Let’s Talk About Strengths, Baby (a little Salt-N-Pepa innuendo there for ya)
One cannot talk about strengths without discussing the two pioneering strengths assessments, the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Character Strengths and Clifton StrengthsFinder.
VIA Character Strengths
The VIA Survey was developed under the leadership of Dr. Martin Seligman, who is often referred to as the "Father of Positive Psychology," and Dr. Christopher Peterson, a fellow vital leader in the field of positive psychology. This free self-assessment survey has been taken by over 2.6 million people in 190 countries, and utilized in hundreds of research studies. Peterson & Seligman (2004) subsequently published a handbook that details all aspects of the 24 strengths assessed in the survey, called Character Strengths & Virtues (CSV). The CSV is frequently called the anti-DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), because rather than classifying and helping to diagnose mental disorders, CSV classifies and helps to diagnose mental strengths and virtues. CSV organizes the 24 character strengths under the umbrella of six core virtues: (1) Wisdom and Knowledge (Creativity, Curiosity, Open-Mindedness, Love of Learning, and Perspective), (2) Courage (Bravery, Persistence, Integrity, and Vitality), (3) Humanity (Love, Kindness, and Social Intelligence), (4) Justice (Citizenship, Fairness, and Leadership), (5) Temperance (Forgiveness & Mercy, Humility & Modesty, Prudence, and Self-Regulation), and (6) Transcendence (Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, and Spirituality).
I am personally enamored with CSV and utilize it in addition to Peterson’s (2006) A Primer in Positive Psychology, as the two textbooks in the graduate positive psychology course I created and teach at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, titled Positive Counseling Theory & Practice. As part of the course, I have my students complete the VIA Survey to assess their strengths and engage in several exercises to leverage and further cultivate their strengths. In sum, we spend more than 50% of the course focused on strengths assessment, readings, discussion, and exercises. My students love learning about their strengths, find them immensely accurate is describing who they are, and thoroughly enjoy using them in their lives and work. And, based upon pre- and post-course assessment and testimony from students, this strength focus can be positively life changing.
Like my students, I have taken the VIA Survey and find my strengths very accurate and telling of who I am. My top VIA character strengths are: (1) Forgiveness, (2) Capacity to Love & Be Loved, (3) Gratitude, (4) Hope, and (5) Perseverance (tied with Fairness, Social Intelligence, Zest, & Humor). In thinking about my #1 VIA character strength of Forgiveness, I can say that I have always been a person who gives people nearly endless chances and lets go of anger relatively easily (with a period of digressions from this virtue during my emotional teenage years). While many have told me throughout my nearly 40 years that this is not a good thing, I found it transformational that the VIA Survey was the first place I felt validated that this is indeed a strength, not a weakness. My time isn’t wasted on revenge and grudges and I process my frustrations with and hurt from people quickly.
I think my Forgiveness strength ties in closely with my #2 VIA character strength of the Capacity to Love & Be Loved. Perhaps in part because I forgive, it gives me more room in my heart to love people, which I much prefer. I typically love hard and experience feelings of love and nurturing towards people quickly and easily. I also feel this is a strength that has always been a part of me. I can recall in school as a child and teenager that when a classmate was being bullied or outcasted by other classmates, I felt compelled to befriend and care for them. My career path may have been destined by this strength as well. My very first job a couple of weeks after turning 14 was as a Camp Counselor with my hometown Recreation Department, and my second job a year later was a Camp Counselor with the local YMCA. I loved those kids. I loved hearing their stories, listening to their joys and hurts, providing advice and guidance, and drying their tears. From the moment I was of legal age to work, nearly every job I have had has engaged my capacity to love.
In life overall, I am also a self-confessed “hugger.” When seeing someone I know, and even in meeting someone new, my automatic inclination is generally to hug them. And as a parent, I have probably showered enough verbal and physical affection on my son in his less than six years to last him a lifetime (well, not really, because can you ever really have too many hugs or “I love yous?”). In my undergraduate psychology courses, one of the studies that struck me the most was Dr. Harry Harlow’s “love experiments” with newborn monkeys. While I was devastated at the sad methodology of separating a newborn monkey from its mother, the result was astounding to me. When given a choice between selecting a faux monkey made of wire that had food vs. a faux monkey made of soft cloth with no food, time and again, these baby monkeys would choose to be with the soft cloth faux monkey (Harlow, 1958). In essence, they would choose to starve themselves in order to feel closeness with something that felt closer to being a nurturing, loving mother. I always thought this spoke volumes about human nature—for our very survival, we inherently and instinctually need to love and be loved.
