Gilbert the mouse was walking across a farmer's field when out of the blue, he wondered where he got his strength. Though he thought he knew otherwise, the reality was that his strength came from his choices -- and nothing more.
As we think about the idea of our strengths and gifts in life resulting from nothing more than the choices that we make, it is important to consider the following idea that an amazing Boston cab driver named Ronald* shared with me as I headed from Cambridge to the airport.
It was that our life was like a book, and each day was like turning to a new page. We did not need to live in the past -- after all, the future is always a lure and dream ahead in times yet to come. Instead, we just need to keep things simple, see positives in every day and on every page, and just look for ways to share positivity with others wherever we can.
He also told me the story of a quadriplegic man he met before the holidays one year. The man certainly struggled with more than physical life, and was poor as well. To really add insult to injury, there were people close by who observed the man's condition and laughed at him. As disrespectful as that is, Ronald was simply called to service. He encouraged the man, recognized his self-worth and gave him a gift for the holiday.
Listening to Ronald, I was instantly thankful for the traffic. Ronald's words were like a sail amidst a tempest, not fighting the wind but harnessing it for the greater good. We made it to the airport on time and the conversation was a boost for us both.
This type of a resilient attitude causes me to think about strengths in life, and their definition, source, outcome when lacking, and outcomes when utilized. And alas, this leads back to the little story about Gilbert.
Strengths in Life, what are they?
As Gilbert looked upon a green, spotted piece of cheese, he thought certainly this must not be a source of strength for me. After all, I like fresh, sharp yellow cheese.
Culturally, the typical family consists of two children, a nice home, and perhaps a dog or cat. But of course, not included in that picture are ideas like fostering, same sex couples with children, couples without kids, or divorcees without custody. No, some of the realities of our country are really thought of as outside of a norm rather than as purposeful, intentional, or helpful.
In a similar way, strengths in life are often looked at as gleaming characteristics of greatness, pedigrees of persistence and dedication, or genius-like decision-making prowess at work or home. But what about all the day-to-day wise decisions we make -- or even the ones that seem like ordinary decisions but when added up over time are the grit that makes great parents, excellent employees, faithful friends, and dedicated loved ones? After all, like a book, if each page is simply filled with some consistently wise and positive choices, then the destination of the story will likewise be of this important nature.
Having written a book that encourages educators to find strengths in all students -- even the hurting ones -- I am biased. I think that strengths are not incredibly difficult to find if you have a caring heart for the person for whom you are looking to build up. That book is called Ending School Shootings, but really it could be the process of ending any set of negative outcomes that a troubled young person could engage in or find themselves yearning to commit. For now, that text has gotten enough coverage to warrant bringing us back to the case of Gilbert.
How do I find my strengths?
Because Gilbert was fooled into thinking that one of the best types of cheese was bad, he starved and then looked for sustenance. Crumbs, junk food left over by big people, and the ends of potato chip bags ultimately did not satisfy. So Gilbert returned to where he started and as his eyes set upon the green wedge of cheese, his stomach let out a noticeable and later persistent growl.
If I were aged 11-15, I (or a caring adult advocate who was trying to help me) would look at the website, Strengths Explorer by Gallup, at www.strengths-explorer.com. Or another method is to tap the benefits of free tools like those that measure Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, such as through a free online website.
Alternatively, if I were 16-18 years old or an adult with the same questions, I would try the adult strengths-based tool, at www.strengthsfinder.com, which is also by Gallup. These tools, or similar profiles of strengths you might think of as you work with young people can be a great asset in developing and enhancing a life-compass inside a young person.
What if I don't find my strengths?
As Gilbert sat in front of the towering wedge and tried to imagine it was a yellow bite of his favorite variety, he felt sad. "If only" he kept saying, rather than, "Oh my heavens, I am so happy to have found exactly what I am looking for."
Indeed, we live in a society that says it values strengths in people. As I said before, however, the trouble is that our society only values the great gains that look like strengths, or the powerful attributes of victors. But is a weakness a strength?
Here is a simple example that might make this point clearer. In the course of finding my own strengths, I noticed an area where I truly was weak. In other words, in the four domains of strengths depicted by Gallup (executing, influencing. relationship building, strategic thinking), there was one area where I had no strengths.
At first that area seemed like green cheese to me, a thing to be avoided. But ironically I found out through some not terribly comfortable experiences that this area of weakness was actually an area of buried strength waiting to be unearthed.
Gallup makes it clear that there is no perfect profile of the top three or five strengths that a person has. They surveyed thousands of leaders and caricatured some really powerful and even emblematic ones in the page-turner, Strengths-Based Leadership.
Some of these amazing leaders had a balance of strengths in each of the four domains while others had most or all of their strengths grouped in one category that made them stand out, or perhaps a couple.
But as I share this, I quite recently came back to that area which I thought was my allotment of green cheese and decided to learn more about it. Two classes later that my work sponsored me in, I found that the cheese was actually not greener on the other side of the room with other people in the class. In fact, we all were choosing to learn more about an area that we knew could be a benefit to others through us.
What about my weak points?
So finally, Gilbert after a lengthy look at that green cheese took a bite. Instantly, the taste was unfamiliar - almost gritty and yet sharp at first - but then it happened. Gilbert's hunger subsided and he continued in his path in life with a new spring in his step. He learned that every bit of green cheese he could find in his life could actually be a beautiful thing if he also balanced it with his more inherent areas of gifting (the sharp yellow cheese).
As we make a hard choice for the first time, it then becomes easier after that. And so, as we choose one day to look at a weaker area (or areas) and simply learn more about causes and potential benefits, we might find that the true essence of our inherent creativity and purpose can be unlocked. If not anything else, this new area can cause us to change -- which is always a good habit for those who want to keep their mind young and flexible.
And who knows, but what if that thing we call green cheese -- because it feels hard for us to choose on the first time -- is actually a wedge of fresh, sharp yellow cheese for someone else. And so by choosing something that is hard for us initially, we can be a refreshing message of hope for someone else in a way we never actually expected.
What if I apply my strengths?
Gilbert, having his fill of green cheese, almost thought he might never go back to the good old yellow kind until it happened. From inside his once famished tummy protruded a lump and then came a distinguishable noise that he tried to hide until, viola, it came out. Burp. Instantly embarrassed, Gilbert with a furry yet reddened little face realized anew that while his weaknesses could be his strengths, he should better try to live through his main areas of gifting. Then out of a satisfied heart, he could allow the greener areas to humble him into being a better... mouse.
In the end, like Gilbert we might ask ourselves about why our weaknesses are so elusive. In fact, sometimes the only way we see them is when hardship, or pain, or our own mistakes or others' mistakes make a difficult circumstance into an undesirable reality.
But it is in those times that we must remember that what is green might actually what is golden. For indeed, our weakest weaknesses might become the wellspring out of which our strongest strengths can make us into a really helpful person unlike we ever expected. Why not try to find that kind of positive picture in ourselves and in others?
And if I ask who hid my strengths, I have to be honest about things. It's not someone else who hides them, but instead it's me who avoids looking for them.
After all, if you cannot find you own strengths even though they are inside of you waiting to be tapped, then the answer is simple.
So, "Who hid my strengths?" you ask.
The answer is that it could only be you. After all, the "choice" is yours.
Jonathan J. Doll, PhD, wrote the book, Ending School Shootings. The book is dedicated to the courageous student, Claire Davis, and all proceeds from the first two months of sales are being donated to three charities, including the Arapahoe High School Community Fund, the Sandy Hook Promise, and in Michigan the Alma Stallworth Scholarship Foundation Fund. Learn more at http://www.endingschoolshootings.org.