’ve established what they are, the next question is how often you get a chance to put them into practice?

Maybe not as often as you could.

It generally feels great to do something you’re good at.

It can help you de-stress.

It boosts your self-esteem.

It helps remind you that you’re an individual, rather than someone who simply fills a role.

So what are you great at?

And when are we going to see it?

How you may be stronger than you think

Standing a mug on a sheet of the sort of paper you put in your computer printer is easy. Lay the paper on the table, then place the mug on the paper. Simples.

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What’s the result, however, when you’re told that only one edge of the paper may be in contact with the top of the table? Not quite so straightforward, is it?

Without a little forethought, sheets of paper don’t like standing vertically.

I’m sure you’re way too busy for me to leave you in suspense, so let’s cut to the chase and agree that among many possible solutions, rolling the paper into a 2 inch (5 cm) tube secured with a length of sticky tape, would result in a ‘column’ almost certainly sturdy enough to support the weight of a mug.

Please empty its contents before you try it though. Nasty things, dry cleaning bills.

This isn’t really about paper engineering, though. It’s more a suggestion that perhaps your life is like this sheet of paper.

You have surprising strengths. You can achieve things you may have imagined impossible.

But you (and I) will only do this with the right structure around you.

It may well be that you’re doing something day-in, day-out that could be oh-so different with a spot of rolling and sticking.

Have a think. Then, perhaps, give it a try.

How to build emotional strength

Dwelling on weaknesses may result in low mood, while identifying strengths can be the path to happiness.

I wonder if you can work out who said this:

“I wasn’t very good in school at all. I was kind of useless. I found the work really, really difficult.”

A clue? He’s a famous actor, currently 24, who starred in his first massive blockbuster at the age of 11.

Got it? Yes, it was Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe who admitted being a bit of a disaster at school. But has this hurt him? Probably not. After eight Harry Potter movies, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s one of the richest young people in the UK.

His strength? Acting, particularly playing the part of a bespectacled young wizard.

His weakness (or at least one of them)? Failing to excel in an educational setting.

So now let’s imagine being young Daniel Radcliffe’s teacher. Would you honestly have advised him to ditch the acting thing in order to work on his greatest weakness – scholastic achievement? Or would you, perhaps, have argued instead that he should be encouraged to build on his strengths?

Actually perhaps that’s an unrealistic question, as while it’s very clear in retrospect that acting was the right thing for him, I suspect some in his school may have seen things differently. All too often, I fear, the education system prefers students to conform rather than plough their own furrow of individuality.

Mild gripes about education aside, though, my overall suggestion is that there seems great value in building up your strengths rather than trying to remedy your weaknesses, and perhaps there’s food for thought here when it comes to your own emotional health?

One of my emotional weaknesses, for example, is that I tend to become super-pessimistic when I’m down. One of my strengths on the other hand is that I’m generally able to stay productive even when my mood has taken a hit.

Would it be helpful to work on becoming less pessimistic? Well, yes, although I think it’s hard to tackle deeply-established behaviour patterns such as this.

Might it be easier, and more helpful, to simply ensure I’m productive (which generally makes me feel better? Almost certainly.

My really quite simple point is that there may indeed be value in identifying your personal emotional strengths, then seeing if you can find a way to maximise their use.

Don’t simply focus on your weaknesses.

Know your strengths

The three months I spent working for a Californian carnival (travelling funfair) in my early twenties were some of the happiest of my life. Managing my sideshow at weekends, then on the road in a truck and trailer on weekdays – camping overnight wherever we happened to be – taught me life lessons which call out to me even now.

You make friends quickly and deeply when you experience an adventure like this, so when it was sadly time to pick up my backpack and head back to another world, it was crushing to say goodbye to Jack, Cathy, Kris and Zeke (where are you all now?)

I was so touched that they’d clubbed together to buy me a leaving present after I’d only worked with them for three months. For goodness’ sake, some people spend twenty years in a job and leave without so much as a potted plant.

What did they get me? My first ever Swiss Army penknife, that’s what. I’ve owned several since then, but you never forget your first Swiss Army knife – the Explorer model, with fifteen blades and tools including a magnifying glass and scissors.

I loved that knife, and it stayed close at hand for many years until it sadly got lost somewhere (where are you now?) but although you could, and I did, carry out a surprisingly large number of tasks with it, there were others for which it just wasn’t equipped. There’s nothing on a Swiss Army knife which will help you change a wheel on your car for instance, nor would it be sensible to consider using it to carry out surgery.

Of course, just as a multi-bladed penknife has its strengths and weaknesses, so too do you and I. We may well be good at a few things, but nobody can excel at everything. If my trusty little knife had a soul, I think it would have been at its happiest sharpening a pencil, removing a splinter, or slicing up a picnic lunch. It would almost certainly have been less chirpy if expected to prune a tree, even a modest little dwarf cypress.