My #3 VIA character strength of Gratitude was a much later bloomer for me. As I have talked about in my Gratitude Series, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I came to embrace Gratitude. From that point forward, I suppose I have cultivated it so much in my life that it has become a strength for me. As a result of this strength, I find myself immensely grateful for every kindness from strangers, each new person I meet, every great interaction I have with others, each little and big success, and for all the little and big things I have been blessed with. I try not to focus on what I don't have because what I do have is much cooler anyway.
My #4 VIA character strength of Hope is another one I think I developed later in life, interesting as a result of cultivating my Gratitude strength. 15 years ago, I never would have believed I would be running three community optimism groups to cultivate Hope in others! For many years, I was just the opposite of hopeful; I was an anxious catastrophizer who worried about the future, often expected the worst, and when things were going well, "waited for the other shoe to drop" as the saying goes. But through the practice of gratitude, I simultaneously developed the strength of Hope. By seeing all the good I already had, I was able to believe there was more good in store for me. Today, I find myself so immensely hopeful about everything. I typically expect the best, and when something good happens, I view it as a sign that more good is to come. I actually find that my strength of Hope helps me visualize all the things I want to see happen in the future, almost as if they are already occurring. Somehow I feel that this Hope and visualization transforms my dreams into realities a lot of the time. And, it sure beats the worrying and catastrophizing!
My #5 strengths are a tie between Fairness, Social Intelligence, Zest, Humor, and Perseverance. I can definitely say that Fairness has been with me since childhood. I have always believed that no person is better than another and that we all deserve respect and opportunity. I think this drove me to work for opportunity programs in higher education for seven years, drives me to teach women's leadership, propels me to volunteer for causes that support evening the playing field, and why I find value multiple perspectives. Along the same lines, I feel Social Intelligence is at play in these regards as well. I genuinely see good in all people, feel empathy for others, and connect very easily with people. If you put me in a room full of 100 strangers, I will make them friends by the end of the day.
Zest is another long-standing strength. I've always been one to jump into life head first! I get pretty excited about basically everything. I am a walking exclamation point! Zest connects nicely with my other "from as far back as I can remember" strength of Humor. As a child, I had friends that gave me the nickname Giggles. I laugh a lot, always have. And when I laugh, you can hear me a mile away and I'm completely fine with that (though occasionally, those with me might find it a bit embarrassing). I’m often sarcastic in a non-mean kind of way and am very playful in all I do. I think lots of things are funny and don't like taking anything too seriously.
However, when I do take something seriously, I will go after it and knock down every road block thrown in my way until I achieve it. This is correlated with my strength of Perseverance, the one I relate with most out of my five #5 strengths. While I was always somewhat of a rule follower and good student in elementary and high school, I don’t believe I always had the strength of Perseverance. I think I know the turning point though. I have mentioned in earlier posts that I was not a particularly diligent college student. By the time I reached senior year and began interviewing for graduate programs, I had managed to elevate my grades to a not so stellar 2.9 GPA. During the group interview for a program I was very interested in, in front of five other applicants, the interviewing faculty member looked at me and said, “So, Colleen, you are what we characterize as an academic underachiever. Tell me more about all of these Cs I see on your transcript.” Humiliated and feeling like a deer in headlights, I mustered some unoriginal response that later yielded a rejection letter that began with the phrase, “We are sorry to inform you that you do not meet the caliber of students we admit to our program.” While by the grace of God I was admitted to a Master’s Program at Rutgers University (my undergraduate alma mater was kind to me), that faculty interviewer’s comments continued to echo in my mind. I made a promise to myself that although I would likely never see him again, I would prove to him that he was wrong about me. In reality, it was simply something I needed to prove to myself. From the moment I began the program, I invested every ounce of myself into reading, studying, and soaking up every research and field work experience I could get my hands on. Furthermore, when I began to cultivate my Gratitude and subsequently my Hope strengths, my Perseverance grew even more, as I believed the future held things worth working towards. My efforts earned me a 3.9 GPA and got me into a doctoral program. But most importantly, they continuously cultivated my strength of Perseverance.
If you find yourself interested in learning about your VIA character strengths, visit the website of the VIA Institute on Character. Not only do they offer the free assessment, but they have a vast repertoire of resources related to learning about and using your character strengths, including scientific research, exercises, and training courses.
