Playing to your strengths

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.
More about...Books, Career, Psychology

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Great point Sierra! Playing to your strengths when looking for employment is incredibly important, otherwise you will 1)severely disappoint your employer and 2)be miserable at your job.

But, you should not only know your strengths, but you should also know your passion! Those that are passionate about thier work not only have fun with what they do, but they also excel in what they do (and get paid more because of their excellent work).

If you can combine both your strengths and your passion, you’ll have a very successful and enjoyable life in your career. 🙂

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

Good point! In this book or in Now, Discovery Your Strengths, Buckingham talks about how when you combine talent with passion you’re willing to put in the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make a world class strengths.
On the flip side he talks about how if you are passionate about something, but don’t have a natural talent it is something that should probably be a hobby.

STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago

I have definitely noticed a increase in my productivity and satisfaction level at work when I started writing more. I work in student services at a large college so writing for me seemed like a far off possibility. However, I started with maintaining the website and writing all of the copy for those pages. Then switched to maintaining all of our social media sites. Now, I handle all of the communications that go out from our office. The steady progression has let me show my boss where I am most valuable, as well as make my work much more enjoyable!

Cami
Cami
9 years ago

This makes a lot of sense. I was good at my last job but chose to go self-employed to have more family time, but that hasn’t made me as happy as I thought. I still think about going back to my old work but hate being tied down to a FT job.

Sometimes these things are true but not everyone has the flexibility in life to pull it off.

No Debt MBA
No Debt MBA
9 years ago

I am not sure that we can all have gainful employment we are passionate about but finding a job that more closely aligns with your strengths would at least make work less frustrating.

GoArmyBeatNavy
GoArmyBeatNavy
9 years ago

Interesting premise, Sierra. Having been a Sr. HR person for many years, I agree that we all have strengths and areas for improvement. I also agree we should play to our strengths and build on those. However, a person should also work on their areas for improvement to get them to a minimal acceptable level. A person may never be ‘excellent’ in those (weak) areas, but to be successful long term, we generally need a minimal acceptable capability in the major areas of timeliness, relationship skills, writing, attention to detail, etc.

SB (One Cent At A Time)
SB (One Cent At A Time)
9 years ago

Ok do we know what is our strength and what is our weakness? First we need to start from understanding this. Ask yourself what are your strengths..did you answer it?
if yes do follow this article, or else sit down and find out what are your strength and then follow this article

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

One of my work ‘strengths’ is my absolute fear of failure. So, I will work myself to death to make sure I put forth as perfect a product as I can (I am a computer programmer). What is a strength for the company actually kills me, and that definitely takes some of the enjoyment out of the job.

I need a new career…

Kestra
Kestra
9 years ago

At work I try to volunteer for jobs that are strengths for me. Especially ones that other people don’t like to do. It makes me seem more valuable and keeps me away from the jobs I like less.

Becka
Becka
9 years ago

I agree that there are some weaknesses it’s not necessarily worth correcting – if you’re not good at math and don’t like it, you shouldn’t aspire to be an accountant, if you possess a skill set that qualifies you for a different career you’d enjoy. But I don’t think habitual lateness falls under this heading. That kind of complete inability to commit to promptness is likely to have implications much further reaching than career difficulties, and I think it’s really unwise to say, “Oh, I’m just not good at ON TIME,” and give up.

Kelly
Kelly
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

@Becka That’s a good point and I agree with you to a certain extent. I like the post a lot as well, though I think there is a benefit to adding some nuance to the issue (which I do think Sierra implies). For example, rather than, “I am constitutionally incapable of being prompt; let me not worry about it and just find a job where I don’t have to be,” change the script somewhat to, “I know this is a weakness of mine; I will work on it, but also make it easier on myself by finding a job where… Read more »

Becka
Becka
9 years ago
Reply to  Kelly

Absolutely, I agree with all of that. I just think Friend’s lateness is a really poor example, because that’s a weakness that needs to be addressed in earnest. If you’re gotten fired from multiple positions for lateness, the problem is you, not the jobs. You may be able to find a position more forgiving of the occasional slip, but it’s never going to be completely unimportant to be on time. You have to fix that fault, not just avoid it.

Clint
Clint
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

I’m not crazy about that example either. Chronic lateness is not so much weakness as stubborn laziness. If you had a crushing debt load or mouths to feed or a desire to be considered reliable, you’d get there five or 10 minutes early, no problem.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

It might only be chronic lateness early in the morning due to different diurnal patterns, or it could be something like ADHD.

