How to develop your strengths and become your best self is an avenue with many alleys, so let me be clear on which direction we are taking with this.
This post offers a personalized approach to the challenge of developing your strengths. First, it looks at how to discover your ‘flow’ and ‘non-flow’ strengths, as categorized by tried-and-tested personality theory. The second chunk of the article gives some specific strategies for developing your strengths into finely tuned instruments.
Why bother with this?
Because a life of exercising your strengths is key to having an optimal experience (so being happy, in plain English).
Plus, developing our strengths is an essential aspect of personal growth, awareness and development. So if you care about that at all, you’ll want in on this.
Why having an accurate awareness of your strengths is important
If you are like most people, you will lack a meaningful awareness of your strengths. This isn’t benign: our strengths are important information, which need to instruct our lifestyle choices. Misjudging our strengths can take us completely off course.Misjudging our strengths can take us fundamentally off course in life Click To Tweet
You want to be able to rattle off an elevator-pitch style statement in response to the question, ‘what are you really good at?’ (Relax, nobody needs to know the response.)
For example, here’s what I might say in response to that question:
‘I can speed-read social dynamics, and I can often offer a deeper insight into relational or emotional problems.’
To anticipate a potential barrier to this exploration: your strengths aren’t necessarily something that the outer world considers to be useful, or what you achieve or produce in your life.
Strengths properly exercised can and often do eventually lead to success and achievement. But for the purposes of identifying your strengths, it is helpful initially to take a wider view than their specific use.
How to pinpoint your strengths using personality theory
Personality theory can help you to recognise your top personality strengths. Psychologists have spent a lot of time and effort attempting to categorize human strengths, and you may as well benefit from that!
Two stand-out models for categorizing strengths have emerged over the years: Carl Jung’s work on personality theory and Martin Seligman’s ‘Signature Strengths’.
Signature Strengths, or the VIA Classification of Strengths, is the result of research that outlined six major categories (called virtues) that provide a framework for 24 character strengths. These strengths were studied extensively, and found to be universally valued and present across cultures and nations.
Doing a Signature Strengths assessment is a great idea as it’ll raise your awareness of your strengths and might even change the way you think about your life and lifestyle design.
In fact, Seligman, who is the founding father of the Positive psychology movement, states in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’ that designing a life around our Signature Strengths is the secret to a happy life.
Jungian personality theory on the 8 human strengths
The rest of this post is based on Carl Jung’s categorizations of the eight human strengths. That’s because this system has made a more profound impact on how I understand and use my strengths, and the same is true for the people I know.
Jung’s work told us that our strengths comprise one flow and one secondary, or non-flow strength. Your flow strength is your area of ‘unconscious competence’- you’re good without necessarily being aware that you’re good. MRI scans show that when you are using your flow strength, more of your brain is activated.The work of Carl Jung and those who developed his ideas tells us we each have a flow and secondary strength Click To Tweet
Your non-flow strength is the biggest tool in your conscious toolbox (you do have a couple of other instruments in there, but we’ll talk about that later). You have to reach for it in order for it to develop.
As we will look at, the development of this strength is critical to refining your strengths overall.
Something to bear in mind as you identify your strengths
When you identify your flow and non-flow strength from the list below, you’ll probably get them in the incorrect order. I’m not being cheeky or calling you stupid, it’s just that everyone does it.
The flow strength is such an automatic part of us, we don’t really even know it’s there. It is the water we swim in, as compared with the non-flow strength, which is more like our swimwear in that we need to remember to wear it.
Bear this is mind as you read the list of strengths. There should be one from the first category, and another from the second category that make you go ‘yes: that’s me.’
(The reason for the two categories is that they relate to different functions in our psychology. The first category is a set of learning functions, and the second category a set of decision-making processes.)
If you happen to know your Myers Briggs type, as in properly know it, then your flow and non-flow strengths are the first two cognitive processes for your type. (I explain this terminology in this article).
1. ‘Sensory awareness’
If this is your top strength, you:
- are highly in tune with the sights, smells, sounds and general physical stimulus around you.
- live and thrive in the moment.
- usually aren’t interested in over-analyzing a situation.
- often exude a natural confidence.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I’m naturally athletic and impulsive. I see what I want and I just go for it.’
If this is one of your top two, you:
- are often mentally recollecting sights, sounds and other observations.
- pay attention to the memory of things in your mind, rather than the real live event.
- are detail-oriented, taking note of facts, events and occurrences exactly as they happen and categorizing them.