Clifton StrengthsFinder Strengths
I’m sure it is clear how much I love the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Well, I feel the same about Clifton StrengthsFinder. Clifton StrengthsFinder was developed by Dr. Donald Clifton, the “Father of Strengths-Based Psychology” and former Gallup Organization Chairperson. Donald Clifton introduced the assessment in his New York Times bestselling book with Marcus Buckingham (2001), Now, Discover Your Strengths (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001), and since that time, more than 10 million people across the globe have taken the assessment. Clifton StrengthsFinder outlines 34 distinct strengths that can be applied to work and life: Achiever, Activator, Adaptability, Analytical, Arranger, Belief, Command, Communication, Competition, Connectedness, Context, Deliberative, Developer, Discipline, Empathy, Consistency, Focus, Futuristic, Harmony, Ideation, Includer, Individualization, Input, Intellection, Learner, Maximizer, Positivity, Relator, Responsibility, Restorative, Self-Assurance, Significance, Strategic, and Woo. I consistently use this assessment with my Career Coaching clients and encourage my Positive Counseling Theory & Practice students to use it as well. I have found that Clifton StrengthsFinder Strengths are amazingly useful to be aware of and leverage in work settings and I am patiently awaiting (have already pre-ordered) Strength-Based Parenting by Mary Reckmeyer (2015), co-author of How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids (Rath, Reckmeyer, & Manning, 2009) to learn more about the application of Clifton StrengthsFinder Strengths in the family. For my clients, I have found the Clifton StrengthsFinder to be critical in both helping them determine how to leverage their strengths in their current jobs or career fields, as well as determining fit of new career prospects.
I have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder and feel that my strengths are truly spot on. My top Clifton StrengthsFinder strengths are: (1) Empathy, (2) Positivity, (3) Strategic, (4) Maximizer, and (5) Achiever. My #1 StengthsFinder strength of Empathy is right in line with my VIA character strengths of Forgiveness and the Capacity to Love & Be Loved. I have always found it easy to feel with others and experience the world through their eyes. I never knew exactly what to call that experience until I was in college. During my junior and senior years of college, I worked as a Therapeutic Assistant with teens in foster care experiencing emotional difficulties. I always will say that at $8 an hour, it was the best, most transformational, and emotionally rewarding job I have ever had. I will admit however, that it was also emotionally painful in many ways. Sometimes, I had a hard time disconnecting from the things I learned about these teens’ family lives. There were times I’d just cry on my way home. At my performance review (the first of my life), my supervisor complimented by ability to “plug in” to the feelings and experiences of the teens I worked with. He also warned that while this Empathy was a gift, I would need to strengthen it and myself or it could lead to emotional burnout. I did work on it and today I find that my Empathy is simply a gift, and I have managed the potential dark side of this strength.
My #2 StengthsFinder strength of Positivity is one I have built over time, much like my VIA character strength of Hope. There were elements of it present early in life, but I believe practicing gratitude, optimism, strengths-focusing, and other positive psychology exercises has grown it to a strength today. I honestly do love to praise and compliment people, both people I know and strangers. It makes me feel good in truth, so it’s win-win. I am always on the lookout for the positive in people and situations as the strengths description indicates. And, it seems a lot of people have told me I seem to be happy and energetic at all hours of the day (those people don’t see me at home when I’m exhausted or cranky about something!). While I do get tired, stressed, and bummed out like all my fellow humans, I do tend to be high-energy and positive the majority of the time. But, this outlook took work! And, it was well worth it. I use this strength to motivate my clients, students, family, friends, and myself to always see the possibilities! Even when I write an article, text, or email, I have to go back and remove the excessive exclamation points and/or smiley face emoticons! See, two exclamations in a row for effect.
I get a big kick out of my #3 StengthsFinder strength of being Strategic, particularly because before I took the assessment, I had never considered it before. It is so spot on and I have always been doing this. The strength description indicates that those with a Strategic strength look for patterns, sort through options, and ask “What if?” questions to identify obstacles and clearings to find the most effective path to goals. I can remember in college, a friend of mine said she wanted to open her own business after she graduated. I immediately asked her questions like, “What kind of business? Have you thought about where you’d want your storefront to be? How will you reach your customers?” I began brainstorming business ideas based on her skills and considering the best types of locations to have a strong target customer base in proximity. I think I just annoyed her mostly, but I couldn’t help thinking around every corner! I use this strength in my work as a career and life coach all the time. And, I definitely use it as a business owner and as a parent.
