I have recently discovered an author by the name of Marcus Buckingham who has challenged my understanding of human behavior. He has also challenged my lifelong understanding of how strengths and weaknesses are interpreted in our lives. When I read a small book he authored called “The Truth about You” I got very excited about what I would learn about myself and got even more excited about developing better questions to help others discover their path in life.
He states in his book that fewer than two out of ten people get to have the experience of working in a place that challenges them in just the way they would like to be challenged. A place where they are recognized for what they do well and are pushed to become better in that area. A place where they get to make a difference in a way only they can and a place where they get to experience the thrill of success.
When I read this I realized that most of the people I encounter don’t work in a place like this but, if asked would say they would give their right arm to.
Buckingham describes a scenario that defines where 8 out of ten people spend their life. They find themselves well along the journey of life where they feel trapped, where they have lost the freedom to choose. They had a dream, something that fanned the flames of their passion but, in the process of life they took a job unrelated, something to pay the bills. They did it with the belief that someday they would pursue that dream or that this job would give them the freedom to pursue their dream. Time passes and they find themselves 20 years down the road, pinned in by a standard of living that depends on their current career. He states that “with all the best intentions—to get ahead, to support your family, to pay off debts—you dive into a job, work hard, get promoted, and then one day you wake up and find yourself in a job that doesn’t engage you, that doesn’t call on the best of you, a job where you’re just marking time, putting in the hours….”
While I don’t feel trapped, I am challenged to stop waiting and to start taking the steps to make my dreams come true. I think I have always been ready but I have struggled to define where I should be putting my energies and have relegated myself to the waiting room of life, waiting for the right door to open.
I think the greatest help Buckingham has been to me is to give me better questions. With better questions I have been able to discover better answers. He also helped me understand that most of us don’t make decisions based on our strengths; the things that make us unique and tie into our passions. We make a “should” decision. The world looks at our life, determines what we are good at and then says this is what you “should” do with your life.
It made me think about my son, a gifted vocalist who loves to sing. I, as his dad, our family, his choir teacher in high school and the Choral director at his college all agreed, with such talent he “should” pursue a vocal career. He was given a full ride scholarship to reinforce the “should” and off he went to college to fulfill that expectation. His first year ended with academic probation, the loss of half his scholarship and a young man striving to discover just what he wanted to do. He realized just how much he loved history and we encouraged him along with academic counselors and friends that he should pursue a career as a history teacher.
In Buckingham’s book he talks about discovering the why, the who and the what. In Joshua’s case he loved the “why” of singing, it is something he loved doing, he even liked the “who” of it, these were the people he was doing the singing with. But the “what” stopped him. What would he do to pursue this career? He hated most of the classes related to the major and he also couldn’t see himself as a teacher of music. As Buckingham states it “the ‘what’ always trumps the ‘why’ and the ‘who’”.
He finds himself at another cross-road where the “what” has trumped the “why” and the “who”. He loves history and it seemed natural that he “should” pursue that career but the “what” was not bringing power and passion to his life. Luckily he is still young, in college and doesn’t have decades of life to weigh him down. It is possible for him to make some mid-course corrections without having to uproot a family or lose a career.
I don’t find my sons experience to be too foreign to my own. As a matter of fact the more conversations I have with friends and colleagues on this subject the more I find this to be more a common experience rather than an anomaly.
Buckingham contends that one of the reasons that most of us have this struggle is we don’t understand our true strengths and that instead of playing to those strengths we spend most of our life focused on our weaknesses and thereby miss living in the arena of success and fulfillment that only 2 out 10 people experience in life.
Buckingham states that we have to start by taking our interests seriously. I had been raised to believe that other people knew me better than I knew myself. After all my life had been spent being evaluated by others who would tell me either through grades, awards, tests or performance reviews, what my strengths and weaknesses were. While not all these were bad and I had come across many people in my life who would offer good advice and opportunities I had to come to the same conclusion as Buckingham, that I was “the greatest teacher about me and my strengths”.
