“The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the work of life is to develop it; and the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” — David Viscott (psychiatrist, author, media personality)
Though David Viscott is given credit for the quote above many people have said something similar dating back at least to Shakespeare. In the last couple of decades, due to vigorous nudging from performance coaches and high-profile psychologists, the quote is finally being taken seriously.
After reading much research, working with some of the top people in the field of performance and well-being, and living almost seven decades, I have become a strong believer in that quote.
Today the idea in the quote might be expressed less poetically, in a bit more scientific-sounding way. “To live a full and meaningful life, figure out your strengths, learn how to use them well, then wield them to make the world a better place.” Indeed, the science does seem to support the idea that we perform better, are happier, age better, and are healthier if we optimally use our strengths.
That all sounds good, but the how do we do the first step, figure out our strengths? Many systems, questionnaires, books, definitions, and coaching and interview protocols have sprung up particularly to help us identify our own and others’ strengths. They can be somewhat useful. With a few exceptions, however, I have found them to be cumbersome, unenlightening, and worst of all, no fun.
Before going any further, let’s get on the same page about what strengths are. For our purposes, strengths includes all the attributes that we (and probably others too) think are cool – certain personality traits, specific talents and gifts that almost seem in-born, useful things we have learned to do with our brains and bodies which we may refer to as our skills. Strengths even include our character traits like being compassionate toward the suffering of others. We can spot these strengths everywhere including in the physical domain, the intellectual or cognitive domain, the psychological domain, the emotional domain, interpersonal, environmental, and spiritual domain.
To simplify all that, here are two easy questions to help you identify your strengths.
1) What’s good about you? Think about the compliments you have received that really resonated with you. Your generosity, your kindness, your willingness to help or lead a project, your cheerfulness, your love of reading, your humor, your stimulating conversation, your loyalty, your love of animals and nature – consider it all. You can eventually think about what you are good at (rather than what’s good about you), but asking that question (which usually gets at your skills) first, seems to block identifying many other, more widely focused strengths.
One thing I do when I am searching around for an answer to that question is to drag out old birthday and thank you cards or letters (sure, I keep them if they seem sincere and on target). In fact, I am looking at a card from last year right now. The person took the time and effort to really think about my good attributes. She lists what she is thankful for in me as a friend. And also, there’s nothing stopping you from straight out asking your family and friends, “What’s good about me?” They might need some think time (we all are usually focused on what’s wrong) so send an email. Tell them it might seem weird to ask, but it’s some homework you’ve been given to complete.
2) What energizes you? Do your feel yourself perk up if someone mentions a good book, wants you to go on a hike, asks you to teach a class, talks about a trip, encourages you to volunteer to help serve meals? You may have a love of learning, a strength of curiosity, a bent toward service to others which undergirds that energy.
My husband, John, gets energized, believe it or not, by the whole adventure of thinking about what supplies we need, going to Costco, bringing home the loot, and re-stocking. Just say the word, “Costco” and his eyes light up. I call the strength that fuels that energy, the skill of “quarter-mastering.” I have had no worry, like many others, that we will run out of toilet paper during the pandemic. I am most thankful for that quarter-mastering in him.
Though you can browse through many lists of positive traits and strengths to get your brain attuned to catching and naming what’s good in yourself and others, you can also totally make up your own labels for positive traits that you spot.
When our fourteen-year old granddaughter, Sierra, was two, she did her first puzzle. It was very hard for her. Afterwards Sierra stood up and hopped around for a couple of minutes. Then she tore the puzzle up, did it again, and resumed hopping. Sierra still gets excited by achieving something challenging. We might label her strength “juicy challenge.”
A strengths-professional once told me that he had the strength of “spot-lighting.” When I asked more about what that was, he explained that he was energized and did his best in front of a group – when the spot-light was on him.
For useful, good fun this week, look for your own and others’ strengths. Capture them with a name. If you get off track, remember all those strengths’ benefits. Let those two questions guide back your attention to what’s good about you and what energizes you.
Be ready for strengths talk, part 2, coming up in the next blog. You will learn one more way to identify your strengths and... most importantly... how to optimally use your strengths so that they don’t backfire or fizzle.
How might you journey to the good life by discovering your gifts?