My #4 StengthsFinder strength of being a Maximizer is another one that resonates strongly in my life and work. By description, Maximizers are fascinated by human strengths, always seeking them out in themselves and others in order to nurture them to excellence. Once again, as a coach, this my job and I couldn’t imagine a better one! Helping my clients see their own strengths on their resumes is why I love writing them. My heart warms when a client says to me, “I can’t believe I really did all that! I really have accomplished a lot and do have amazing skills!” As a parent, I love seeing my son’s unique strengths and giving him opportunities to engage and amplify them. I like letting my son know that he is great at something and showing him how he can use it in his life. And, I am not going to lie, I am patiently awaiting the day he is old enough to take the youth versions of the strengths assessments--VIA Youth Survey (ages 10 to 17) and StrengthsExplorer (ages 10 to 14). Just a few more years!
Finally, the strength I most identify with is my #5 StengthsFinder strength of being an Achiever. And, it is directly correlated with my VIA strength of Perseverance, I believe. When I read the description of Achiever for the first time, it felt like I was reading a personally customized assessment of myself. I cannot do the description justice in a paraphrase, so I will just quote it, “You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by ‘every day’ you mean every single day—workdays, weekends, vacations. No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied….After each accomplishment is reached, the fire dwindles for a moment, but very soon it rekindles itself, forcing you toward the next accomplishment.” The Achiever strength helps me get things done for my business, teaching, tasks around the house, errands, and helping my friends and family with tasks. I have been keeping a weekly “To Do List” for 15 years faithfully, and I revel in the experience of crossing things off! The negative terminology for the Achiever strength is workaholic. However, I am a true believer that if you are passionate about your work and other life roles, and feel they are your purpose or calling, they essentially become forms of play. For me, working and completing tasks are play in many ways, because I have passion and purpose in what I do. This segues perfectly into discussing passion and purpose.
Passions & Purpose: The What & The Why Behind How We Use Our Strengths
So, what is the connection between strengths, passion, and purpose? Forest, Mageau, Crevier-Braud, Bergeron, Dubreuil, & Lavigne (2012) found that using signature strengths leads to increases in harmonious passion. In essence, when people express their strengths, they are communicating a sense of who they are in a way that is personally chosen and purposeful in their lives, which leads to greater happiness.
Passion lies in what we love to do and be engaged in. When we examine the things we love to do, the activities that bring us joy, the experiences that we can lose time in, we can see our strengths at work. A great assessment of passion is Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood’s Passion Test, which evaluates what is most important to you. The accompanying book, the New York Times bestselling The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Life Purpose, outlines how you can go about achieving what is most important to you in your life.
Purpose, on the other hand, lies in the why behind what you do. Simon Sinek’s (2009) Start With Why, detailed how companies that truly understand why they do what they do are the most successful. Today, Sinek works to advise both corporations and individuals in understanding their own why. He poses the question, “Do you know your Why? The purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do what you do?” I personally consider purpose to be one in the same with a calling—the sense that God is calling you to do a certain type of work in the world, and this work is your purpose for being here, your why. In line with having a purpose to something greater, Positive Psychology focuses attention on what they refer to as living a meaningful life. In his New York Times bestselling book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman defines a meaningful life as one that utilizes your signature strengths and virtues to serve something much larger than you (2002).
Something akin to passion and purpose is the concept of flow, a term coined by Czikszentmihalyi (1990), which can also be described as “being in the zone.” Flow is a mental state in which a person engaged in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and enjoyment, and thus can lose track of time. The things that bring us an experience of flow are things we feel passionately about, that engage our sense of purpose, and that utilize our strengths.
According to the Passion Test, my top five passions lie within the broader areas of Family, Career, Productivity, Service, and Teaching. I believe that my specific passions within these areas reflect what I feel my larger purpose in life is—to help others see all the good in themselves, others, and life in order to achieve their goals, hence the title of this blog. My passions within my family lie in helping them with personal or career related needs by uncovering and helping their use their unique strengths. I do this through reminding them of what they are capable of, celebrating their abilities and achievements publically and privately, helping them with career development related tasks, and encouraging them overall. Within my family, I also try to reinforce the positive side of challenging situations. Specifically with my son, I try to teach him the concepts and practices of gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, resilience, optimism, goal-setting, relationships, and connection. In my career, my passions lie in helping my clients see their strengths through assessment, highlighting their achievements by writing their resumes, and helping them grow gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, resilience, optimism, goal-setting, relationships, and connection through one-on-one coaching and my wellness groups. My passion within teaching is to instruct my students in seeing and using their authentic selves and strengths to help those they serve as helping professionals. My passion within service is to give freely and readily to friends, family, strangers, and the larger community to help others see goodness and hope in the world. And finally, my passion within productivity lies in always using my time efficiently to maximize my ability to do something positive for my own or others’ growth and happiness. In writing about the connection of my passions with my larger purpose, I can also see each of my VIA and StrengthsFinder strengths engaged in these pursuits.
