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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