I really like cryptic crosswords. There’s something about the challenge of it, the problem solving (with words! I love those), that really appeals to me. I’ve enjoyed trying to complete them since I was a teenager. But it took me a little longer to realise how to use the fact that I loved them to benefit me in other areas of my life. To realise that what I enjoyed was actually problem solving, and that enjoying problem solving is one of my strengths.
Don’t love crosswords, puzzles or words? Don’t worry, this is not just a post for problem solvers. The focus of this blog isn’t on a particular strength, it’s about knowing how to use your strengths to conquer your challenges – and getting stronger and happier in the process.
Focusing on our strengths makes it easier to get what we want by playing on natural talent we already have. So often we’re told the opposite. We’re told to focus on improving our weaknesses as the way to success. Identifying our weak points has even become a standard job interview question! We tell ourselves, ‘If only I wasn’t so slow/bad at writing/ a better communicator/ more motivated I wouldn’t have this problem’. All this focussing on our weaknesses can leave you feeling kind of, well, weak.
A few posts ago, I wrote about loving kindness meditation and how research has shown it increases feelings of connection and love. Well, focussing on your strengths has scientific evidence that shows it will bring you increased happiness and life satisfaction – it’s another powerful technique taken from positive psychology.
Positive psychology research has shown that focussing on our weaknesses is not the way to become excellent. Instead, the way to become an amazing person is to focus on your strengths – those things that come easily to you and which you enjoy doing. Think about it: If you spend your time improving your weaknesses, the best you might be able to do is become average in those areas. But if you focus on your strengths, you can turn them into super-strengths, talents so amazing and powerful that people will overlook your weaknesses (Steve Jobs, I’m looking at you here).
‘The way to become an amazing person is to focus on your strengths – those things that come easily to you and which you enjoy doing.’
Think about anyone you know who has managed to rise to the top of their field, despite severe personal shortcomings. These people just focus on what they’re good at, rather than worrying about being a nice person. Not that I’m saying you need to be mean to be successful, but that people do succeed with less-than-great social skills or poor ethics. Likewise, there are plenty of successful, charitable, or charismatic people who are successful because of their outstanding use of their strengths but have secret (or not so secret) weaknesses such as a lack of discipline, coping by using alcohol/drugs, or being terrible with money.
So what can you do with this great advice to do more of what comes naturally and easily to you?
Often when you have a problem that you’re struggling to solve, part of the reason you can’t solve it is because you don’t think you have the right skills to solve it. You focus on your weaknesses, and tell yourself the only way to solve the problem is to ‘fix’ that weakness. That if you had more discipline you’d exercise. If you were more motivated you’d get the promotion. That you don’t have the communication skills to connect with your partner. That you don’t have the budgeting skills to reach your goals.
But what if you didn’t need the skill you think you did? What if the problem was solvable, as long as you used your natural strengths (and a bit of creative thinking)?
What if you used your love of winning to motivate you to exercise?
What if you used your planning and time management skills to direct you on the path to promotion?
What if you used your sense of humour to connect to your partner?
What if you used your creativity to reduce, reuse and recycle until the money just piled up?
But what if you don’t know your strengths?
If you’re struggling to come up with your strengths, try out these ideas:
Take a look at your last performance review from work or review what you said your strengths were on your resume
Ask your friends/family what they see as your strengths
Think about the type of activities/ tasks you find easy and enjoyable. What kind of person enjoys those types of activities? (E.g. is creativity, altruism or socialising an overlooked strength of yours?)
What were your best subjects at school and why did you succeed at them when others couldn’t?
You can take an online strengths test here. (Look for the ‘questionnaires’ section, and select the VIA strengths test. You do need to create an account to take the test, but it’s all free and not spammy).
Talk to a life coach or psychologist with an understanding of positive psychology and strengths based assessments. A skilled professional can identify your strengths for you within 1-2 sessions by asking a series of targeted questions and analysing your responses.
Once you know your strengths, it’s all about using creativity to work out how to use them to solve your problems.
Note: This is something we all do a bit of already. Every time you buy a service from someone else, you’re indirectly using this idea. You get someone to pay you for things you’re good at (like data analysis) and then use the money you get to pay someone else to do things you’re not good at (like fix your car). We just need to learn how to use our strengths more directly, when fixing the problem isn’t something we can just outsource.
What if I know my strengths, but can’t work out how to apply them?
If creativity isn’t a strength of yours, then you’re going to have to find someone who is to help you. This might mean asking a friend who’s good at problem solving, or if you don’t have one of those, then hire me to help you (did I mention creativity is a strength of mine?!).
Once you know your strengths and practise applying them in new ways, you have a skill that you can use for the rest of your life to cope with challenges. With practise, identifying how you can use your strengths in any situation becomes easier and easier, and you don’t need someone to help you work out how to do it.
Knowing your strengths and playing to them will keep you feeling energised (who doesn’t love doing what they’re good at and enjoy?), help you solve problems, and bring you increased happiness and life satisfaction. It’s well worth the investment to learn how to do this.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.