- are prone to bouts of nostalgia.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I’m traditional, highly organised and plan well for potential mishap’.
If this is your top strength, you:
- see possibilities in rapid fire succession.
- pick up on connections in the external environment between people, places and things.
- have a wide-eyed, passionate, excitable, magpie quality to you.
- are capable of seeing almost every side to every situation.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I’m excitable, entrepreneurial and naturally creative’.
If this is among your top strengths, you:
- have good insights that come to you through reflection and inner gazing.
- can accurately detect people’s hidden motivations.
- have an intense, probing, sharp, focused and absorbing side to your personality.
- tend to concern yourself with the truth or the ‘essence’ of ideas, theories, people and situations.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I’m generally insightful and I find myself accurately predicting outcomes before they happen.’
Have you identified a stand out winner from these four? Great, that’s in your top two.
The second category
If this is your strength, then you:
- seek to impose order on the external environment as efficiently and logically as possible.
- value productivity above all else.
- naturally lead others, implementing concrete plans for accomplishing goals.
- may seem opinionated, but are often simply setting out the most efficient course of action for everyone, which you are uniquely positioned to do.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I’m direct, decisive, dynamic, pragmatic, and highly productive in every capacity’.
If this is in your bag, then you:
- are adept at understanding systems and naturally notice inconsistencies within them.
- seek a thorough understanding of how things work, and enjoy deconstructing things to look at the individual parts to see how things function as a whole.
- enjoy finding shortcuts which increase efficiency.
- take time to understand how things work, before you feel comfortable sharing or acting on your knowledge.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I am logical, cool, systematic, objective and I can ‘clean slice’ information.’
7. ‘External emotional awareness’
If this is in your bag, you:
- easily read social cues and are highly perceptive and aware of the dynamics between people.
- are able to sequence the needs of those around you, prioritizing and decision-making.
- are compassionate and warm.
- feel unable to enjoy yourself unless the people around you are healthy, happy and comfortable.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I easily read social cues, I’m naturally attuned with how others are feeling and I usually know what they need.’
If this is your top strength, you:
- have a heightened awareness and understanding of how things impact you personally.
- are genuine, compassionate and analytical.
- feel a need to break down emotions to their core, and understand them as wholly as possible.
- search for the deeper meaning behind absolutely everything.
Elevator pitch might be: ‘I am highly self-aware, and I am able to analyze my emotions in depth.’
Have you identified your strength from the second category?
And are you clear on which is your flow and non-flow strength?
How to develop your strengths
I’d like to tell you the hard work is over, but that would be a lie. Identifying your key strengths is a huge step. But developing your strengths to their full potency is a journey.
The remainder of this post is a bit on the technical side. If you start to feel overwhelmed, know that you could just park the exploration here for now. Focus on identifying your flow and non-flow strengths, and noticing more how they show up in your life.
For the rest of you: here are four strategies for developing your strengths to their full potential.
1. Aligning as much of life as possible around your top strength
As I already mentioned, it is pointless for me to tell you to use your strength. Although there will be occasions in life (and we’ll talk about when in a minute) where you reach for other, less mature strengths, most of the time, you’ll be using your flow strength.
However, it might be the case that you have created your life in such a way so as your flow strength isn’t being drawn upon. This depressing situation I find to be pretty common.
This has been true for me in my own life, having for most of the time worked in job roles that haven’t made use of my flow strength (external emotional awareness). Spending such a large chunk of my days out of my play-pen had made me frustrated and unhappy.If most of your day's activities don't use your strength, you may start to feel drained and unhappy Click To Tweet
Let’s take another common example. Say that your flow strength is strategizing, and as you assume higher ranks of leadership, you are required more to understand the dynamics between others (external emotional awareness). It will be exhausting for you to have to step into the role of reading dynamics of others and relational problem solving. It will be better for you to defer that function to someone else as far as that’s possible. That’ll leave you free to be in your strengths.
Key takeaway: Think about what elements of your life aren’t a use of your strength, and see if you can reduce that element, and increase the elements where you get to be ‘in your element’.
So far, so intuitive.
2. Stepping outside of your strength in order to identify with its polar opposite
And now for the counter intuitive.
To refine your strength, pay attention to what is on the flip side.
