For most of us, discovering our strengths - those things we're good at and actually enjoy doing - sounds like a good idea. After all a growing body of research suggests doing what we do best each day at work may help to improve our confidence, our performance and our happiness. But what happens if you complete a strengths assessment like the VIA Survey or Gallup StrengthsFinder, only to find that your results are neither what you want or need in your job?
"I sound like a nun!" complained a recent coaching client. The truth is there's no guarantee that just because you're good at something and enjoy doing it, these will be the strengths you're excited to have. Repeatedly I see people who feel disappointed about how boring their strengths are, worried their strengths have nothing to do with their job, or just want completely different strengths like "self-regulation" to draw upon.
But if you don't like your strengths is there really anything you can do to change them?
It appears researchers now agree that both our talents and character strengths are capable of change. You see while our strengths exist within us they are also shaped by the situations that we find ourselves in.
This is why people who take the free VIA Survey on an annual basis often find that while some strengths stay consistently high, others will move around. For example, the strengths of "Creativity" and "Curiosity" always rate highly for me, but over the last eight years "Zest" will move up and down depending on how well I'm physically looking after myself.
Neuroscience has also found that because our brains are capable of learning right throughout our lives that with enough regular practice it is possible to build new neural pathways that help us to become good at and enjoy doing new behaviors. Let me be clear there's still hot debate over how long this might take and some popular estimates suggest it might be as high as 8,000 to 10,000 hours of practice, but it is possible.
For example, eight years ago "Love" was my twentieth strength. Wanting this to feature more prominently in my life I decided to start taking small daily actions to bring more love into my life. And slowly but surely, this strength has climbed up in my results until recently it featured as my number one strength.
So what can you do to change your strengths?
Here are the three things I recommend when people tell me they don't like their strengths:
- Check if your survey results are right - if your results really don't feel like you then share them with colleagues, friends or family who know you well and ask them to rate what your top strengths are and be guided by all of this input and what you know to be true about yourself. Recently a man in one of my workshops who was struggling to navigate the changes of a new job and a new baby in his life, got his VIA Survey results and while agreeing they reflected who he was right now he didn't feel like they were who he was at his best. He decided to take the test again but this time answered the questions as he would have during a more stable period in his life. Finding the results felt much more like him, he decided to focus on developing these strengths.
It's an important reminder that as Professor Chris Peterson, the creator of the VIA Survey, once counselled me: "Surveys are tools, not a magic oracle." So trust what you and the people who know you best identify as your strengths.
- Discover the value of your strengths - by definition all strengths are good. If your strength results feel like you, but you just think they're boring it might be time to re-discover the value of what these strengths bring to you and others. "Humility" might not feel like the most exciting strength, but it's what makes it possible for you to quietly and authentically get things done in team environments. That sounds pretty valuable.
My coaching client who feared her strengths made her sound like a nun, did reluctantly agree that the results were an accurate representation of who she was at her best. It was only when we started exploring all the different ways her strengths like "Honesty", "Kindness" and "Perspective" showed up in her work and the positive impact they helped her to have that she conceded her strengths weren't that bad.
- Invest in building new strengths - remember your strengths are buildable and changeable. They exist within you and within the situations you find yourself in. By prioritizing the practice of specific strengths - like I did with my strength of "Love" - or by putting yourself in situations that give you more opportunity to develop them - like going to the gym regularly to improve your "Zest" - you can create change. Just be realistic about the amount of time and effort this might take.
What can you do to re-discover the joy of your strengths and do more of what you do best?