“Play to your strengths.” You might read it on a billboard or a T-shirt. But what does it really mean? I’ve always assumed that my strengths align with the things I do well. I’m a leader, excellent at multitasking and extremely detail-oriented. I was surprised to learn that strengths are, in fact, mostly independent of skills. Skills are things we learn. They come and go throughout our lifetime. Strengths, on the other hand, align more with our personality traits and overall character, which are relatively constant, though they can be further developed and refined.
Identifying your strengths helps you build a life that lies at the intersection of passion, skill and demand. If I had properly identified my strengths earlier in my career, I might have avoided a five-year period of treading water in a profession that seemed a perfect match for me at the time. Only later did I realize that the technical and redundant nature of the job clashed with my personality and need for diversity.
It seems obvious: The more you understand what you’re naturally good at, the more success you’re likely to find. But, as I discovered, taking a personal inventory can be misleading, so I turned to a strengths-finder test. Although not a new concept, Tom Rath’s best-seller StrengthsFinder 2.0 popularized the idea of focusing on our positives instead of trying to make up for our negatives.
“When we identify and take pride in our strengths, we can open our eyes more clearly to the realities of our current situation and empower ourselves to act and enact change,” says Alexis Conason, a New York-based clinical psychologist.
Now there are hundreds of strengths tests, paid and free, available online. I used a tool developed for Red Bull called Wingfinder. The survey assesses your strengths in four key areas: creativity (including curiosity), thinking (intelligence and fluid IQ), drive (ambition and motivation) and connections (interpersonal and self-management skills). The Values in Action Inventory (VIA), Clifton Strengths, and Reflected Best Self Exercise are three other popular self-assessment tools that can help you pinpoint your strengths. VIA and CliftonStrengths rely on your thoughtful and honest insight, while the Reflected Best Self Exercise relies on input from others.
The assessment defined my strengths as direct, open to experience, autonomous and disciplined. People like me leap enthusiastically into the unknown, enjoy working independently and can be relied on to deliver.
Of course knowing your strengths isn’t enough. I have a ton of wild ideas that I often keep to myself for fear of rejection. The assessment suggests I begin sharing my imaginative perspective with others. Bringing my ideas into the open might help me discover a new project or passion.
If you’re not sure how to put your strengths into action, consider hosting a strengths party with your trusted peers. Share your results with each other and brainstorm ways to implement them in your daily lives. After all, the first step doesn’t have to be big to cause change.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.