But either way: why spend all your self discipline on something that doesn’t matter at ALL in lots of jobs, instead of just finding something that suits the way you already are?

The Other Brian
The Other Brian
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

Actually, there are a LOT of jobs where it is completely unimportant to be on time (if, by definition, on time means arriving at work at the same time everyday).

My wife’s former employer didn’t require 90% of the people to be to work at a set time every day.

Sara
Sara
9 years ago
Reply to  Kelly

Timeliness isn’t just about showing up at work at a set time everyday, but also about meeting project deadlines, not making others wait for you to begin meetings and phone calls, having enough respect for the people you commit to by meeting their expectations. Even jobs with a lot of flexibility certainly entail a degree of “timeliness.”

Mike Holman
Mike Holman
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

@Becka – I agree.

It’s kind of like saying “I’m a lazy person, so I need to find a job where I don’t have to work very hard”. 🙂

E. Murphy
E. Murphy
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

I,too, think this post has a lot of good points.

But I can’t help but think of lots of people who refuse to do the boring bits of the job and consider themselves more “the management type.” They shuffle off the unpleasant tasks on other co-workers.

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago
Reply to  Becka

I agree that there could have been a better example, one more people could identify with, but there ARE people who are bad with “time”. I’m not too bad, but there have been multiple occassions where I will look at a clock and in the back of my brain I will note the correct time (say 12:15pm) but in the front I will go “oh great, it’s only 11:15, I have PLENTY of time to get ready.” Then I’ll arrive somewhere an hour or two late. Seriously. This has only impacted a previous job once – I know I took… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

This is a topic I’ve thought a lot about and can’t quite figure out. I find that what other people think of as my strengths I think of as my weaknesses. However, one of my weaknesses has revealed a strength. I have math anxiety. Simple arithmetic makes my palms sweat and I transpose numbers and symbols frequently. (Can you have dyslexia for numbers?) And yet I do financial math every day of my work life. My fear of math makes me very empathetic with others who fear it. And when I teach classes for first time home buyers, I manage… Read more »

A
A
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

“Can you have dyslexia for numbers?”

Absolutely; it’s called dyscalculia.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

I think the one shortcoming with this approach is that often, in tackling weaknesses head-on rather than simply sidestepping them, you grow far more than you do when you remain in your comfort zone of strengths. For example, artists that play only to their strengths generally become pigeon-holed. They are known as the “XYZ” expert, which is great when XYZ is in demand, but far less desirable when the popular taste has shifted to ABC or DEF. By working on weaknesses, you often add new strengths to your repertoire. I have a strong background in art and design, but I’m… Read more »

Andy
Andy
9 years ago
Reply to  Nancy L.

On the flip side I think working on weaknesses can also become very discouraging for individuals. I oversee a group of college recruiters. In general they are great recruiters, but terrible with their paperwork. We have been able to shift more of the paperwork part to people who are in the office more and free up more time for the recruiters to recruit. I initially tried to teach them to be better with their paperwork, but it was frustrating for all involved with little improvement. By having a whole office play to individual strengths it really has helped play a… Read more »

Adam P
Adam P
9 years ago

I have no idea what my strengths and weaknesses are, maybe it’s something I should be keeping better track of in my life! I think I’m very lazy (correction I know I am) but to the outside eye I am industrious. I think/know I’m disorganized and messy but everyone else thinks I’m anal retentive and a neat freak. It’s a cognotive dissonance at it’s finest (hope I’m using that term correctly). I do know that I am best when I have a task to do that is cut out for me, even if others find it very confusing and difficult… Read more »

shallowwater
shallowwater
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

I think you should look up Imposter Syndrome. If you keep succeeding at things, then maybe your self-perception is not as accurate as you think it is.

Adam
Adam
9 years ago
Reply to  shallowwater

Thanks wikipedia! I guess it could be that but I’m more convinced that as lazy as I am, the average corporate worker is even more lazy than I am.

