How to Know What You're Good At

Jan 13, 2005 |Marshall Allen

Your strengths, and not your weaknesses, are where you should focus your energy.

My first job after graduating from college was at a retail store that sold mountaineering gear. But I didn't do anything cool like play on the climbing wall or rap with customers about high-tech backpacks. I was "inventory boy," stuck in the basement, unloading trucks and stocking shelves.

My nine months on the job felt like nine years. Hour after hour, I price-tagged fleece and sorted water bottles, all the while feeling my passion for life sucked from my soul.

I'm guessing we've all had jobs that didn't fit our skills and interests. Many of us have spent hours wondering what we should be doing vocationally to pay the bills and find fulfillment. It's almost as if asking, "What should I do with my life?" is a rite of passage to growing up.

By the grace of God I stumbled into a career in journalism. But that was after spending five years in ministry, including three years in Africa. I loved full-time ministry, and God used it to dramatically shape my faith and thinking. But it wasn't until I was 29 and became a journalist that I felt my vocation ideally suited my interests, personality and skills. I'm fortunate to have found what I believe is my long-term career, but I also know many others who have had a much more frustrating search. Fortunately, resources are available to help.

Authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton wrote Now, Discover Your Strengths to help people understand themselves so they can achieve personal and professional success. Buckingham, senior vice president of The Gallup Organization, and Clifton, a prominent psychologist, want people to be aware of their natural talents so they can turn them into strengths that can be used in everyday life. They believe that when we use our talents we'll achieve the highest levels of excellence and achievement, while experiencing the most satisfaction. It's like finding a way to do the things you love, the things that come naturally.

Many of us try bettering ourselves by identifying our weaknesses and then working to correct them. But Buckingham and Clifton take a different approach. They believe it's a waste of time for people to try and fix their weaknesses. That would be like me spending years to become a master of retail inventory when I'm a people-person who's lousy at working alone. Buckingham and Clifton say we should only give as much attention to our weaknesses as is necessary to prevent them from undermining our strengths.

To help readers pinpoint their strengths they offer an online survey at www.strengthsfinder.com. (One code for accessing the test is included in each book.) They define "talent" as "any recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied." For instance, if a person is inquisitive, charming or competitive, she can apply these talents productively. The Strengths-Finder survey helps people find their talents — the areas where they have the greatest potential for a "strength," defined as "consistent near perfect performance in any activity."

I didn't have high hopes for the Strengths-Finder survey because personality tests usually disappoint me. It seems like they just rehash self-reported information. Before I took the test, I skimmed the 34 Signature Themes — they could also be called talents — identified by Buckingham and Clifton. I anticipated that Belief would be one of my primary Signature Themes, because it describes a person who has enduring core values like ethics, faith and family. I also assumed, given my love of writing and storytelling, that Communication would be one of my primary Signature Themes. I was wrong on both counts. And I was impressed with the test. I think the results pegged my personality in many ways, which is both scary and intriguing.

It took me about 30 minutes to answer the 180 questions on the test. The results, featuring five of the 34 Signature Themes, supposedly represent the way I naturally think, feel and behave. My five: Includer, Woo (which stands for "Winning Others Over"), Responsibility, Activator and Input. The names of the Signature Themes may seem like psychological mumbo-jumbo, but the authors do a good job of describing each one, making them easy to understand.

Buckingham and Clifton say we can use three clues to identify or confirm our talents: yearnings, rapid learning and satisfaction. Our yearnings reflect a physical reality that show how our brains are wired. "So no matter how repressive the external influences prove to be, these stronger connections will keep calling out to you," they write. Rapid learning describes the feeling of your brain lighting up when you learn a new skill that suits you. "If you learn it rapidly, you should look deeper," they say. "You will be able to identify the talent or talents that made it possible." The final clue is satisfaction. When you operate within your talents, it feels good.

When I studied the description of my top five Signature Themes, then compared them to my life experience, I could see the truth in the descriptions. The Signature Theme Input describes a person who is inquisitive and excited by the world's complexity and infinite variety. That's why I find writing so stimulating. As a journalist I'm confronted daily with realities — everything from crime, homelessness and celebrity success — that challenge my assumptions.

I see my propensity to be an Includer almost every day, too. When a new person came to my school, or now when a new employee comes to my office, I feel an immediate need to introduce myself and make them feel welcome. I don't do it out of obligation, but because I enjoy meeting people and helping them integrate into the mainstream. I've also seen that some of my greatest moments of shame came from betraying my natural instinct to include others. As an adolescent, I remember joining a group in bullying some poor kid; I still regret that.

According to Buckingham and Clifton, a person's Signature Themes have little to say about what field he should be in; although, they do offer some guidance about roles. The Gallup Organization conducted more than 2 million interviews to develop the book and survey, and found people with similar talents often excelled in very different fields. Also, people with different talents can excel in the same roles. The authors say the primary truth is that "you will be most successful when you craft your role to play to your signature talents most of the time."

If there's one critique I have of Now, Discover Your Strengths, it's that it left me wanting more. The book and online survey fulfill their promise — they identified my natural talents and encouraged me to focus on them. But the book didn't tell me how to apply my talents to life so they become strengths.

I want Buckingham and Clifton to show me steps I can take to turn my Signature Themes into skills I can use in everyday life. Realistically, this is probably asking too much of any book, and the authors have given their readers a good launching point. I have the rest of my life to figure out how the rest.

Copyright 2005 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.  

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