Last week I attended a work seminar on discovering your personal strengths and how to identify and curtail stress behaviour. Let me just give the summary first:
Yes, it was incredibly useful, and I'd urge you to do something similar if you haven't yet.Know yourself
The main point is to learn what you're good at, so that you can focus your efforts into further developing skills that fall in categories related to where you are at your strongest.
Yes, you might like doing a million different things, but if you really want to develop yourself, find out which few you're really going to be good at, and exploit that. Not necessarily give up on the others, just make sure you focus on the ones that really come to you naturally.
At the same time, know how you react when you get driven into a corner. Some of us are naturals at personal development, most of us are not, and the great thing about attending a seminar like this is that you get exposed to some of the psychology behind a few major generic personalities. For instance, here's my list of "strengths", spread over two categories:
- Input: "you crave to know more, and like to collect information and archive it".
- Learner: "you have a great desire to learn and continuously improve. In particular, learning, rather than the outcome, excites you".
- Intellection: "you are characterized by your intellectual activity. you're introspective, and appreciate intellectual discussions".
- Relator: "you enjoy building close relationships, and find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve goals".
- Connectedness: "you think all things are connected and don't believe in coincidence. almost every event has a reason".
And here's the thing: based on their simple definitions, not all of these strengths make a lot of sense. Thankfully, there are individualised descriptions of what each of these strengths mean, and so things start to make a lot more sense, and rather than "fortune cookie" information, one can actually learn something meaningful.Meaningful descriptors
The seminar I attended used the Clifton Strengthsfinder 2.0 test, based on data by Gallup gathered over quite a few years from over 100,000 participants. I like science, and if this data is going to say something "about me", then that's at least a decent sample size.
No, of course the predictions won't be perfect, but it'll be good enough to act as starting point to acknowledge your own strengths and personality type, and exploit the strengths while working on minimizing the reactionary tendencies. So: who am I?Strategic thinking: Input
I like information. I like learning new things, and learning about new things, but I don't particularly care about archiving, because I trust my brain to do that for me without having to bother with it. So what does "input" really mean?
Chances are good that you can simplify the most complex, convoluted, or intricate procedure. People usually rely on you to offer clear and easy-to-comprehend explanations. Driven by your talents, you may notice that certain people turn to you for guidance. Maybe your willingness to share the knowledge you have gained over the years partially explains the fondness they have for you. Some individuals might have benefited from what you have read, observed, or experienced. It’s very likely that you frequently use academic-sounding words to talk about your ideas or areas of expertise. You intentionally spend time broadening your vocabulary by looking up words in the dictionary and committing their meanings to memory. By nature, you occasionally combine your fascination for reading with your ability to figure out what sets specific individuals apart from everyone else. You might discover the things that interest someone. Then you may read more about these topics. Perhaps you aim to collect insights that inspire the person to take advantage of his or her one-of-akind talents, knowledge, and/or skills. Because of your strengths, you might gather ideas and information from reading publications that keep you up to date on particular types of current events. What you choose to peruse — that is, examine studiously — may reflect some of your personal or professional interests.
That makes a bit more sense than the generic summary. It also offers far more footholds when it comes to aspects of this strength that can be relied or built on.Strategic thinking: Learner
I won't lie: I liked seeing this strength. I do very much enjoy learning new things, and seeing this as one of my strengths was basically one of those "yep, I knew it" moments. However, "I like to learn new things" is a pretty generic strength, so seeing the much bigger analysis was quite useful:
Instinctively, you endorse the importance of acquiring additional knowledge and gaining new skills. You regard education as an ongoing activity. It’s very likely that you occasionally collect bits and pieces of information. At the time, the value of this material may not be apparent. In specific cases, you have found it useful to turn to some specialists for help. Perhaps these individuals can provide you with enough direction so you can ask some questions, render a few decisions, or try to map courses of action without upsetting anyone in the process. You avoid angering certain people by consulting with them before doing anything. Driven by your talents, you may long to gather certain types of information about specific individuals. Perhaps your “need to know” is rarely satisfied. The more facts you gather, the easier it might be for you to understand someone’s strengths, limitations, interests, likes, dislikes, or goals. You might be inclined to study human beings one by one. To some degree, your ongoing observations of selected individuals provide you with interesting insights into human nature. By nature, you intentionally include uncommon, highly technical, or sophisticated words in your vocabulary. You realize that language is a form of knowledge that gives you an upper hand — that is, controlling power — in conversations, debates, or discussions. It quickly establishes you as an authority figure in listeners’ minds. First, you capture their attention. Then you take charge of events, projects, meetings, or problem solving. Chances are good that you may be a solo performer. You might be determined to broaden your knowledge or acquire new skills. Perhaps you are drawn to the process of education.
