How to identify your strengths. Part 1: Self-Reflection

I recently made a case that it’s better to “stick to your strengths” than to do “whatever you set your mind to.”  The main thrust of my argument was that even if you could do anything you set your mind to, it’s a slower, longer, and more frustrating road to excellence if you’re not using your strengths.  So why not pick the more enjoyable journey?

“If you’ve never applied your strengths productively, you might not realise you have any.”

A strength is just a particular way of processing information that your brain is good at.  A strength has to be applied towards a productive outcome to be noticed as a strength, of course, so you might not realise you have any, or you might see it as a weakness.  For example, neurotic worriers are superb at anticipating negative outcomes, they can often do this all day long.  While this might not make them great people to sit next to on the bus, their natural caution and prudence gives them excellent potential for strategic planning roles.

Maybe you’re looking to shape your life around your strengths, maybe you’re just reading out of interest.  Either way, you’re probably curious as to what your own strengths are.  Allow me to cater to your intrigue, by presenting the two ways you can discover them:  Self-Reflection and Questionnaires.

These are each pretty big topics, so I’ll explain how to use self-reflection now, and review the best questionnaires to use in a future article.

By “self-reflection”, I don’t just mean sitting and thinking “Hmmm….what are my strengths?”  Research has uncovered patterns in how people discover their strengths, and this gives you areas in which to focus your self-reflection.  This option would be best for people who have a high level of self-knowledge to start with, or people who dislike questionnaires generally. 

The advantage of self-reflection is that you’re not limited to a fixed set of potential answers – a questionnaire can tell you which are your top five strengths out of a total of 24, but it can’t tell you about anything outside of that model.  Reflection is harder work, but gives you that extra flexibility.  You can discover your strengths by reflecting on the following five areas (1):

1) Spontaneous Reactions

If it is true that strengths are your brain’s efficient processes, you’ll probably use them as a kind of default response to various situations.  When a problem comes up, do you analyse the situation or jump straight in?  If you go to a party, is your spontaneous reaction to woo those people you don’t know, or spend time relating to people you do?  Looking for common spontaneous reactions over a variety of situations can give you clues to your strengths.

2) Yearnings

For whatever reasons, each of us is drawn to some activities but not to others.  There are some activities that turn us off, and some we get excited about.  This is partly because we get more satisfaction from activities involving our strengths, and it’s easier for us to get into a state of flow when we’re using them.  

When we’re yearning to do a certain thing, it’s in part because of the good emotions we expect to get from it, so this is a good avenue to look at when trying to identify strengths.  Think about your yearnings, and find the commonalities, but beware of what Marcus Buckinham calls “misyearnings”.  For example, a yearning to be an actor because of the anticipated glamour and fame, not for the joy of acting.  The yearnings you look for should be those relating to an activity itself, not the end result of it – things that you’re intrinsically motivated to do.  If you’re unsure, it can help to interview someone already in the role you yearn for, to see what it’s really like.

3) Rapid Learnings

Unfortunately, this is something I’ve never really experienced!  I’m quite a slow learner, I can’t think of many things I’ve picked up easily.  But many people try something new and find they progress quickly and naturally in it.  This rapid learning is indicative of an efficient brain area, and therefore a strength.  Think back over times you’ve picked something up quickly, or found you were a ‘natural’ at something.  Your strengths may relate to the skills required by that activity.

4) Satisfactions

As positive psychologists have discovered, using your strengths makes you happier.  Reasoning backwards, we find that the things that make us happy may involve our strengths.  Of course, not everything that makes us happy can involve a strength, otherwise you’d come up with a rather silly list, maybe including “being surprised”, “drinking beer”, and “buying a carpet”.  Obviously, these are not strengths.  You have to use common sense and maybe look at activities that are challenging to some degree, activities that you’d like to do again.   

5) Energy

You’re more likely to draw energy from activities that use your strengths than those that don’t.  This is why it’s so hard to go against the grain of your strengths long-term – these activities are draining rather than energising.  Ask yourself where you get your energy from.  What activities give you a buzz when you’re doing them?  If you can think of some, they probably involve your strengths.

“Looking for your strengths helps you to see yourself from the outside”

As you’ll have noticed, discovering your strengths through self-reflection is hard work; not something you can do in an afternoon.  You might have to spend a few weeks noticing your spontaneous reactions and satisfactions, and remembering your rapid learnings.  You’ll have to be perceptive in order to discover where you get your energy from, and careful not to identify any misyearnings.  

