Know Thyself and Then Leverage Your Strengths

Recently, I stumbled upon an article that turned a lot of what I have believed, and taught for years, on its head. For years, as a teacher and even as a parent, I have believed that if I (or my students, or my son) wasn’t good at something, then it was just a matter of working harder at it. More practice, more reading, more homework, and I’ll/you’ll get better at it.

KidsHaveStressTooPicThe article, on the other hand, pointed out that we’re not all perfect, we’re not all good at everything, and no matter how hard we try, we often aren’t going to get over our plateaus. No matter how much golfing I do, I am never going to be Tiger Woods. No matter how much singing I do, I am never going to win The Voice. It just isn’t going to happen. Conversely, I’ll bet Tiger Woods or Adam Levine can’t do what I do well.

The trouble is that our educational system is a one size fits all approach to education. (This is not a post about education reform) In my state, every kid has to take the same math, science, social studies and English and foreign language courses. I was an artist, an actor, and a writer. Me and math and physics didn’t get a long. I worked harder, didn’t improve my grades significantly, felt crappy about myself, and it took away from the time I spent doing the things I was good at, and quite frankly, enjoyed more.

Nowadays, the push towards competing on a world stage with other countries in the math and science disciplines would have left me behind. Add to it the constant battle over school budgets that often result in a cut to electives, clubs and other extracurricular activities, and a guy like me would have been a mess. Luckily, my mom saw and artsy side to me and my parents were very supportive of my artsy endeavors.

In recent years, I’ve found myself floundering around a bit too. I read…..a lot. Internet articles, self help books, fiction, plays. It doesn’t matter. If it has words, I read it. So, over the past 3-4 years I’ve read a few books that have helped me to realize more about who I am. It’s much easier to connect the dots looking backwards. So, I wanted to share with you some revelations I’ve made on my journey to make a happier life by playing to my strengths.

What I Already Knew About Myself

I don’t have many regrets in life. I’ve done a lot of cool things, with a lot of cool people. I have a family that I love and a career that has been enormously fulfilling. In a strange way, the career has really filled one of my basic needs that I’ll get to in a minute.

Here’s one of my few regrets. I am artistic. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s when I was in high school, NY State required that each kid had a major. It required taking 3 or 4 full credits in that area. I was an art major. I took a lot of 2-D art classes. I wasn’t a ceramics/sculpture guy, but I could draw and paint well. So, I did what any smart guy would do. I went to college for pre-med. Two and a half years in with terrible grades and having a miserable time of it, I changed my major to Theater, specifically Scenic Design, and the world changed for me. I was playing to my artistic side, and away from the academic side that I was weak at. I never really took any art classes after high school and that is one of my regrets.

Getting To Know Me

Back to a few of the books I read and what I learned.

A few years ago I read a book called “The One Minute Millionaire” by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen. There were a lot of good takeaways in the book, but for me there was an “aha moment” when the authors discussed four different types of people in their chapter on Teams. They likened the different type of people to animals – Hares, Owls, Turtles, and Squirrels.

TippingPointOneMinuteMillionaireI knew immediately that I was a Hare. Peter Hare. Ha. Hansen and Allen describe Hares as Idea people who love to come up with the great ideas, but often get bored once the idea is thought through. They are creative and others often complain that they lack follow through. I’m that guy. I have hundreds of ideas roaming around in my head at any given time. I have notebooks full of them. I am writing ideas down while I am sitting in meetings (a task I am not very good at…the sitting in meetings, not the writing down ideas). I talk about new ideas all the time, and only a very few of them make it to execution stage, and some of them only get partially executed. Lots of them get revisited an shared and then shelved again.

The second book that really struck me in my journey for self awareness was “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is about social epidemics, why they start and catch on, and why they don’t. Social epidemics are products that catch on or videos that go viral or new politicians that win by landslides. Did you know that there were two riders yelling “the British are coming” on that night? Yeah, me neither, because only one was successful.

Gladwell contends that there are three different types of people who are necessary to make a social epidemic happen. Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Immediately, through his description of the three, I knew I was a connector. I have a broad based network that spans a lot of different groups of people. I have an entire group of friends from high school that I never knew from being in school together. They are some of my dearest friends and they had all graduated before I even moved to the town I went to high school in.

I moved in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year and it was 1979. There was no email, Facebook or Twitter. Slowly, I drifted from all of those elementary school and junior high school friends. As soon as the technology emerged to reconnect (social media), I did. I engage in activities that put me in different groups of people. And I am not at all adverse to connecting the different groups. As a matter of fact, I thrive on that.

That is what I meant earlier about my career choice fulfilling one of my basic needs. I get to meet about 100 new kids a year, every year for the past 20 years, and after they graduate, I stay in touch with many. Whenever I can help them connect with someone that might be able to get them a job or help them in something else they are working on, I am happy to do that.