Here are the strengths again and their corresponding weaknesses:
Strengths > Weaknesses
Sensory awareness > Cataloging
Cataloging > Sensory awareness
Brainstorming > Intuiting
Intuiting > Brainstorming
Strategising > Thinking
Thinking > Strategizing
External emotional awareness > Self-awareness
Self-awareness > External emotional awareness
Part of being strong at one thing means naturally being weak at the polar opposite. To overcome the blind spots in the way you apply your strength, deliberately identify with the opposing process (revisit the description of the strength above). When you routinely bring your attention to that attitude or way of thinking, your flow strength will become more well-rounded.To make your strength more well-rounded, identify with its opposite Click To Tweet
For example, my flow strength is external emotional awareness, which means self-awareness is in the shadow of that strength. When I routinely adopt the stance of ‘what do I feel about this?’ that helps my external emotional awareness to behave more intelligently.
It means I’ll not throw my own feelings in the road for the sake of creating harmony around me. I’ll be more effective at meeting my own needs, along with the needs of people around me. It will probably help me to accurately decipher the needs of the individuals around me as well, seeing as I’ll be more in touch with that information about myself.
Figure out how what I just said applies to you.
3. Being aware of ‘the rut’ and ‘the loop’
The rut and the loop are predictable behaviour patterns that personality theory has identified. We all have a rut, and we all have a loop.
The loop happens where we ignore our non-flow strength in favor of our third strength, which is a lot less developed.
Why would we do that?
It is sort of the natural short-cut that we all take by default, because developing our non-flow strength takes some effort, and we are lazy.
We all have a ‘go to’ strength from those above that we use: think of it like a life raft. (I wouldn’t worry about trying to identify it for this post’s purposes, but if you are interested in learning more, I suggest you check out a Personality Hacker podcast on the subject, such as this one.)
Repeatedly using it instead of developing your non-flow strength stymies your flow strength, and keeps you in a state of stagnation.
For example, my life raft is ‘sensory awareness’. When I am in my loop, I flit between external emotional awareness and sensory awareness. In practical terms, this means that I seek to meet the needs of myself and others through short-term, instant gratification hits: fun stuff such as escapism and entertainment, or just whatever is quick and easy. That is perfectly okay sometimes, but it ensures that I do not develop the problem-solving potential of my flow strength.
Instead, what I should do is place my insightful, probing, introspective hat, and take the time to understand the unmet need in a deeper way, coming up with a more sustainable solution.
To avoid being in a loop continually, you have to consciously develop your non-flow strength. This involves awareness and then habit change.
You need the ability to watch yourself about to take that shortcut, and do the different thing.
For each flow strength, there is a predictable rut behaviour. It is one of the eight processes above, but we can’t call it a strength because for you, it is your bluntest tool. So it is taking the worst aspects imaginable of the strength.
Being in the rut feels like being out of your depth and out of character. For most of us, this is a very unhappy place. The key to getting out of it is recognizing when you are in a rut, and getting back into your strength.
Each strength’s rut state:
Sensory awareness > Intuition
Cataloging > Brainstorming
Brainstorming > Cataloging
Intuition > Sensory awareness
Strategising > Self-awareness
Thinking > External emotional awareness
External emotional awareness > Thinking
Self-awareness > Strategising
For example, my rut state is ‘thinking’. As that process isn’t a strength for me, I take on all of the unhealthy characteristics. Usually empathetic and decisive, I’ll become cold and overly analytical. I become pessimistic and critical of myself and those around me, and the opposite of compassionate (which is more characteristic of me).
Get a clear picture in your mind of your own rut state. Consider whether that has marked any periods of your life and try recall what finally got you out of your rut. I’d bet it was likely to be getting back into your strength.
This is useful to know for future rut uprisings.
4. Unlock your flow strength by focusing on the non-flow strength
I’ve saved the best to last, as this is the most important strategy. I have already referred to it several times.
Your non-flow strength is, in many ways, a secret weapon. It is the way to take the top strength into the realms of genius. You probably aren’t using it as much as you could be, because it is an effort to do so.
My strength is external emotional awareness, and my non-flow strength is intuition. As I have worked on exercising my non-flow strength in my life, and put it in service of my flow strength, I am a lot better at finding genuine and sustainable solutions to emotional/psychological challenges. I have more clarity over the heart of the matter than I did before, when I’d resort to the psychological equivalent of sugary, quick-hit, or band-aid solutions.
Apply this example to yourself so you have a clear understanding of exactly how your second strength can make the flow strength even better.
Owning your strengths, and working to develop your flow strength by using your non-flow strength, is a key element in becoming your best self.
It’ll bring you steady fulfillment knowing that you are drawing uniquely on what you are good at, and refining your strengths in a meaningful way.
I encourage you to start thinking about your strengths and taking their development a bit more seriously.