Many people feel frustrated because they are not using their personal strengths to make a living or contribute to the world.
If I asked you “what are your personal strengths?” would you be able to answer with conviction? Are you already using those strengths in the work that occupies most of your waking hours?
My own answers to those questions tended to be vague, until I came across this excellent framework for identifying personal strengths.
The 24 personal strengths listed here are based on research by psychologists Peterson and Seligman in their book Character Strengths and Virtues.
Personal Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge
Do people come to you for novel solutions to tricky problems? Do you enjoy seeking alternative ways of doing things? Is your mind constantly challenging the status quo and looking for a better way?
Do you ask lots of questions and stop only when the other person is obviously tired of answering? Have you had your fair share of accidents and injuries because you just had to try something out?
Are you able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time while others are taking sides? When presented with a radical idea, do you consider it a possibility instead of judging it right away?
4. Love of Learning
Is there always a book in your bag so you can pull it out to read when you have a few spare minutes? Do you get an adrenaline rush from learning new skills or attending classes or seminars?
Can you see things from different points of view without making a conscious effort to? Do people tend to respond to your thoughtful comments with “I never saw things that way…”?
Personal Strengths of Courage
Do you readily go where angels fear to tread? When everyone is holding back, are you the one who stands up to volunteer with words like “what the heck” or “you never know until you try”?
When others are ready to quit, are you the one who encourages them to try just one more time? Have you doggedly worked at a problem until you find the solution instead of giving up or passing the problem on to someone else?
Have you ever told the truth knowing that it would cost you money, friends, and perhaps your reputation? Do you do the ‘right’ thing all the time, even when no one is watching?
Do you inject energy into the projects you’re involved in? When you’re around, do projects seem to somehow pick up speed? Do people give more of themselves when you are working alongside them?
Personal Strengths of Humanity
When you look at people, do you see what they look like or do you see who they really are? Do you feel a deep appreciation for everyone you meet because each is unique and special?
Are in incapable of walking past a street busker without dropping a few notes or coins into his box? Have you done good deeds for strangers on a regular basis because you saw the difficult situations they were in?
12. Social intelligence
Can you sense the mood of people in the room the moment you walk into it? Are you able to tell who gets along and who does not after a quick observation? Do people readily ‘click’ with you even when they don’t get along with each other?
Personal Strengths of Justice
Are you proud to be a member of an organisation or nation?Are you an ambassador for your company or country? is loyalty to this group very important to you?
Were you the child who kept saying “that’s not fair”? Have you given up your share of something because you felt it was not right that other people didn’t have the same privilege? Do you see everyone as having equal rights?
Do people look to you for guidance in chaos or in general? Does a group seem to ‘gel’ only when you’re there to hold it together? Do those in your group excel under your tutelage when they weren’t making it elsewhere?
Personal Strengths of Temperance
Are you able to let go when people have repeatedly hurt you? Do you understand that harbouring a grudge hurts you more than it hurts them? Do you accept the frailty of human nature and allow people space to make mistakes?
Do you constantly learn from other people, even those who are younger or less educated or experienced than you? Can you accept praise graciously while not taking personal credit and walking on air immediately after?
When given two options, do you usually choose the less risky, less expensive, less high-profile one? Do you tend to view others’ excesses as flamboyant or extravagant, and often advise people to ‘tone down’?
Are you able to deny yourself what you want because of a higher purpose or objective? When tempted to spend or eat beyond your plan, can you smile and say no most of the time without feeling deprived?
Personal Strengths of Transcendance
20. Appreciation of Beauty
Do you pause often to take in a view, gaze skywards, or observe animals in motion? Does a sense of awe sweep over you often when you contemplate the vastness of nature and the intimate details of life?
Are the words “thank you” on your lips and in your heart practically everyday? Is your reaction to people, events and things one of appreciation and gladness that this wonderful thing came your way?
Can you always see the silver lining when others see only a dark cloud? Is your mantra ‘tomorrow will be better than today’ or ‘don’t worry, everything will be ok’ or ‘things will work out, you’ll see’?
Can you see the lighter side of almost every situation? Do you see the folly of human self-importance? Do people relax around you because you help them to take themselves and life less seriously?
Do you feel connected to a source that is higher and deeper than yourself? Are you detached from things of this world? Do you feel that the ‘real’ world is inside you rather than outside?
Shortlist Your Personal Strengths
If you’re like me and feel that many of the 24 strengths apply to you, then you can cross out ‘Humility’ right away. That leaves only 23! 😉 Then keep on eliminating those that you think are probable, until you’re left with those you absolutely cannot cross out because they are YOU.
Ideally you should have a list of about 3 to 5 personal strengths to be able to meaningfully work with these. A ‘shortlist’ should, after all, be short!
Innate vs Acquired Personal Strengths
There may be some ‘strengths’ that you’ve worked hard to acquire. Those are probably skills you have learnt, rather than personal strengths per se.
For example, I had to learn to be grateful. It took practice and became natural only after months of keeping a gratitude journal. However, I never had to learn how to be curious. All my life I’ve wanted to understand, to know how things work, to find the truths of life.
Play to Your Personal Strengths
‘Playing to your strengths’ has a literal as well as a figurative meaning. You’ll know something is a strength when it’s play to you, when you’re enjoying the process, when you would pay to engage in the process.
The figurative meaning is, of course, finding work and pastimes that build on your personal strengths. Patching up your weaknesses may help you level up; playing to your strengths can help you shoot for the stars.