And there you have it. Pretty much all of this rings true. And yes, on their own each of these phrases sound like a horoscope, but it's not the individual phrases that form the strength, it's the collection of all of them, applicable to this person.
I'm okay with this.Strategic thinking: Intellection
This strength feels a little weird, because it's hard to go "why yes, I am intellectual" and not come off smug. The main problem is that "intellectual" and "smart" are often treated as the same thing, and in this particular case, they're not. I could give lots of examples, but instead it just makes far more sense to let the snippets do the talking:
Chances are good that you sometimes wish you could switch off your active brain. Even so, you may enjoy your time alone as you ponder ideas. Perhaps you want to test whether they make sense. Because of your strengths, you may be selective about the types of books or publications you read. They might contain information or tips that you can share with individuals you are training. Perhaps imparting knowledge, talking about your experiences, or passing along your skills gives you a certain degree of satisfaction. By nature, you may find it easier to befriend certain types of people if they tell you what they want to accomplish. Knowing that much, you might read some books, journals, newspapers, correspondence, or Internet sites to broaden your knowledge about their interests. When you can share information that helps people move closer to their goals, perhaps you can begin to understand each other a little better. It’s very likely that you eagerly welcome opportunities to think out loud about ideas, theories, or philosophies. You derive pleasure from conversations that force you to ponder matters that exist only in the realm of thought, not in reality. Driven by your talents, you sometimes delight in having your very own tasks to perform. Perhaps you like to solo because it gives you quiet time to reflect on what you think or feel. Maybe you consider what you have done, are doing, or can do better.Relationship building: Relator
This one confused me, because while I like deep relationships, I'm perfectly fine with shallow ones, too. The generic description didn't seem to match at all, but the detailed one certainly did:
By nature, you are naturally open and honest about who you are, what you have done, what you can do, and what you cannot do. Your straightforward explanations and stories help listeners see you as you see yourself. You reveal your strengths and limitations. You are forthright and plainspoken. People generally seek your company and want to work with you. Many are impelled to move into action by your words and examples. It’s very likely that you periodically are sought out by people whom you have befriended. They may trust you when you have taken time to know them individually. This may partially explain why certain people come back again and again for ideas or suggestions. They might realize you try to tailor your words of wisdom to fit their unique situations, needs, strengths, limitations, goals, or personalities. Driven by your talents, you may be convinced that you are measuring up to your potential. Perhaps you know when you are doing your best work or earning the highest grades you possibly can. Chances are good that you occasionally tell yourself that you are an effective mentor or trainer. Perhaps individuals benefit from the investment you make in them. Because of your strengths, you might do your best training after you become well-acquainted with someone. Perhaps you want to discover each individual’s unique talents, work style, goals, motivations, or interests. Maybe these insights tell you what suggestions to make or what tips to offer during coaching sessions.
In fact, this very blog post is essentially proof of how true this assessment is: I'm right now telling you about something that a lot of people would consider pretty personal, and that last bit pretty much underlines how I even started this post: learning about different personalities and strengths, and how to work with those in oneself and other people, is fascinating, as well as functionally useful.Relationship Building: Connectedness
And this one was a genuine surprise, at least based on the generic descriptions. It sounds very much like a "faith in the oneness of all things", which really doesn't describe my take on matters at all. I believe in a quantum universe (at least, for now. Physics is still developing), and while I don't believe in "coincidence", I also don't analyse things from just one perspective, and so the notion of "a coincidence" doesn't even make sense to me. There are so many different perspectives on single events that are all simultaneously in effect that even if you'd pretend there was a coincidence in one of those, that same coincidence would vanish in others. This strength felt like nonsense. But then this more personalised description actually made it make sense:
By nature, you may get to know people individually in your quest to gain wisdom. Discovering the qualities that distinguish someone from everyone else might be an essential aspect of your search for truth. Driven by your talents, you might be fascinated with certain ideas, policies, or philosophies that affect human beings around the world. Because of your strengths, you may be able to accept unpredictable events in your life on the basis of sheer faith. Perhaps you sense there is a force greater than you at work in the world. Occasionally you can live with not knowing the exact reason why something good or bad happened to you and not to someone else. Chances are good that you sometimes think like a detective. You might search for and find obvious and not-so-obvious clues. You might determine which ones link together. Now and then, you notice gaps in your investigation. Some of these cannot be explained using reason alone. You may feel comfortable accepting what is unknown and unknowable. Why? To some extent, you trust that everything, everyone, and every action is somehow intertwined. Instinctively, you may be determined to make the acquaintance of certain individuals you identify as seekers of truth. Perhaps you are attracted to people who ponder philosophical questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is beauty?” or “What constitutes wisdom?” or “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why should ordinary people like me even ask these kinds of questions?”