Overview of the Research on Strengths, Passion, & Purpose
Strengths, Passion, & Purpose in Youth
Quinlan, Swain, Cameron, & Vella-Brodrick (2014) conducted a study of a classroom-based character strengths program in Australia for 193 nine to 12 year-olds, in comparison with a control group. Youth were taught to recognize strengths and practiced strengths-based goal setting. At three-month follow up, youth who participated in the strengths program reported higher levels of positive emotions, classroom engagement, autonomy need satisfaction, and strengths use. They also scored higher on class cohesion and relatedness need satisfaction, and lower on class friction than the control group.
A study by Proctor, Tsukayama, Wood, Maltby, Fox Eades, & Linley (2011) of 319 adolescents ages 12-14 in the UK found that youth who participated in character strengths-based exercises within the school curriculum (called Strengths Gym) experienced considerably greater life satisfaction compared with youth who did not participate in the exercises.
Froh, Kashdan, Yurkewicz, Fan, Allen, & Glowacki (2010) conducted five studies of 2198 early and late adolescents in the U.S., ages 11 to 18. The study utilized a newly developed assessment, The Engaged Living in Youth Scale (ELYS), to examine a new construct, engaged living, which is defined as having a passion to help others and be completely absorbed in activities. Results of self, peer, and teacher reports indicated that youth who are high in engaged living tend to experience greater happiness, life satisfaction, gratitude, hope, positive emotions, and self-esteem, as well as exhibit more prosocial behavior, higher grade point averages, and less depression, envy, antisocial behaviors, and delinquency.
A study by Hill, Burrow, O'Dell, & Thornton (2010) asked 229 high school adolescents in the U.S. to define what it means to have a purpose in life. Almost all adolescents suggested that having a life purpose gives a person a foundation and direction for life, and over half of the students indicated that life purpose leads to increased happiness.
Strengths, Passion, & Purpose in College Students
Govindji and Linley (2007) studied 214 college students in the UK and found that those who know their strengths, use their strengths, and follow the directions that are right for them report higher levels of subjective well-being and psychological well-being.
A study by Linley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillett, & Biswas-Diener (2010) of 240 college students in the UK found that strengths use was correlated with goal progress, which in turn was connected with need satisfaction and well-being at both six week and 10 week follow up.
Carpentier, Mageau, & Vallerand (2012) studied 172 college students in Canada to investigate the impact of harmonious passion on well-being. Study results demonstrated that the more individuals have a harmonious passion, the more they tend to experience flow in their favorite activities, which in turn drives enhanced well-being.
A study by Bundick (2011) assessed 102 college students in the U.S to determine whether reflecting on and discussing core values, life goals, and life purpose positively impacts later purpose and life satisfaction. Results indicated that in comparison to a control group, college students who participated in guided discussion of their values, life goals, and purpose benefited in terms of their goal directedness and life satisfaction at nine-month post-test follow-up, and that life satisfaction increases were partially attributable to changes in goal directedness.
Strengths, Passion, & Purpose in Adults
Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson (2005) conducted an online study of 411 adults to assess the impacts of key positive psychology interventions, including having students use one of their top character strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. Results showed that people who used their strengths in a new and different way every day reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression at the one week and one month follow-up, and beyond.
A study by Wood, Linley, Maltby, & Hurling (2011) of 207 community members in the UK found that over a six month time period, those who used their strengths more often reported lower levels of stress at initial, three month, and six month follow up.
Vallerand, Paquet, Philippe, & Charest (2010) conducted two studies of passion, one of 597 nurses in France, and a second of 5258 nurses in Canada, over a six-month period. Results demonstrated that harmonious passion is correlated with increased work satisfaction and decreased work conﬂict with other life spheres, which in turn leads to decreases in work burnout.
An online study by Duffy, Bott, Allan, Torrey, & Dik (2012) of 201 employed adults examined the connection between perceiving a calling, living a calling, and job satisfaction. Results demonstrated that perceiving a calling and living a calling were correlated with greater career commitment, work meaning, and job satisfaction.
Strengths, Passion, & Purpose in Seniors
Ho, Yeung, & Kwok (2014) conducted a study of strengths-based positive psychology interventions with 74 seniors between the ages of 63 to 105, recruited from community centers and nursing homes in Hong Kong. Researchers offered nine weeks of group sessions with interventions covering the VIA strengths of hope/optimism, gratitude, curiosity, bravery/courage, and kindness/altruism, as well as interventions focused on savoring, happiness, and meaning in life. Results demonstrated that the intervention reduced the number of depressive symptoms and increased levels of life satisfaction, gratitude, and happiness.