The advantage of all this, aside from figuring out what strengths you have, is the extra self-awareness.  You’ve probably never thought of looking at yourself from the outside, to see how your elephant naturally reacts to things when you’re not directly instructing it.  An exercise like this will greatly appeal to those of you seeking self-knowledge.

Others will feel this is too much hard work!  For you people, there are some good questionnaires which are well supported by research; these will give you a good idea of your strengths.  There are also some crap questionnaires out there too, so next article I’ll review the best ones to use.

Recommended Reading:


(1) The first four (Spontaneous Reactions, Yearnings, Rapid Learnings, and Satisfactions), are recommended in Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton.  
The fifth suggestion (Where your energy comes from), is Alex Linley’s advice, which you’ll find in the book Average to A+, you might also like this free pdf file: Alex Linley’s Strengthspotting Tips 

How to identify your strengths. Part 2: Questionnaires

Previously, I’ve explained why it’s best to stick to your strengths, and explained how to identify your strengths through self-reflection.  In order to use self-reflection, you’d have to be aware of your body and mind, watch how they naturally respond to situations, and take some extra time to sit and reflect in the ways I outlined.  This is all well and good, and many people relish that type of self-analysis.  Others, including my own good self, don’t find that quite so appealing.  Personally, I’d prefer to just fill out a questionnaire and get the results.  If you’re like me then read on, and I’ll tell you where to go next. First of all – in case you’re unsure which way to go – here are the pros and cons of each:

For Self-Reflection/Against Questionnaires

Questionnaires are fixed and rigid – Although there are many thousands of possible outcomes from a questionnaire, it is still blocked into a framework, and cannot tell you about anything outside of the framework.  Self-reflection is more flexible.

Questionnaires are focused on psychological and social strengths only – So you won’t discover any physical abilities like reaction time or balance except through reflection.  

Self-Reflection is more personalised and focused on you – Its outcome is based on your real-life behaviour.  Questionnaires, on the other hand, give you a best-guess based on your answers to questions – this has potential for error.

Increased self-knowledgeYou’ll surely learn more about yourself from doing this.

For Questionnaires/Against Self-Reflection

You may not have the wordsIf you don’t have a good vocabulary to identify strengths with, you might miss some, or not realise that a certain consistent behaviour can be applied productively.  Once you’ve very familiar with the strengths vocabulary, you might even try your hand at Talent SpeedReading, which could be useful if you’re in a managerial position.

Personal tasteSome people find self-reflection difficult or boring.

Backed by researchYes, responses are fixed into a framework, but there are good reasons that this framework exists.  These models are not arbitrary: research has been done to test their effectiveness.  

Saves time and effort – 45 minutes to 1 hr, versus 1 or 2 weeks.

Of course, you can always do both, and see how the results compare (let me know what happened if you do).  There are two dominant models in the field of personal strengths.  These are Values In Action, coming from positive psychology researchers, and StrengthsFinder, based on research by Gallup.  (Note: There is a third model, Realise2, coming out of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology on June 2nd 2009.  As I know very little about it, I’ll leave it alone for now.)

Values In Action  

Legend has it, a group of intrepid researchers went into the mountains one winter, taking with them food and every major scientific, philosophical and religious text ever written, from the north, east, south and west.  For a long time, there was no word.  Some feared the worst.  Then, the next spring, the researchers returned.  Exhausted and emaciated, they came down the mountain, carrying over their heads a glowing, 800 page tome entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV), which contained extensive information and background on 24 character strengths.

I may have exaggerated this story slightly.

In any case, these 24 strengths are grouped into six virtues.  To come up with this list of 24 strengths, the historical texts were examined, and commonalities were identified.  The researchers looked at what the great thinkers of our species agreed on, and tested these common ideas against a set of criteria of their own. 

The end product is a model where the exercise and development of strengths leads to the achievement of virtue.  So it’s mainly concerned with developing good character.  

The Values In Action model has an accompanying test, used to diagnose peoples’ “signature strengths”.  The test is called, inventively enough, the Values In Action Inventory of Strengths.  It is well supported by research, and a lot of effort has been put into making sure this is a valid and reliable reflection of human strengths. 

For example, when the test is given to people in the military versus civilians, soldiers come out higher in strengths like teamwork, honesty and bravery (1).  Another example: executives tend to display less kindness and love, but higher leadership and self-control than their employees (2).  These findings and others like them are sensible; they show that the test is accurate.

The VIA Inventory of Strengths can be taken at Authentic Happiness.  It’s free but requires registration (you also get access to a whole host of other tests) and it takes around 45 minutes to complete.  If you only take one test, take this one.  I recommend it because I’ve read much of the research using this model, so I know it’s been well validated and tested. 

