How to recognize and use your super strengths
The early stages of a person’s career have a lot in common with the early stages of education. It takes a few years to build a foundation of useful skills and knowledge and to gain enough experience to judge how to deploy them. Along the way we come to recognise the gaps in our skillset and mitigate them with training, by working around them and by having the integrity to speak up when we foresee trouble. For a lot of people that is where the story ends.
One big flaw in this system is that it focuses attention only on weaknesses, while natural abilities are left to develop on their own, or sometimes even taken for granted. But with some thought and attention a person’s innate strengths can be amplified to the point that they begin to elevate and direct their entire career. Maximising your strengths can be a route to a reputation as the best person around, or even bridging to a role where you will really thrive instead of merely survive.
How to identify strengths
Job seekers are used to diplomatically answering the classic interview question, “What would you say are your weaknesses”. Most of us are not as ready to answer, “What are your key strengths?” even though they are what got us through the door. Here are some ways to identify latent superpowers.
- Is there anything you enjoy doing so much that you lose track of time and get in the ‘flow state’ of long periods of high productivity?
- Have you ever been surprised to see other people struggling with something you can do effortlessly?
- Are there any activities you have done since childhood? As a child the author Marie Kondo was constantly organising and re-organising all her family’s belongings. Now the techniques she developed and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, have made her world-famous.
- Do people regularly ask you for help with any certain thing? Sometimes other people can see our abilities more clearly than we can.
- What kinds of challenges are you fully relaxed about? Do you ever set your sights higher and take on extra risk because you know you can handle it?
- Do you habitually take a certain role in a team? Think about what draws you to that and what it takes to be good at it.
- Remember, not all strengths put a person in a starring role. Every team needs someone with the ability to remember the details, be extremely reliable, or highly persistent or to finally complete those long-running tasks. Where would Batman be without Alfred the Butler?
Can you flip a weakness?
As well as what people might want you to do, things that they actually ask you to stop doing can be the sign of a natural ability. In other words, some things that are seen as weaknesses are actually manifestations of a deeper natural ability that would be beneficial in another context. For example, if you ‘talk too much’ it could be because you’re very attuned to personal relationships, which is a quality that could be valuable in communication, stakeholder relations, or sales. If you ‘daydream’ perhaps you’re a natural lateral thinker, good at identifying problems or able to visualise alternative futures. Are you good at proposing solutions as well? If so, perhaps you would be useful in business development.
Marianne Cantwell wrote about this counterintuitive technique in her book, Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9-to-5 Cage, Create a Life You Love, and Still Pay the Bills. Her advice is to take ownership of these personality traits: Don’t say, “I do X too much.” Instead say, “I’m really good at X.”
How to develop your superpower
Once you have identified a strength there are three main ways to levelling it up to be a superpower.
- Practice it. Now you are conscious of your strength, look around for wider opportunities to use it, including some that are a little more challenging. You can start within your normal area of work, but also look at related areas and even in the wider world, for example in volunteering roles. Using your ability in more contexts with a variety of challenges is a ready way to add experience, confidence and to learn more tools and techniques.
- Formalize it. If your strength has developed organically and has not been part of your education then some hours reading up or a short course will place what you already know in a wider context of more formal knowledge. You will learn the terminology for the things you already know and gain confidence in what you know as a genuine area of expertise.
- Own it. If you have made definite progress, get used to thinking and talking about yourself as someone who is good at this. Think about how you would work it into your CV, your ways of introducing yourself or your social media profiles. Don’t be too shy to let your colleagues or your boss realise it is one of your strengths to be valued. This should start a feedback loop that will bring more opportunities and experience.
Combine these with success in the opportunities you take and you will quickly become recognized as a leader in that area, perhaps even the best around. Developing a reputation for excellence through a superpower might be your ticket to transition from mid-career moderate success to long term recognition as a leading light in your sector.
This article was written by Callum Thomas, CEO of Thomas Thor Associates and Chairman of KeySource Global.
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