Your strengths are so much more than just the things you’re good at.
When I was nearing the end of high school, I was advised by Career Counsellors and many other well-intentioned people that I should pursue Science or Engineering as a profession because I was good at maths & science. But I was only ‘good at’ those subjects because I poured endless hours of study, sweat, and tears into them. I knew that maths & science were highly valued by my school and by my parents (my father was an Engineer), and being the chronic people-pleaser that I was back then, I slogged away to make sure I got good grades.
But no one ever asked me if I actually liked maths & science – I didn’t. I actually kind of dreaded them. And it didn’t seem to matter to anyone else that technical subjects didn’t come naturally to me. They felt hard and heavy. My brain was more wired for Literature, Languages, and Social Sciences. Those subjects felt natural, fun, and easy for me. But after being told countless times that I would never find a high-paying job in the Humanities, I decided I should follow the overwhelming advice to study Science & Engineering. So that’s what I did.
And then I spent the good part of fifteen years feeling miserable.
I poured everything I had into my career, but it never felt quite right. I would come home from work feeling exhausted and empty. It was deeply frustrating that I never felt completely fulfilled by my work. I felt lost and confused, continuously searching for ways to make my career feel better, but no amount of tweaking of my career gave me the satisfaction I was craving. I started developing chronic illnesses that wouldn’t go away and I was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue, which I struggled with for many years.
And then one day I hit burn out, and I couldn’t go on anymore. I knew I had to step away from my career as a professional Engineer altogether.
I now know that your strengths are so much more than just the things you’re good at. And the only way to feel completely fulfilled and satisfied in your work is to find and operate in your own unique Zone of Genius.
And it’s all because I consciously chose to operate in my Zone of Genius.
So how do you operate in your Zone of Genius?
Marcus Buckingham has done great work in the fields of Strengths Analysis. In his book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, he defines four signs of a true strength, which happen to follow the acronym of S-I-G-N.
Here are the Four Signs of a True Strength.
S is for SUCCESS
A strength is an area in which you achieve success or a high level of proficiency with relative ease. And you’re able to sustain great performance over time. And they’re also the areas in which you’ll improve the most as your train and practice your craft.
I is for INSTINCT
Your strengths have an “I-can’t-help-but” quality to them. Maybe you can’t quite articulate why, but you find yourself drawn to particular activities repeatedly. For example, even though I was studying science and engineering at University, I always loved going into New Age bookstores to read anything and everything I could about spirituality, philosophy and personal growth. I did Reiki courses in my spare time and I was constantly drawn to anything that discussed psychology, finding your purpose, and metaphysics. It wasn’t until much later that I could see how all of these seemingly (at the time) unrelated topics formed the basis for my love of Coaching. What are some of the things you find yourself being drawn to repeatedly? Where does your instinct lead you?
Buckingham discusses how, from a neurological perspective, ‘intelligence’ in a certain area develops through the creation of thick branches of ‘synaptic connections’ in your brain. Neuroscientists have now established that a strength is an area where your brain made large connections very naturally and easily; larger than other areas.
Nature has a habit of piggy-backing on existing infrastructure, meaning that you’ll grow the most new ‘synaptic connections’ (i.e. brain capacity or ability) in those areas where you already have the most existing ones. You will learn the most, come up with the most new ideas and have the best insights in areas where you already have a natural affinity.
Since you can’t peer inside your brain to see where these thick branches of brain connections already exist and what they relate to, you have to look for the signs yourself. What does a thick branch of synaptic connections feel like? According to Buckingham, it feel like this:
“It feels easy. It feels like you’re not trying very hard. It feels like an activity that, for some reason, proved quite simple for you to pick up. You learned it quickly and you find it easy to concentrate on it. You naturally stay focused on it and it feels like time speeds up, and you still stay focused and time speeds up some more. You have to remind yourself to look up at the clock, and when you do, whole hours have flown by while you’ve been completely absorbed in the activity and really enjoying it. It feels like interest, and more, it feels like inquisitiveness. It’s an activity you want to practice, to read up on, to refine with new tricks and techniques, to grow. It feels like true happiness.” – Marcus Buckingham
It’s not that these activities are without effort. There is almost certainly effort. But it feels, seemingly, effortless. You feel challenged, but in just the way you like to be challenged. You actually want to concentrate. And when you do, you lose your regular perspective and you become immersed. You become lost in the activity for a long moment.
N is for NEEDS
The final sign of a strength stands for needs. Whereas the Instinct sign refers to how you feel before you engage in the activity, and the Growth sign relates to your feelings during the activity, the Needs sign points to how you feel right after you’ve done it. Some activities just seem to fill in an innate need of yours. When you’re done with them, you may feel physically tired. But you don’t feel psychologically drained. Instead, you feel fulfilled, empowered, restored, the exact opposite of drained. It’s a satisfying feeling, but it’s also much more than mere satisfaction. It feels authentic. It feels right.
Here’s a summary of Buckingham’s SIGN acronym for true strengths:
- When you do it, you feel effective, proficient, competent: The S (Success) of SIGN.
- You actively look forward to doing it: The I (Instinct) of SIGN.
- You feel inquisitive, focused and satisfied while doing it: The G (Growth) of SIGN.
- You feel fulfilled and authentic after completing it: The N (Needs) of SIGN.
I hope this insight has helped you look at your strengths differently. It’s so important to know what your strengths are. If you can begin to build your awareness of the activities that contain these four qualities for you, you can more consciously align your job or career around your true strengths. And as a consequence, you’ll enjoy more flow, satisfaction, and fulfillment in your day-to-day work. And this is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Do you want to know more about your unique strengths?
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