I’ve also read and taken the online test in the “StrengthsFinder 2.0″ book by Tom Rath. It was very helpful in finding out more about my strength set. The 19 page report that was generated also had some excellent action items to help me more fully take advantage of my strengths.

Leveraging That Information

Knowing who I am: I’m artsy, I’m creative, I get a million ideas, and I thrive on connecting people has allowed me to focus more of my energy on the things I am good at and less on the things I struggle with. One of the things about being a connector is that I always have someone in my networks who are good at the things I am bad at, and I am good at things that others are bad at. Knowing that has freed me from spending too much time working on things I will never be able to develop.

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When Inspiration Hits, Take Advantage

bloomsburyshelfIt was a good week for the “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t” book. We picked up three retail locations, and our first book signing. You can get your copy at Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe and Books in Lancaster, NY in the east. On the west coast you can get copies at both the Ballard and Greenwood locations of Sip-N-Ship in Seattle, Washington. I am talking to two other bookstores in the Buffalo area and hope to have some more retail locations soon.

I’ll also be signing copies at Bloomsbury Lane at 1. W. Main Street in Lancaster on “Small Business Saturday”, November 29, from 11 am- 1 pm. 

I’m not sure why, perhaps it is because I often think about the things I am thankful for during this time of year, but this week I was thinking about what it was that inspired me to write “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. The truth is, it was kind of the perfect storm of events that inspired me.

It was February of 2012. I had just read two different books that really inspired me. Carrie Wilkerson’s “The Barefoot Executive” and Brendon Burchard’s “The Millionaire Messenger”. Reading those two was absolutely the tipping point for me.
Here’s a picture of my two copies. burchardwilkersonbooksYou can see they are dog earred and filled with Post-it tags. I still look back to both of them for inspiration or for ideas for lessons for my students. Generally, books that I love are very well used. I get my money’s worth.

I read Brendon’s book first and I found the most important inspiration right on page one. (That, by the way, is awesome. There is no better hook than having a huge pearl right up front.) Brendon says “You are here to make a difference in this world, and the best way to do that is to use your knowledge and expertise (on any topic, in any industry) to help others succeed.”

That quote sums up my entire career. I am a teacher, at a Catholic high school. I certainly didn’t do it for the money. I do it everyday, because I think that sharing with my students the lessons that I learned is a good way to pay forward my gratitude for all of the successes I have had in life. I like to help people find the things they need to succeed. No matter where my career takes me from here, I know that I will always be teaching in some capacity. Brendon nailed it….”use your knowledge and expertise to help others succeed.” I thought to myself, “I can do that”.

Carrie Wilkerson’s book inspired me through her style. Her easy does it, laid back approach to writing was exactly what I needed. I absolutely knew that I couldn’t write in the stodgy, expert style that so many books are written in. It was intimidating. Carrie, however, wrote in a style that screamed “I work from home in my bare feet”. As a life long Jimmy Buffett fan, I really appreciate…nay….yearn for the barefoot lifestyle. I definitely thought I might have a chance at writing in the easy does it, laid back style that Carrie writes in. I think I did OK in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many other nuggets of wisdom in this book. The worth goes well beyond her writing style. Very worth the read if you want to be your own boss.

Both books taught me the importance of good titles. That is for certain. I bought Brendon’s on the recommendation of a good friend. I bought Carrie’s because I looked at the title and said, “Oh yeah. That’s the life I want.”

I’m a fan of mentoring and having mentors. I consider both Carrie Wilkerson and Brendon Burchard to be mentors even though I’ve never met either of them. Mentoring doesn’t have to be face to face. You can be mentored through a book or social media or a video series.

The third inspiration came in the form of a leadership conference for school that, at the beginning, was the worst professional development I had ever attended. I was anywhere but mentally present at that conference. It was mostly for elementary school teachers. After lunch, however, they took the handful of high school teachers and put us in a room with some college professors who asked “What do you want to learn today?” I said, “What are our kids lacking when they get to you?” Without a moment of hesitation they said “writing, skills, time management, independence, and critical thinking skills”. I remember walking out of that session and thinking “I wonder what else these kids need to be successful in life”.

So, in February of 2012, looking only to cross “write a book” off of my bucket list, I outlined “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. Now it is on the shelves in several book stores and available through Amazon. I’ll consider that a success. I’ve always got my eyes open for things that inspire me. Books, movies, walks in the park, people I meet. Inspiration comes in strange places and often when you least expect it. Make sure that you keep your eyes and your heart open to whatever inspiration may come knocking.

What unexpected thing inspired you to do something you are proud of? Share some inspiration below.


Some of the links in the above article are affiliate links. I receive a small commission if you purchase the book or product through these links. I, however, would never recommend a book or product I haven’t read or used, or don’t think you will find value in.