So Buckingham states that our starting point has to be our interests. I have referred to this as passion, the desire of my heart and have encouraged others who have come to me for direction to think about where their passion, their interests lie. I use a tool I call a passion assessment but I also like the process Buckingham uses in his book. First you look at your work experience, second your hobbies, third the type of reading you like and finally the people in your life. From this you choose three things , or subjects or types of people who you have discovered as “deeply seated interests” in your life.
Let me walk you through the process I use with the addition of Buckingham’s first category.
- If you could snap your fingers and know that you couldn’t fail, what would you do?
- At the end of your life, what would you love to be able to look back and know that you’d done something about:
- What conversation would keep you talking late into the night?
- What are the things you like to do in your free time, when your time is your own and not dictated by others. If it is recreational activities what are they, if it is reading what do you like to read, if it is surfing the web, where do you like surfing?
- Buckingham’s question to think about a job you have had, was it just for the money or was it something that brought power to your life. Was there anything that really intrigued you about the job/s you have had, something you can honestly say you enjoyed or loved?
If your career does not include your interests, your passions, you have probably made a trade-off somewhere down the line. Buckingham states that most of us are too quick to discount our interests and we find ourselves somewhere in the future doing things that don’t interest us. He states that this eventually takes its toll on our motivation and our confidence and can eventually lead us to living a second-rate version of our own life where we have lost ourselves somewhere along the line. What a high price to pay and it doesn’t have to end up that way.
What I found most revolutionary about Buckingham’s book was his take on Strengths and weaknesses. He contends that strengths are not what you are good at and your weaknesses aren’t what you are bad at.
Whenever I was asked what a person’s strength was I usually tied that to what the person was good at. I then assumed that if that was their strength then their interests would naturally fall into that area. Buckingham would say, “wrong,” and I am inclined to agree with his conclusion.
He states that “something you’re good at is a fine place to start when you try to identify your strengths. But it’s only the start.” He asks the question, “don’t you have some things that you’re good at, but they bore you, drain you, or frustrate you? …If you never had to do those things again it would be too soon.”
Going back to my son’s situation, he is a gifted singer and I pushed him to sing often but it was always like pulling teeth. Most of the time the only way I could get him to sing was to pay him. He also never seemed to enjoy the public acclaim that came with it, he seemed to shy away from the public applause, preferring to overhear peoples praise rather than getting it front on. Sometimes it appeared as if an audience was a necessary evil to his vocal expression.
Buckingham asks, “What do you call that? Something you’ve been blessed with lots of ability to do well but cursed with no appetite for it. Something you’re brilliant at, but that leaves you cold?”
Well, the answer to that question changed the way I looked a strengths and weaknesses. Strengths are things that bring power and energy to your life and a weakness is something that takes energy away and leaves you weaker. Buckingham states that it would be crazy to build a career around something that drains you.
So if we can’t discover our strengths solely by looking at the things we are good at how do we discover them? Buckingham suggests that we have to pay “close attention to what we are feeling before, during and after an activity.” Here is the test he gives to guide us through the discovery of our strength:
If, before you do something, you find yourself actually looking forward to doing it, it may be a strength.
If, while you’re doing something, you feel focused, in the zone, with time whipping by really quickly, it may be a strength.
If, after you’re done, you feel fulfilled, it may be a strength.
Now why is this so important? Buckingham states that, “as you grow, you become more and more of who you already are.” While so much of your life will change, education, hobbies, friends, skills and dreams Buckingham states that the core of who you are will always be your core. He continues by stating that it is in this core that we will “grow most”. And that makes sense. I am drawn to and like to work in the areas that bring me strength and energy, I learn most effectively and with a sense of ease in the areas of my strength. Buckingham believes that “you will improve the most, learn the most, be the most creative, be the most inquisitive, and bounce back the fastest in those areas.”
In my training, yes you seek to discover strengths, but you focus in the areas of your weakness in order to move those to a place of strength. From Buckingham’s perspective this is futile because that will rarely if ever happen and all you seem to do is focus most of your creative energy in areas that deplete you, that take energy away, leaving little focus investing in what could bring the greatest impact on your life. Why not place most of your energy in areas that will grow exponentially because you are putting energy in an area that naturally brings energy and then use the excess to work in areas of weakness that are required to perform some task.