A study by Collins, Sarkisian, & Winner (2009) of 54 seniors in the U.S, ages 70 to 86, examined the relationship between engaging regularly in activities that drive flow experiences and levels of positive and negative emotions, and life satisfaction over the course of a week. Results indicated that higher quality flow experiences were correlated with life satisfaction, and feeling peppy, enthusiastic, and happy, as well as decreased feelings of sadness and disappointment.
Dixon (2007) conducted a study of 167 seniors, ages 73 to 92, living in retirement communities in the U.S. The study assessed the relationship between purpose in life and overall wellbeing, including physical, emotional social/relational, spiritual, and personal/self-focused wellbeing. Results indicated that greater purpose in life was correlated with older adults having greater levels of overall wellbeing.
Stories & Advice on Strengths, Passion, & Purpose in Practice Across the World
Ros Ben-Moshe, Australia-based Founder, Coach, and Facilitator at LaughLife Wellbeing Programs, lives her strengths, passions, and purpose by advancing her clients wellbeing through laughter and helping them discover and use their VIA character strengths. Coming to live a life she loves was a journey. Ros shared with me, “For many years I worked in the corporate sector in PR, running functions and events and being another person’s written voice. I was told I was a natural, but I didn’t feel passionate nor inspired by what I did. The end result was classic burnout leading to years of ill health with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” After discovering her true strengths, one being a love of learning, Ros embarked on a new career path by enrolling in a Master of Public Health program, and also discovered laughter yoga. She immediately felt drawn to become a laughter yoga facilitator, as it allowed her to use her strengths of making people feel better through smiling and laughter. Ros subsequently founded LaughLife Wellbeing Programs, where she uses her signature MORE LAUGHTER framework: Meaning, Optimism, Relationships, Eat Well, Let go, Attitude (to gratitude), U (you are unique), Goals, Happiness, Traits (Signature Strengths), Exercise, and Random Acts of Kindness. Ros told me, “Clients are guided through a range of strategies designed to enhance wellbeing. Integral to this is the opportunity for clients to identify their own signature strengths, so they too can recraft their personal and professional lives to be in greater harmony with their true soul purpose. Initially this can feel daunting, but once people understand that this does not necessarily entail radical change, rather a shift in focus, it begins to make perfect sense. What a privilege working with people, to bring more joy, fulfillment and inspiration into their lives, and in so doing enhancing my own.”
Stacy Rowan, Pennsylvania-based Co-founder and Coach at Custom Built Life, shared with me, “Sometimes we have difficulty identifying our strengths. We are used to the way we think and the way we do things so we under-value our unique talents. If something is easy for us, we assume it is easy for everyone else too.” Stacy believes that when people are struggling to identify their strengths, they should pay attention to the compliments they receive, and ask for further clarification on what is unique about their skill in order to gain clarity on their strengths. She told me, “Often improving our strengths is easier to do than overcoming our weaknesses, so once you have identified your strengths consider ways that you can make them even better. For instance, one of my strengths is coming up with unique insights and creative ideas. After identifying this strength I started paying attention to what impacted the quality and quantity of my ideas. I discovered that when I allowed myself to have some unstructured reading time, for example by consuming an eclectic mix of online articles, this divergent learning would positively impact my idea generating abilities. Prior to this discovery I often felt bad about ‘wasting’ my time on the computer in this way. Now I realize that allowing myself some unstructured learning time is actually a good thing!” To identify unique strengths, Stacy suggests that individuals keep a journal of the compliments they receive over a 30-day period, look for patterns that indicate strengths, and write down three actions they can take to cultivate each strength. She stated, “You’ll feel better acknowledging the praise you are receiving and will build on your strengths even further!”
Kathleen Boucher, Canada-based award-winning Author of A Simple Idea to Empower Kids: Based on the Power of Love, Choice, and Belief (for kids age 8 and younger) and A Simple Idea to Empower Kids: Teen’s Edition, believes that the wisdom of our purpose lies heavily within what we love to do and what others tell us that we are great at doing. She suggests writing a paragraph about these and then condensing this paragraph into two sentences, which serves as a statement of our purpose. Kathleen shared, “My purpose is to inspire and motivate kids to follow their dreams. My father told me as I was growing up that before I die I must do something to give value to the world. In July 2013, I joined the School of Online Business run by Mike Klingler. When I initially joined I had no clue what I was going to do. I solved this problem by asking myself the question, ‘What would make me want to jump out of bed full of energy and full of passion?’ I kept asking this question each night before going to sleep, believing I would receive an answer. Within two weeks I started dreaming about writing a children’s book to empower kids.” She believes that if we ask our subconscious for guidance on how to discover your passion, and expect an answer, we will receive it, and once we receive this guidance, we must take action immediately!