Reading this, it basically reads as a description of being a university student who's taking a masters in A.I. which happens to be exactly who I was, and whose intellectual inheritance I still live today.Weaknesses: the reactionary side of things
For the purposes of the seminar, when people get put on the spot, and stressed to a breaking point, the behaviour they might display is broadly categorised in three possible ways:
- Complying: giving away the control over the situation and taking it from there.
- Protecting: walking away from the situation to protect oneself.
- Controlling: going into "getting shit done" mode and steamrolling anyone who doesn't do so as well.
Those are just words with short descriptors, and people often enough display more than one type of behaviour, depending on the situation. However, I know myself reasonably well in this respect, and I'm virtually always protecting:
I will turn off any emotional attachment, and deal with problems in what is best described as "the vulcan way". I've certainly been abrasively critical in the past often enough for it to rub people the wrong way, and I've been trying to get better at not being abrasive, but a seminar like this is a great supplement to introspection: it puts what you sort of already thought into a wider perspective, and most importantly gives you insight into how the way you behave under stress will affect others who are also operating under stress.
If I'm stressed, and the person I'm dealing with is stressed as well (and for whatever reason. Not strictly work), then if they're of a complying nature, we're going to have problems. Because they'll want a resolution, and I'll be offering criticism without solutions. That won't get us anywhere, except "more stuck". Similarly, if they're controlling, they'll be coming up with what solution works, and I'll just shoot it right back down. And that's just the "practical" result, emotionally there's a lot of potential for resentment both ways, and things can get very nasty."So tell us some of your strengths..."
You know that question you get at job interviews, where they want to know what your strengths and weaknesses are? This is what they're talking about. This is why I'd recommend everyone to take a seminar like this even if you're between jobs, or even if you've yet to start on your first one. There's "knowing what you're good at", and there's "knowing the strengths that you can build on and exploit", and they're two different things. The first most people develop naturally, by virtue of just doing what they do. The second, everyone can use some help with.
It also lets you know what you're not. That sounds a little weird, because there's an infinite world of infinite possibilities out there, but there're broadly speaking four categories of personalities and strengths that you want as part of an effective team, and a team made entirely of "learners" isn't going to be very useful. Fun, probably, but not something that makes business sense.
I fall in the strategic thinking and relationship building categories. That means that if I'm put on a team, my contribution plays off of having other people with different skills: people with execution skills to keep us on track and meet deadlines, and people with influence skills to get the most out of all the team members as well as facilitate negotiations within the team. Also, having a good spread of different "reactionary" behaviours helps to make sure no one "agrees to be stuck in a rut". Obviously no one likes being stuck, but if we're all the same kind of reactionaries, things go real bad, real fast. Much faster than if there's a good spread.The take-home message
For me, the take-home message from this seminar was that it's really useful to do a thing like this at least once, even if you don't have a job right now, or you think you know yourself: if you've never done a personal strengths test before then chances are good you think you know what you're good at, and you might know what makes your temper-self so problematic, but there is great value in seeing things affirmed, or even being shown that there are parts of you that you never thought about, but ring very close to home: knowing yourself is not just something that helps you, it also helps others work, or just be, with you.
I've been paired up with a "buddy", and we'll be holding each other accountable for the action plan we've drawn up on how to work on our weaknesses while also trying to focus on what we think are our most exploitable strengths. That probably sounds pretty lame, but at the same time, it's two people being committed to helping each other better themselves in a "no judging" relationship.
That's a pretty sweet outcome for a seminar called "Leadership Discovery".