Also, studies have shown that when people use their signature strengths, as identified by this questionnaire, they get happier, and continue to get happier the more they use them (up to the 6 month point where the study ended, that is). (3) 


This is a more well-known approach to strengths, due to the popularity of the book “Now, Discover Your Strengths”.  Rather than focusing on good character and virtue, the authors have focused on the workplace, and job performance.  The model is based on a survey of 2 million people in just about all known professions.  Each participant was interviewed, then the data was analysed and compiled into what is known as StrengthsFinder.  

If you’re interested in strengths to help you find or progress in your career, this is probably the model for you – it’s specifically designed for that purpose.  To develop strengths, you first must identify your talents.  Talents are defined as “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied”. 

After discovering your talents, you practice them, learn complimentary skills and knowledge, and eventually the talent becomes a strength, which itself is defined as “consistent, near perfect performance in an activity.”    

Like the VIA Inventory of Strengths, the test takes around 45 minutes to complete, and gives you an output of your top five strengths.  Unlike the VIA, the StrengthsFinder model includes a total of 34 strengths, rather than 24, and unfortunately it isn’t free.  

To take the StrengthsFinder test you have to first purchase one of their books, StrengthsFinder 2.0 will give you access to the newer test, or an older publication like Now, Discover Your Strengths will get you into the older test (convenient links below).  These books are pretty cheap in paperback and worth getting if you’re interested in strengths.  Once you have an access code, head over to the StrengthsFinder website and log in!



Recommended Reading:


(1) Matthews, M. D, Eid, J, Kelly, D, Bailey, J. K. S, Peterson, C. (2006) Character Strengths and Virtues of Developing Military Leaders: An International Comparison. MILITARY PSYCHOLOGY. 18(Suppl.), 57–68.

(2) Character Strengths of Executives and Employees 

(3) Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Robert Biswas-Diener on happiness, strengths, and 'incubators'

Robert Biswas-Diener is a big name in positive psychology research.  He’s sort of the Indiana Jones of positive psychology; he travelled around the world, through rich countries and tribal cultures, investigating happiness in these varied places.  Rumour has it he took a whip and a hat along with him, although I can’t confirm this.

Anyway, he’s got several great articles up on his website, Intentional Happiness, and an audio describing some of the discoveries he made about happiness while on his travels.  At the time of writing, he has a few articles on happiness and some on strengths, so if you like the stuff on this site, you’ll probably like those too.

A special note has to go to his article on incubators, which will probably change the way you look at procrastination.  Definitely check that one out – you might not be a procrastinator after all!

Finally, if you’re a psychology student looking for journal articles on happiness, there are loads of references on the site, many of which have links to free pdfs – very useful.

Worth a look!

Strengths and Weaknesses

Are you aware of your personal strengths and weaknesses? In this article we’ll look at:

  • The distinction between strengths and weaknesses, and why it may be more important to focus on strengths.
  • How to identify your strengths and weaknesses
  • How to manage and work around your weaknesses when focusing on your strengths

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?” This is probably the most hated interview question, but apart from the enjoyment of watching us squirm while trying to answer it, there’s a good reason employers might want to ask it; it could allow them to fit you into a role in which you could use your personal strengths, and has minimum focus on your weaknesses.

Alas, this doesn’t tend to happen – Gallup report that 68% of employees don’t get to use their strengths on a daily basis! The thinking seems to be that there’s a global characteristic called ‘talent’, and if employers can find people with ‘talent’, they can train them to do whatever job is necessary – after all, they’re ‘talented’!

However, talent doesn’t work like that; there are many possible talents that a person could have. When we see someone who does well in their profession, we generally call them talented; but in fact they usually have just focused on their natural strengths, and minimised their weaknesses. There are plenty of examples: the genius artist who lives like a slob; the expert computer programmer with no charisma; the incredible athlete who has no skill with numbers. You wouldn’t hire the first person to be your interior designer, the second to lead your sales team, or the third to do your taxes, yet they are all talented.

So, ‘talent’ is not defined by being a whizz in everything you do. It’s a case of finding activities that require your strengths but not your weaknesses, and developing your expertise in these areas.

