This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and raising children at Childwild.com.

Shortly after finishing college, a friend of mine was fired from his first job. He kept showing up to work late — sometimes hours late. He was charming and smart and reasonably good at his work, but his employer just couldn’t rely on him to be at his desk on time, so they let him go.

Go Put Your Strengths to WorkAfter a short, frantic job search, he leapt into the next job he was offered. As a teller at a bank. He didn’t last long in this job either. There are few positions where punctuality is more necessary, and he already knew this wasn’t his strong suit.

He took that bank job knowing he’d just been fired for his lack of punctuality, but he really believed that through a simple act of will he could turn over a new leaf and become stellar at time management, despite having struggled with it in the past. Instead of playing to his strengths, he exhausted himself trying to live up to his ideals. He felt he should be able to show up at work on time, therefore he would if only he applied enough willpower.

It didn’t work. He failed, over and over, to meet his employers’ needs.

Eventually, my friend grew up and found a job that relied on his strengths and skills. One that didn’t require him to be at the office at 9 a.m. every day. He’s been happily employed for years now.

What my friend needed was to know himself as an employee, and to admit that there were things he was always going to be good at — and things he was always going to struggle with. Then he needed to find a job that valued his strengths and could accept his weaknesses. That’s not to say he didn’t also need to start waking up with his alarm clock. Initially, his time management skills weren’t up to snuff for any job. But there are jobs, like the one he has now, where the precise time you arrive at your desk matters a lot less than what you do when you get there.

Playing to Your Strengths
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot this week because I’ve been reading Marcus Buckingham’s Go Put Your Strengths To Work. Buckingham is one of the founders of what he calls the Strengths Movement, an approach to career management designed to get the most out of every employee by teaching them to play to their strengths rather than constantly trying to fix their weaknesses.

At the core of Buckingham’s philosophy is the notion that you should focus your work life on the things you’re good at, and steer yourself away from the things you’re bad at. This is a better strategy for individuals and companies than trying to correct weaknesses, he says. No one can be good at everything. Find out what you are good at and do that, and you’ll be more effective at your job. You should also have more fun doing it.

Note: J.D.’s mentioned this philosophy before in a roundabout way. For instance, in his review of The 4-Hour Workweek, he quoted this passage: “Emphasize strengths, don’t fix weaknesses. Most people are good at a handful of things and utterly miserable at most. [...] It is far more lucrative and fun to leverage your strengths instead of attempting to fix all the chinks in your armor.” J.D.’s admonition to do what works for you is nothing more than a call to play to your strengths.

My friend’s case was extreme. Most of us don’t have weaknesses as blatant as an inability to get up with our alarm clock. Nor are we so poorly matched with our chosen professions as to take a job with a bank knowing we can’t make it to work on time. But we still have weaknesses. Every one of us has some part of our jobs that we loathe doing, or don’t do well. Each of us also has strengths.

In Buckingham’s vision, a strength goes beyond what we’re good at. It’s the aspects of our professional lives that make us feel energized and alive. The stuff that engages our attention so thoroughly we lose track of time while doing it. The places where we’re at our most creative. The things we’re most committed to following through on. Our strengths put us into a state of flow.

Buckingham argues that our innate strengths and weaknesses are established fairly early on in life. Yes, we can improve on our weaknesses, but we’ll never completely overcome them. He believes we’re better off focusing on our strengths. As he puts it, “You will grow the most in your areas of greatest strength.”

He writes:

If you take nothing else away from this book, take this: You have development needs — areas where you need to grow, areas where you need to get better — but for you, as for all of us, you will learn the most, grow the most, and develop the most in your areas of greatest strength. Your strengths are your multiplier. Your strengths magnify you.

But how do you do this?

Identifying Your Strengths
Much of Buckingham’s book is devoted to helping readers identify their strengths and figure out how to bring them into play in their workplaces. He defines a strength as something that has the following four characteristics:

  1. Success. A strength is something you’re good at. I love playing Scrabble, but it’s not a strength of mine. I can tell because even though I enjoy it, I lose most of the games I play. If I wanted to become a professional Scrabble player, I’d have a long, uphill battle ahead of me. Being successful isn’t enough, though. People are often very good at things they don’t enjoy. That doesn’t mean they should pursue those things.
  2. Instinct. “Your strengths have an I-can’t-help-but quality to them,” writes Buckingham. They’re the things you’ll do for love. Writing is like this for me: I write for a living, but I also do it to relax, to play and to make sense of my life. If I don’t have any work-in-progress on my desk, I’ll make something up. I don’t write because it’s my job; rather it’s my job because I kept doing it for a long time when it was simply a passion.
  3. Growth. Strengths allow you to grow. Buckingham provides a roadmap to knowing when you’re experiencing that growth: Pay attention to when you feel happy and when you feel focused. Look for the things that feel easy, he says. The activities in which you’re most likely to experience flow, losing track of time as you’re completely and happily absorbed in your work. Those are your strengths. The things that energize you as you work at them.
  4. Needs. Your strengths fill a need. When you’ve done something you’re strong at, you feel a kind of deep satisfaction. A sense, as Buckingham puts it, that all is right with the world. That feeling of rightness is a pointer that you’re doing something right, something you should keep on doing. No matter how tired you are when you’ve finished, you don’t feel mentally or emotionally drained. Your work feeds you rather than taking away from your well-being.

Can we all really have work that is personally satisfying? Buckingham really believes we can. According to Buckingham, most of us need make only small adjustments to our existing jobs. We’ve already found employment that has the potential to use our strengths; we just need to tweak things so we have the best chance to shine.

How do you play to your strengths at work? Or do you? Do you pursue strengths in other parts of your life? What’s your experience been like when you focus on strengths versus focusing on weaknesses?

Further reading: For another glimpse at this topic, check out J.D.’s post on doing what you love and other career advice.

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