Play to your strengths

IF YOU’RE thinking about improving your life in some way, whether it’s to do with furthering your career or beefing up your social life, you might find a few ‘positive psychology’ tips useful.

Rather than poring over weaknesses and ways to correct them, this approach to self-development aims to discover what’s right in people working on the premise that, if you concentrate on what you’re good at and what you love to do, it’s more likely that you’ll excel and find greater satisfaction.

If you’re a ‘glass half empty sort of person’, bear with me here. Positive psychology doesn’t ignore negative emotions, failures and problems and you don’t have to splash out on a pair of rose coloured spectacles and adopt a Pollyanna persona. Be assured, you can remain your grumpy, sceptical self (it’s probably one of your strengths and greatest pleasures). However, you may need to adopt some mental agility to explore the following areas:

1. Positive focus

For example, when you think you’d like to move jobs, rather than concentrating on the things you dislike about your current job, framing your objectives positively will help clarify what you really want and provide indicators of what to look for in your next position rather than keeping you stuck in the rut of what’s not happening now: “I hate working on weekends”; “My boss is constantly looking over my shoulder”; “I’ll never get promoted,” becomes “I’d like to work on weekdays only”; “I want a position that gives me more autonomy”; “I want to work for an organisation that provides a career path”.

2. The benefits of positive emotions

The achievement of most worthwhile goals doesn’t come at the snap of your fingers. Usually, there are hurdles and unexpected challenges along the way so it makes sense that, when you feel good about your goals, you’ll be much more motivated to achieve them. “Obvious, but there are some things that I have to do to pay my mortgage”, you might say. Good point and true in some cases. But, in my experience, some of what we feel we have to put up with is what we’ve told ourselves and has little basis in reality (self-limiting beliefs, thoughts and feelings in psycho-speak). For example, “I hate my life”, (generalisation); “It’s bound to go wrong” (catastrophising); “He thinks I’m an idiot” (mind reading).

Most people wouldn’t dream of emotionally punching up their friends in this way, but get into the habit of creating and listening to a destructive inner voice that makes them feel bad and doesn’t accurately reflect external circumstances.

Whereas, recognising if you’ve a tendency to let your thoughts negatively spiral, isolating problems and exploring what can be done is more likely to bring you the changes that you’re looking for.

If life has thrown a particularly hard curve ball, it can be difficult to feel good about the current situation. Here it’s important to draw on good feelings from the past and what you imagine it will feel like when you’ve achieved your goals. Once again, it’s about concentrating on the positive rather than the negative. For example: “What gives me energy?” (not “I feel drained”); “What is it that I value most about myself?” (not “I’ve got so many weakness”) and “What inspires me? (not “I’m so bored”).

3. Identifying strengths

People often focus on what they can’t do and ignore what they are naturally good at. Of course, it’s sensible and interesting to continue to learn new skills, but none of us can be all things to all people so it’s equally sensible to play to and develop our strengths.

If you need help with defining or re-assessing your strengths, you might want to ask some colleagues or friends how they perceive you. You’ll probably be surprised and rather pleased at what they say. If you’re not, maybe think about changing your colleagues or friends as they’re obviously an awful lot who should be given a wide birth!

Also, you might want to take this psychometric test (Brief Strengths) from the University of Pennsylvania. Basically, it’ll come up with your top strengths in order. No strength is better or worse than another but the idea is that, if you are aware of your strengths and value them (rather, as many people do, take them for granted and wish for others), you can build on what you’ve got to become even better at what you do and/or more content with your life choices.

In the past, I’ve scoffed at this sort of thing but in the spirit of open mindedness, I tutted and muttered darkly through it. From the results, I immediately fell into the above trap of dissing what the test turned up as my strengths. I had imagined things like creativity and initiative would be top of the list. But, to my consternation, these were outstripped by honesty, social intelligence and an appreciation for beauty: “Oh, how tame and superficial,” I generalised. “My life is a sham and I’ve obviously missed my vocation as some Gucci-clad vicar”, I catastrophised. (No offense to Gucci-clad vicars, it’s just the first thing that sprang into my mind).

On reflection though and taking a tip from above, these strengths (as we’re now calling them) do in fact play an important role in my life. Also, on further analysis, I do play to them, e.g., my clients tell me they value my approach that seeks to make things easy for them rather than bamboozle. And, I aleady work to such themes as you’ll see in the messages throughout the website.

It may be coincidence and the results haven’t converted me to a psychometric test believer. But, in this instance, it made sense and served as a refreshing reminder of what I value leading to more positive focus and emotions. Try it…you might find it useful. It’s certainly fun discussing it with your mates.

Crucially, no longer do I need to feel guilty about my proclivity for expensive shoes. After all, an appreciation for beauty is one of my key strengths and must be observed as a vital cornerstone of my future development.

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