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 


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