I shudder to think what the world could accomplish if we *all* actually worked as hard as we could for 40 hours a week.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago
Reply to  Adam P

Adam,
One of the exercises Buckingham suggests in the book (which I found helpful) was to keep a list of things you love to do at work and are successful and a list of things you loathe to do at work (even if you are successful). Hopefully, as you keep working your way up, you can steer your job responsibilities to more of the love category.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

Love this post, Sierra! My job definitely plays to my strengths… writing, translating and speed. I enjoy it, but it’s not my passion, so I’m trying to branch out into similar opportunities that don’t involve being chained to a desk 🙂

Michiel
Michiel
9 years ago

I think the example in this post doesn’t quite suit the overall (interesting) point. Playing to your strengths is a good idea, a better idea than trying to make each bad point to average. However, using your strengths is about skills, whereas the example focuses on (lack of) punctuality, related to will power. Will power can be seen as an area of strength/weakness, but that actually is an unhelpful characterisation. It usually helps a lot more to think of will power as a bank account with a limited, daily replenished, starting account. Consume too much of it early in the… Read more »

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

I agree with the people that enjoyed the main point of this article but believe that the friend example sort of missed the mark. So…his time management skills aren’t great but that really just means he shouldn’t be in charge of schedules anywhere…not get him off the hook for being “hours late” sometimes. Being on time for work is a life skill that really everyone should have some sort of grasp of. I realized long ago that my natural skills and my areas of interest didn’t necessarily line up in an obvious way. I love design (of all kinds –… Read more »

ali
ali
9 years ago

I am not a morning person and I never have been. If it were up to me I’d go to bed around 2 am and get nine hours of sleep. However, I haven’t found a job where that would work out well.

But I know this is a problem and I won’t take a job where I have to be at work before 8.

Shauna
Shauna
9 years ago

I’m not so sure the time-management example is off the mark; I actually think its very relevant. Different types of work environments motivate different types of people. Places with very structured schedules, policies, etc are not an environment that everyone thrives in. My guess is that it’s not simply about getting to work on time, but the difference between being a person who thrives in orderly, structured work environments versus someone who operates better with a lot of flexibility in how the work gets done, as long as it gets done. Where we fail is in thinking that there are… Read more »

Cortney
Cortney
9 years ago

I agree with several others that the article makes a good point, but the example falls flat for me. Part of being a responsible adult is being able to be places on time. It’s not just with jobs- if you tell your friend you’ll pick them up at the airport, or meet with a family member for lunch, etc. She mentioned he was sometimes HOURS late. That means, even if work started at 9, he might not roll into at least 11, or later, perhaps noon? Being that severely deficient in time management, to me, speaks to an inability to… Read more »

KS
KS
9 years ago

I generally agree with the post but I would add a caution here – What if you have strengths that you don’t want to use? Lie? For example, I’m quite good at organizing and planning. As a result, I got stuck with too many assignments where I was stuck running meetings or planning events that bored the heck out of me. In one extreme example, my boss knew that I was good at designing databases but I didn’t want to use that skill exclusively and told him so. It didn’t help. It was a miserable situation and I left bitter.… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  KS

Explain that you’re good at it but you’ve done it so much it’s become a drag, not a lift?

I got out of sales, and I usually explain it by the emotional impact: I’m good at sales but I find it really draining and tiring, so I am moving into something less emotionally taxing.

Andy
Andy
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

Good points. If you read Buckingham he usually points out a strength is something that you are good at and enjoy doing. This helps lead to flow and when you can play to your strengths it should actually be energizing. I think the problem with many is there are things we are good at, but don’t really energize us. This usually leads to being promoted in these areas and eventually being in a job we’re good at, but drains us on a daily basis. If you can figure out how to play to your strengths and not just what you’re… Read more »

Ely
Ely
9 years ago

So far in my career(s), I’ve been moderately good, not great, at just about everything. What does that mean?

Andy
Andy
9 years ago
Reply to  Ely

Ely,
Keep exploring and it should come to you. Dan Miller, author of the book 48 Days to the Work You Love, usually says you should try all sorts of jobs until you get into your 50s and then when you hit the peak part of your career you’ll have a really good idea from all your experiences about what you really enjoy and are good at. It is a difficult journey, but worth it! Good Luck!