Sarah Cannata, an Australia-based Freelance Writer, believes there is nothing more important than finding contentment in life, however the great challenge lies in figuring out what that truly means for you individually. Sarah shared, “You can lie to your family and friends, but you certainly cannot lie to yourself. When things are wrong or ‘not quite right’, deep down, you know. What separates people who succeed from those who live doing the same old things day-in, day-out, is the ability to recognize this gut instinct and have the courage to pursue their real dreams. There is no point wafting through life as though you’re living in someone else’s shoes. That is a life wasted.” She told me that there was a time in her life when she felt determined to climb the corporate ladder, but after having done so she realized that it didn’t make her happy. Sarah told me, “I need more than a 9am to 5pm job where I’m living the equivalent to the movie Groundhog Day. For me, unless I’m helping people and doing something that changes someone else’s life (even in a small way), there’s no point. At the end of the day, we all live, we all die but it’s what we do in-between both that counts and defines our legacy.”
Karen Chaston, Australia-based Resonator with BraveHeart Women Global Community, CEO of Alionment, and Author of A Journey to Becoming Your Own Best Friend and Beyond a Mother's Worst Nightmare, believes that we must ask ourselves, “Are we being our own best friend or our own best fiend?” She stated, “One little ‘r’ and what a huge difference especially when we consider how we talk to ourselves. A friend is a buddy, pal, companion, colleague, helper, and supporter, whereas a fiend is a bully, brute, cruel person, beast, evil person, and wrongdoer. There is so much written about bullies, yet we never really take a look at how we bully ourselves.” Karen feels that when we are able to develop higher self-esteem, the bully inside us can be silenced, allowing our buddy to assist us in becoming your own best friend, the first step towards reaching our full potential. She offers the following advice for growing our inner strengths and living a life of contentment and purpose, “Take a self-esteem inventory: Take note of who you are, write down all your strengths and weaknesses, if you can only come up with weaknesses, ask a friend to tell you all the positive things they like about you. Be willing to adjust your own self-image: Once you have had an honest look at yourself and realized there are a lot of great things about you, start working to improve the weaknesses, though more than likely you will realize that these are minor issues in your life. Stop comparing yourself to others: We are all unique and some things come more naturally to others, we should only be in competition with ourselves. The sooner you begin to truly love the person you are, and start to get your knowing and acceptance from within, the sooner you will start to be in essence.”
Georgia Foster, United Kingdom-based Hypnotherapist/Alcohol Control Specialist behind The Drink Less Mind Program and top-selling Author of several books including The Drink Less Mind and The Stress Less Mind, believes that many people struggle to develop high self-esteem and often feel a sense of not being good enough. Georgia shared, “True self-esteem is a lovely combination of being comfortable with vulnerabilities and acknowledging that life is very rarely perfect. I liken self-esteem to a language we need to learn, an emotional language that needs to be exercised in everyday life. There are two parts of the brain that are key to understanding a little bit more about feeling positive and negative thoughts. Firstly, The Inner Critic being the unhelpful part of our thinking is driven by a part of the brain called The Amygdala, which is where fear-based thoughts are stimulated and produce stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. The Inner Critic will create imaginary scenarios, just in case they happen and if you believe them to be true, you will self-sabotage. It could be that you decide not to go for that job interview because The Inner Critic thinks you will be rejected and are not good enough. There is another part of the brain called The Pre-Frontal Cortex. This part of the mind is where calm and intuition are experienced. This part of the brain produces lots of positive chemicals that stimulate logic. In order for someone to feel more calm and logical they need to train their brain to be more in The Pre-Frontal Cortex area so they can build healthier references of how to cope with life.” Georgia suggests training your brain to focus on your strengths versus your weaknesses by taking 20 minutes each day to lay down or sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and imagine something that is currently challenging you turning out to be successful. You should keep imagining positive outcomes and breathe out any negative thoughts from The Inner Critic. She shared that if you do this every day over a period of a few weeks, your mind will naturally train itself to be in the healthier and happier part of the brain.