You and I are happiest when we recognise our strengths, still more so when we apply them. And we’re least happy when, thanks to our weaknesses, we struggle along with the kind of challenge for which we’re just not equipped.

So maybe today’s a perfect one to celebrate your strengths (you know you have them, and if you stop to think for a minute, you know what they are) and put them to good use.

Just as important, acknowledge your weaknesses because, I’m not kidding, everyone has them. Ask for help from someone better equipped than you. There really is no shame in doing so.

As I said, I really loved that little Swiss Army knife.

Not for what it couldn’t do, but for what it could.

Use your talents, help others, feel better

In late 12th century England, a ‘talent’ was a unit of weight and also of currency. Historians tell us that when used to measure weight it was rather loosely defined: probably somewhere between 55 and 130 pounds. When used as a unit of currency, one talent represented a ‘talent-weight’ of gold, silver or brass.

Taking the mid-point of the weight range (around 90 pounds) at today’s prices a talent-weight of brass would be worth around $150. A talent-weight of silver would come in at around $28,000.

As for a talent-weight of gold, well with the price as it stands today, you’d be looking at around $1.87 million.

That’s inflation for you.

Just as a matter of interest, ninety pounds is only just a little more than weight of three standard-sized gold bars, or ingots. That’s almost a small enough size to have fallen down the back of your sofa. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Something else to ponder is that although you may not have a spare 1.87 million dollars hanging around – or even a spare million – I bet you do have a talent. I bet there’s at least one skill you’re pretty proud of possessing. I bet there’s something you can do better than the average person.

So what is it, and when did you last put it to good use? And perhaps even more importantly, when did you last employ it in order to help someone else?

Knowing that you’re good at something can be a good feeling, but an even better feeling can result from using that talent to help others. Specifically, you’re likely to get a sense of euphoria caused by a rush of endorphins immediately after helping someone, then you’ll experience a longer-lasting period of calm. Your stress levels will probably fall, and your overall wellbeing should pick up. Wow, it almost sounds like the results of some kind of highly effective medication, doesn’t it?

What’s particularly attractive about this variety of ‘medicine’ however is that it comes with no harmful side-effects and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription. Even better, it also benefits the person you help.

So by all means seek out opportunities to apply your unique skills and talents in the service of others today, in the happy knowledge that doing so will help both you and those you assist. But please also remember that it can be good to share small talents as well as large.

Maybe you’re good at making others smile? Do your stuff today, then.

Perhaps you have a knack for being polite and considerate? Hold that door open and let the other person through first.

Or it could be that you think of yourself as a particularly good listener. Encourage someone to talk their problem through with you.

Why not do something for someone else today, therefore, safe in the knowledge that it’ll also be doing something for you?

Acknowledge your strengths

With a few minutes to spare in the local library the other day, I absent-mindedly flicked through the books designed to help readers land a job. There were plenty. How to write the perfect resume. How to sail through interviews. How to write a killer cover letter. You know the kind of thing.

Amusingly there were even a few that promised to help you ‘succeed’ in psychometric tests, which when you stop to think about it seems almost as daft as offering to help you pass a blood test.

Of course, most books that aim to boost your interview chances are almost certain to propose model answers to tricky questions, including that old chestnut: ‘You’ve given us a great idea of your strengths – but what weaknesses do you have?’

Now, ‘Getting sleepy and being pretty unproductive after lunch’ is probably not a great answer. Nor is ‘I try make a point of taking home a pack of pens from the stationery room once a week’.

Instead, following the advice of books like these is generally about creating a kind of fake weakness out of something that most would regard as a strength: ‘I think at times I may take too much care to avoid making mistakes’ or ‘Some might consider that I worry over-much about getting to work on time in the mornings’.

They’re not really weaknesses, are they? Most employers would probably view them as strengths actually. Strengths, thinly disguised as weaknesses.

The thing is, if you’re applying for a job or trying to woo the man/woman of your dreams, surely it makes sense to place your strengths to the fore? Telling them what you’re good at, rather than dwelling on your shortcomings, seems a better strategy for success.

You probably take this principle for granted, but I wonder if you always show as much sense when it comes to talking to someone else? You. Especially you on a less-bright day.

If you’re anything like me, when you’re struggling through a rough patch you’ll be more inclined to focus on your weaknesses, and this really isn’t helpful.

You have your own unique strengths and talents, and a low mood day is in fact the perfect opportunity to remind yourself of them. Perhaps people view you as thoughtful and considerate? Maybe you’re decisive in a crisis? Or it could be that you have the uncanny knack of being able to soldier on regardless, even when the chips are down.

The next time things seem gloomy, it might help to imagine selling yourself to yourself, reminding yourself in the process that you’re far from worthless.

Very far.