Laura
Laura
9 years ago
Reply to  Ely

Me too.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

I would be interested to know how many of the people on this thread who think lateness is just a character flaw or lack of willpower are people who punch time clocks for their jobs. Because as far as I can tell, EVERYONE hates having to be at work by a certain number of minutes after a set time. Nobody stays in those jobs long. It means you’re being judged on something that has very little to do with performance, and I know a lot of people who have quit because all the boss cared about was what time you… Read more »

Becka
Becka
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

But being late isn’t just about being late to work – it can ruin friendships and relationships as well. And since you ask, I’ve had almost exclusively scheduled-to-the-minute jobs. And that’s how I like it. There are plenty of people with advanced, high-end jobs for whom following the schedule is vital. My mother is a doctor – she has to be there when she has a patient at 8. My husband is a college professor – he has to be there when his class starts, for office hours, when a student needs to meet with him. At my last job,… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

Not that I’m saying you should follow this philosophy, but for anyone who’s interested: one of the ‘prequels’ to this book is “Now, Discover Your Strengths.” It includes a code to go online and take their StrengthsFinder test.

…I was forced to do it at work. At least I didn’t have to pay for the book.

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

I think we all try to play to our strengths, unfortunately some have not developed those strengths. Soft skills such as getting to work and on time is important. Not developing those soft skills may get you fired faster than lack of competency.

Tara@riceandbeanslife
9 years ago

Time management is not my personal strength so I manage that and any other weaknesses very closely to mitigate the issues they can potentially cause. I think our weaknesses are often amplified in jobs that make us unhappy. I think it’s important to know our strengths and equally important to understand our weaknesses and take the responsibility to manage them. I don’t necessarily think many people have the luxury of finding work in our current economy that plays to their strengths. Most people I know are just grateful to have a job and those that don’t just want to find… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Strength Finder 2.0 is great to help you find what those strength. I read the book and took the test and it’s neat to see the result. It’s difficult to change your lifestyle/work at the drop of a hat though. We’ll have to adjust a bit at a time.

flexible
flexible
9 years ago

Totally understand the example given in this article. In my workplace, my position is probably the only one that require employees to be in the office at a fixed time (monitored to the seconds) and fixed scheduled breaks etc. The other 80% are flexible positions where you need to be punctual at times and yet you can work remotely (reducing the possibility of not making it on time). My position is not flexible at all and in my opinion is not suitable for parents with small children etc. Most people do not last long in this position. Who wants to… Read more »

Maria Nedeva
Maria Nedeva
9 years ago

I enjoyed the post and it struck a cord with me. Not that long ago I was thinking that one big mistake we make is that we work hard on our weaknesses instead of on our strengths (always; at school, at work). Will see the book which I managed to miss somehow.

As to people having jobs they feel passionate about – I believe this is possible. If we only sit down and think what is we feel passionate about, can we change something and what. Also lucky that we are all passionate about different things.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

NICE. I like this article. Do I get some validation from it? As a working gun for hire– *probably*. I never answer phones, do all deals in writing, stay clear from people for days on end– delicious, delicious, and so productive when people aren’t causing distractions. Trying to become a “people person” would be a huge waste of time and energy.

Starry
Starry
9 years ago

I can perfectly understand the point in which you must separate what you love from what you love and can be successful at.
At the moment, I have two creative jobs that I love, both working for myself, at home.
I am a writer, and I am also handcrafting jewelry which I sell online at etsy.
I love each equally, but I am forced to admit that I can be much more successful with my writing than with the jewelry, and that I need to spend less time on growing my etsy business and more time on my writing!

MC
MC
9 years ago

I work for a company that requires everyone to take the Strength’s finders tests. Funny that one of my strengths when I started was consistently called out as an opportunity at my previous employer. Communication. What I’ve found in my six years at my current company, it was a strength but it just needed more attention and practice as well as better coaching. Today, I am presenting in multiple meetings a week, run Chalk Talk like training on complex systems for end users and put together executive summaries. Through practice, I’ve benefited from the multiplicative effect and it has done… Read more »

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

MC, Thanks for mentioning the Strength’s Finder Test. It provides a depth of information that if acted upon can help you determine and go to work in your five areas of strengths. In addition to Dan Miller’s 48 Days to the Work You Love, which covers discovering your strengths, the DISC profile is helpful as well to figure out where you innate abilities lie. Another great book is Max Lucado’s Cure for the Common Life. His five step formula for determining your life’s “Story” and finding your sweet spot is a great exercise in awareness raising. His acronym S.T.O.R.Y. stands… Read more »

Don
Don
9 years ago

I stumbled apon this a couple years ago ive tried for years to finish college after i quit in my twenties but it was harder than it should have been i was raised to believe that you could not be sucessful with out a degree. I finally realised that what i was doing working with my hands was my true gift and what made me happy and once i appllied more time towards learn9ing my craft and not chasing a degree i became truly sucessful.

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