Anuradha Kowtha, United Kingdom-based CEO and Transformation Consultant at Manifest By Design, helps her clients to embrace their life purpose, unique design, and learn how they need to show up in the world. She believes that our life purpose is often made clear to us through the challenges we face, and that once we accept our life lessons as an integral part of life and the unfolding of our purpose, we stop fighting it. Anuradha shared, “One of the most powerful lessons in life is that we manifest the situations that are most likely to help us wake up, refine our lives, and teach us the lessons that we most need. Just like the pearl from the oyster, our gifts do not show up without that proverbial grain of sand that irritates us into growth and becomes a huge part of our message later on.” She told me that negative situations in her youth, teens, and twenties shaped her and gave her the tools to teach empowerment and the courage to speak her truth. Anuradha told me, “In my own life, as I step into my purpose, not only do I attract the right people: friends, clients, family, team members and so on, but I also become content, happy, and see this same trend in my clients. Yet, as we step up and embrace our purpose to a new level and find a new level of success, our life lessons, and other negative things rear their ugly head as a reminder that we cannot become complacent.” It's simply part of the wonderful ride of life.
Bringing it All Together: 7 Exercises to Identify & Live Your Own Strengths, Passion, & Purpose
1. Assess & Read About Your VIA & StrengthsFinder Strengths: Utilize the two pioneering strengths assessments to discover your strengths, the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Character Strengths and Clifton StrengthsFinder. Then read and get familiar with their unique qualities using books such as Character Strengths & Virtues (CSV) and Now, Discover Your Strengths.
2. Further Cultivate & Leverage Your VIA & StrengthsFinder Strengths: Utilize the CSV and VIA Institute on Character’s site link, www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths/VIA-Classification, to learn about ways you can leverage your existing VIA character strengths or cultivate other strengths. Use the book, StrengthsFinder 2.0 to learn how to use your specific StrengthsFinder strengths.
3. Exercise Using Your VIA Strengths in New Ways: Check out Ryan Niemiec’s Using Strengths in New Ways Pinterest Board or use Niemiec’s Psych Central Blog article, New Ways to Happiness with Strengths, to find new ways to use your strengths. Try doing at least one of these each day or week.
4. Discover & Use Your Strengths Through the Reflected Best Self Exercise: The Reflected Best Self Exercise (Roberts, Dutton, Spreitzer, Heaphy, & Quinn, 2005) involves uncovering and using your strengths using the following steps: (1) Identify At Least 3 People Who Know You Well (from different areas of your life), (2) Ask Each to Write a Brief Story About a Time When You Were at Your Best, (3) Write 1-3 of Your Own Best Self Stories, (4) Analyze Your Best Self Stories (look for patterns and common themes and identify what strengths they indicate about you), (5) Write a Brief Reflected Best Self Portrait (a brief overview of who you are when you are at your best), (6) Identify Your Enablers & Blockers (personal, relational, or situational elements that helped or hindered you in being your best), and (7) Create an Action Plan to Use Your Strengths (how and when you will use your strengths).
5. Engage in Passion & Purpose Discovery Self-Questioning: Sit down at your computer or with a pad and write the answers to the following questions. Passion: (1) What did you love to do when you were a child? (2) What do you do in your free time? (3) What types of work-related projects do you love so much you would do them for free? (4) What were you doing the last time you were “in the zone” in a state of flow and completely lost track of time? (5) What careers or jobs do you find yourself dreaming of? Purpose: (1) What do you feel you were put on earth to do? (2) What is your greatest gift and how do you want to use it? (3) If you could fix one thing in the word, what would it be? (4) What mark do you want to make on the world while you are here? and (5) What do you want people to remember about you when you are gone? Put it all Together: Based on your answers to the previous questions, list 5 to 10 of your greatest passions, and create a 1 to 2 sentence life purpose statement: “My purpose in this world is to ____________”.
6. Create a Passion & Purpose Action Plan: After you identify your passions and purpose, create a plan for how you will use them. (1) How will you engage daily, weekly, and monthly in your specific passions and purpose? (2) What research do you need to do to start living your passions and purpose regularly? (3) What is the first thing you will do to begin expressing your passions and purpose at home, at work, in relationships, and/or in the community? (4) How can you use your strengths to engage your passions? (5) How can you use your passions to engage your purpose?
7. Create a Strengths, Passions, & Purpose Vision Board: Find and clip out quotes and pictures from magazines (or print them from online) that connect with your unique strengths, passions, and purpose. Use corkboard or poster board to create a Strengths, Passion, & Purpose Vision Board for daily inspiration.
There are numerous strategies for assessing and living your unique strengths, passions, and purpose. And, both research and those living with strengths, passions, and purpose demonstrate how doing so considerably increasing personal and professional wellbeing. I have more amazing stories and research to share in the final three upcoming pieces of this Strengths, Passions, and Purpose Series.
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