Finding Direction Through Your Strengths
I remember the first time I took a strengths assessment. I initially looked at the list of potential strengths and selected the ones I identified with most deeply. I thought I might have a good sense of what I was good at. I must know myself pretty well, right?
Wrong. My top strength was completely unexpected. It had to be a glitch. How could this assessment have picked up on something I didn’t see? Was it wrong? Was I wrong?
I took the strengths assessment as the first step in better understanding how to capitalize on my strengths. There is good evidence to suggest that working from your strengths instead of your deficiencies is better for personal and leadership development (Zenger, Folkman, & Edinger, 2011). While taking the assessment was illuminating, I needed more to understand what it really meant. Understanding strengths can be harder than simply identifying skills. I know that I can use Microsoft Excel, but it’s harder to know what energizes, excites, and empowers me.
There are a variety of strengths assessments out there that are validated and reliable. But when I was trying to understand my results, I wondered if there was something I could do to more fully identify with my strengths and how they play out in my everyday life. The surprise of seeing my top strength not only indicated that I needed to take time to better understand myself, but also that I had no idea how to move forward. Once I knew my strengths, how was I supposed to put them into action? How have I already been using them?
This awareness had bigger implications than merely feeding my curiosity. Recent research has demonstrated that a strong sense of self-knowledge predicts your ability to find meaning in your life (Schlegel, Hicks, King, & Arndt, 2011). Living out of a sense of meaning is significant and positively relates to both job and life satisfaction (Duffy, Allan, Autin, & Bott, 2013).
So then I wondered, how do people get to know themselves? How can I develop a stronger and more meaningful understanding of what I have to offer the world? In my searching, I read about a theologian and scholar who may sound familiar: Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius believed that we can identify the sacred within us through reflective practices. He was interested in helping people learn to discern and interpret their feelings, so as to understand how they could live more fully. In other words, he was interested in helping people identify and live out their strengths.
While his practices were driven by his spirituality, I felt that many of his ideas were relevant to simply understanding myself better. By participating in some of his practices, I could better understand the results of my assessment and how to use my strengths. In her book Inner Compass, Margaret Silf discusses Ignatian practices and guides to self-reflection (Silf, 1999). These are by no means prescriptive, but they offer a framework to build self-awareness.
1. The first step Ignatius proposes is to understand your life history.
By mapping out key moments in your life story, you can better understand the moments that shifted your path. Once you have identified key moments you can better see the patterns in your behavior. You can recognize what events or decisions brought you energy and what drained you or led you in the wrong direction. Interestingly enough, this practice has also been successfully used in leader development to build self-awareness and authenticity (Behrens & Benham, 2007).
2. The next step is to track your moods.
Ignatius called this practice a “review of consciousness” (Silf, 1999). He recommended writing down your moods throughout the day and taking note of what brought you solid emotions (like joy, stillness, or peace) or emotions of turmoil (like fear, rage, or depression). He also suggested taking careful consideration of overreactions, as these indicate the circumstances and behaviors that bring you desolation or consolation. Experiences that bring desolation make us retreat inward, cut off from others, and have a negative spiral downwards. Experiences that bring consolation energize us, direct our focus outside of ourselves, and generate innovation. By tracking our moods, we can better understand how to direct our attention toward consolation, or our natural strengths.
3. The third piece is to integrate our life story and understanding of our moods into our “Inner Compass.”
Using these practices, we can develop a deeper sense of how we should move forward with meaningful direction. But the key to effectively using an inner compass is to trust it. There will be many opportunities to doubt yourself, to wonder if you are really drawn to something, to be afraid of leaving behind your attachments. But with the knowledge of what truly feeds you, you can develop in areas that truly use your potential and inspire others to do the same.
My point isn’t necessarily that you should follow exactly Ignatius’ practices, but to consider reflection as a valuable tool to fully identify and inhabit your strengths. While strengths assessments are incredibly helpful tools, there are other ways to identify, inform, and capitalize on your strengths. Ignatius underscored the importance of his practices being an outlook rather than a program. Following the steps exactly is not enough, but rather keeping an ongoing practice is the path to new insights. This has been important to remember in my own strength development. It is unlikely that I will exhaust my understanding of my strengths and their applications, as it is a continuing and lifelong journey of reflection and self-knowledge.
Behrens, T.R., & Benham, M.K.P. (2007) Evaluating community leadership programs. In K.M. Hannum, J.W. Martineau, & C. Reinelt (Eds.), The Handbook of Leadership Development Evaluation (284-290). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Duffy, R. D., Allan, B. A., Autin, K. L., & Bott, E. M. (2013). Calling and life satisfaction: It's not about having it, it's about living it. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 60(1), 42-52. doi:10.1037/a0030635
Schlegel, R. J., Hicks, J. A., King, L. A., & Arndt, J. (2011). Feeling like you know who you are: Perceived true self-knowledge and meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 745-756. doi:10.1177/0146167211400424
Silf, M. (1999). Inner Compass: An invitation to ignatian spirituality. Chicago, Il: Loyola Press.
Zenger, J.H., Folkman, J.R., & Edinger, S.K. (2011). Making yourself indispensable. Harvard Business Review, 89(10) 84-92.
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