Your strengths

How do you find out what your strengths are, so that you can use and develop them? There are several ways, the best one will depend on your personality. If you are reflective and perceptive, you might want to try self-reflection. If you think you’ll find this difficult, you could take a questionnaire. These questionnaires are not the flimsy little tests you find in popular magazines; they are empirically validated measurements based on a great deal of research. The main ones at the moment are the Values In Action model and the StrengthsFinder model. A new model, Realise2 has recently entered the fray too and looks interesting. Here are the strengths from the former two models:




Wisdom and Knowledge
Judgment, Open-Mindedness, critical thinking
Love of Learning
Perspective, wisdom
Perseverance, industriousness
Honesty, authenticity, integrity
Capacity to Love and Be Loved
Kindness, generosity and nurturance
Social Intelligence
Forgiveness & Mercy
Modesty & Humility
Self-Regulation, self-control
Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
Hope, optimism, future-mindedness
Religiousness & Spirituality

More information on these models can be found in this comparison between VIA and StrengthsFinder article. Once you’ve identified your strengths, next you’ll need to know what to do with them.


Weaknesses can be identified in the same way: self-reflection or questionnaires. If you take the questionnaires, this time, of course, look at the bottom section of your results. Note that the StrengthsFinder model does not report your weaknesses; only your top strengths, so you’ll have to use the VIA questionnaire to figure out your weaknesses in this way.

The next question that arises is, if we’re better of focusing on our strengths, then what do we do about our weaknesses? Do we just ignore them? The answer will depend entirely on the situation. You should avoid trying to develop your weaknesses if you can, by outsourcing or finding technical solutions if possible. There’s more information on how to work around weaknesses here.

Recommended Reading:

What to do with your Strengths

Short Version

1) Find ways to use strengths more in your life
2) Look for supplementary knowledge on using these strengths in the domains you have chosen
3) Practice the activities that use the strengths and/or get training in them

Long Version

lego strong man hammer

Alright.  So you understand that a strength is a part of your brain that’s more efficient than other parts, like broadband is to dial-up.  And you agree with me that life is easier when you stick to your strengths.  Potentially, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it’s going to be a better experience if you set your mind to something that employs your strengths.  Also, you’ve figured out what your strengths are through either self-reflection or questionnaires.

Now what?

The next step is to blend your strengths into your life, and get over the obstacles that come up as you do so.  As I imply above, I’m assuming you’re sold on the idea of doing this; if not, re-read the links above to review the benefits, do some further reading through the books I mention or on the web, and ponder the issue further.  If you’re still not convinced, then move along: there’s nothing more to see here.

If you’re still with me, let’s start with…

Strengths and Career

You probably spend between 30 and 50 hours per week working.  Most visitors to Generally Thinking are from the UK and US, so you’re probably near the top end of that scale too; congratulations if you’re not.  In any case, career seems like a good place to start.

You’ve got two possibilities:

1) Rearrange your present work so that it involves your strengths
2) Switch to work that does involve your strengths

Which of these you do, is up to you.  I suppose it depends on how much you like what you’re doing now balanced against how much you want to fit your strengths into your career.  If your current career doesn’t appear to make use of your identified strengths, don’t immediately conclude you’re miscast, because using option 1 you might later find yourself a good fit.


Here you have to discover what strengths you are currently using, then see if you can add the other ones into your role.  Your position might employ one or two of your strengths really well, then it’s a matter of finding ways to add the others in.  If you can’t find ways to add any of your strengths in, you’re currently going against the grain.  You should consider what’s keeping you doing this, and consider Option 2.  If your current role is temporary or a stepping-stone job, you’ll still enjoy it more if you can rearrange the way you do it around your strengths.

“You might have to get a bit creative, to blend your strengths into your career.”

The various books on strengths offer basic examples on how to rearrange, such as a cashier with the strength of social intelligence, who started engaging customers more in conversation at the checkout.  If I described how to use every strength in every possible role, I’d be about 80 when I finished this article, so you’ll have to get a bit creative.  But since Gallup discovered that successful people find ways to do this, it’s potentially worth the effort.

The other day I was reading interviews with two rock-band front-men, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and Tim Wheeler of Ash.  Here’s an example of two people in the same role, unconsciously fitting their strengths into it.  Rivers is shy, introspective, and did an English Literature course at Harvard.  He’d probably show up strengths like intellection, analyse or learner.  Tim seems more charismatic and confident, he parties a lot and might have the strengths of Woo and Positivity.  Both are the primary songwriters for their respective bands, so their biggest strength will surely be Arranger, or the VIA strength Creativity.

But they seem to lever their other apparent strengths into the mix too: Rivers analysed songs by the Beatles, Nirvana and other bands, and created a file called “The Encyclopaedia of Pop”.  He then extrapolated a songwriting framework from this analysis, which he uses to write his songs.  Tim writes upbeat and positive songs, drawing inspiration from things like sunshine and having a good time.  Both of them are very successful, with multiple platinum selling albums.


