Defining Strengths

What is a strength?

Ask the average person how they would define the word and you’re likely to hear responses in the vein of “something I enjoy” or “something I’m good at.” It usually doesn’t take much in the way of critical thought for people to combine these two ideas into one—so a strength becomes something that you are good at, and that you also enjoy doing. After all, we may be very skilled at doing certain things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we enjoy doing them. Similarly, we might really enjoy a certain activity, while accepting that we’re not very skilled at it. In either of those scenarios, it probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that we’re using a strength.

There are, of course, other ways of looking at the issue. I’ve heard strengths defined very simply as those things that make you unique, that set you apart from other people.

Another way of looking at strengths uses a basic mathematical formula:

Strength = Talent x Effort

The inclusion of effort as a major component of strength is important, as I think most people simply equate strength with talent or ability, which in this formula is only one part. The thing about talent is that it tends to be relatively difficult to change—it’s somewhat outside of our control. Effort, on the other hand, is entirely within our control. So, in this way of looking at strengths, it makes sense to focus more on effort. In other words, persistence trumps talent.

However, I think if we want to create a model for strength that’s reflective of real life, we’d have to account for the unpredictability, rapid change and complexity of our modern world. What if we were to include a “luck coefficient”?

Strength = Talent x Effort x Luck

Of course, now we’re opening up a debate around exactly what constitutes luck—and that’s another post for another day.

Common sense and math have both contributed nicely to this discussion of strengths, but I still feel there are certain nuances left unacknowledged, so I’ve concocted my own definition. My formulation contains two distinct elements:

A strength is anything that, when you’re doing it, makes you feel strong. Additionally, using a strength usually results in some form of growth.

The first part is perhaps even more common sense than the first definition I gave! However, it’s worth examining a bit more closely. The defining element here is the acknowledgement of a subjective process of feeling strong. No one can tell you what you are or aren’t feeling—it’s an entirely subjective experience.

The second part of the definition concerns growth. Strengths help us to grow when we use them, whereas energy devoted to weaknesses typically produces little to no forward movement. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, which states that in order to grow, we must become well-rounded and eliminate our weaknesses. The way I see it, if investment of time and energy into something results in significant growth, that thing must have been a strength all along. “True weaknesses” tend to be related to very stable constructs like personality traits, and are therefore intricately tied to corresponding strengths—in order to eliminate an area of “true weakness,” it would have to come at the expense of an associated strength.

So, strengths are innately subjective, and a vehicle for personal (and professional) growth.

Why all the fuss over strengths? The bottom line is that most people aren’t able to articulate their strengths very well. However you choose to define them, strengths are, in my opinion, the most valuable kind of self-awareness that a person, particularly a job seeker, can have.

So, what are your strengths?  If you can’t list at least three, it’s time to do some reflection. Luckily, there are many people out there who are willing and able to help you with just that. Your school’s career services office is a great place to start!

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