Option 2 is easier from the point of view of fitting your strengths in, but harder in that you’re making a big change, which most people don’t find easy.  If it’s time to make a change, then looking at your strengths, it should be fairly easy to draft up ideas for roles which involve them.

“Switching careers makes it easier to use your strengths, but most people don’t find change easy.”

For example, looking at my own readout in the last article, my strengths were based around learning, curiosity, critical thinking, and forward thinking.  So I’m suited perhaps for something like research, where all of these come into play, and also something like writing or blogging, so I can make extra pocket money by writing about what I learn, and of course learn more about it in the process.  Hmm, what a coincidence, this happens to be the direction I’m heading in.  Don’t say I don’t practice what I preach!

What strengths can’t tell you is the field you could go into – Gallup’s research did not indicate a relationship between fields and strengths.  For example, you could play the role ‘journalist’ in any number of fields: science, politics, celebrity gossip, and so on.  Strengths offer guidance on the role – not the field.

Managing Expectations

Remember, your aim is to look for ways to make more use of your natural and spontaneous ways of responding to the world.  You’re not searching for something that you’re already a master at!   Excellence will come later.  Faster, but still later.

This is an important point to remember, which Marcus Buckingham makes clear in Now, Discover Your Strengths.  What if you arrange your whole life around your strengths, and then still don’t find the good life?   You’ve already given it your best shot, and with your strengths, no less!  Buckingham says “When the cause of failure seems to have nothing to do with who we really are, we can accept it.”  I’ve already drilled into you that your strengths are an enduring part of you, so what kind of torment would partner this kind of failure?  Buckingham suggests the fear of this could put you off trying.

“It seems more sensible to deal with a wounded ego than to not bother trying anything.”

If you never give it your best shot, you’ve always got an excuse, haven’t you?  Like the would-be suitor in a nightclub who acts like a little strange when talking to the attractive girl; a little bit too cocky, a little bit exaggerated.  If the girl turns him down, it’s not him she’s rejecting, it’s the act.  His ego and pride are protected, safe and sound.  But of course what he gains in ego-protection he loses in effectiveness.

I think the parallels here are similar.  To me, it seems more sensible to find ways of dealing with a wounded ego than to not bother at all.  There’s all kinds of ways out there that offer to do that; meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy, progressive exposure, and so on.

To bring up a final question for this section: is feeling a certain way really a good reason not to do something?  I had this idea when thinking about Steve Olson’s article on procrastination.  I’m not talking about safety and survival instincts; if you feel a dark alley is unsafe, that definitely is a good reason not to walk down it.  I mean more benign decisions.  There’s a lot going on in this culture – more people around than our brains are really designed to cope with, then there’s media, bills, careers; a whole cacophony of expectations placed on us.  How would you know whether a certain feeling you have should be trusted, like you would with the dark alley, or when it comes from something that you’ve arbitrarily integrated from the outside, with no particular relevance to you personally?  I don’t know the answer to this, so please let me know if you do.

Add skills and knowledge

Using the strengths more in your life is a road to happiness, more engagement, and all sorts of other benefits.  It’s also a road to greater performance – a better chance of reaching excellence in your chosen field.  But as we’ve just seen, you still need to hone your strengths further, by deliberately practising them, and also by adding in skills and knowledge.

“To get ‘consistent, near-perfect performance’, you need skills and knowledge, as well as talent.”

The reason for this is summed up in Gallup’s definition of a strength – to achieve “consistent, near perfect performance”.  In fact, Gallup define a strength as a strength only after the skills and knowledge have been appropriated.  They call them ‘talents’ prior to this; I’ve just used the term strength for convenience, and to compare models.  To get this level of performance, you may need to focus your efforts on one or more strengths, like the rockstars I mentioned above, who apparently focus on creativity, and use the other strengths to support this effort.  This was an easy choice for me too, as three of my top five strengths are mental/reflective, so it was obvious that this is the place to focus.

The skills and knowledge you pick up will be experiential as well as deliberately researched or taught.  Some things you simply can’t get except through hands on practice, other things you can get from a book or trainer.  Our rockstars above may have had knowledge training in the form of music theory, skills training through tuition and practising scales, but their unique style of guitar playing and song-writing, that can only come through hands on practice – allowing their brains and nervous systems to end up with pathways and connections, causing them to respond to a guitar and to music the way they do.  There’s really no way of getting around this.

This just about wraps up this series on strengths, barring a couple of loose-ends to tie up (managing weaknesses, for one).  Thanks for reading, hope it’s been useful!

Recommended Reading:

[Lego Strength image by Coldpants]