Understanding your unique strengths is an important step in the journey
to figuring out what kind of work lights you up.
Back when I was miserable in my string of corporate jobs and unsure what to do instead, I was at a loss when it came to figuring out what made me unique. I had invested so much energy for so many years learning how to be good at the work I thought I should do that I had no idea what I was uniquely good at or what energized me.
There are a few reasons why it can sometimes feel hard to identify our own unique gifts. First, we tend to assume that whatever comes easily to us comes easily to everyone. We sell ourselves short.
In addition, most of us are conditioned at a young age to focus on our flaws and how to fix them rather than appreciating what we’re good at. It can feel uncomfortable to give yourself credit for what you’re uniquely good at. Or, you might be so conditioned to look for weaknesses that you don’t even see the strengths.
There’s nothing like looking for a new job to make you focus on all the qualities and skills you don’t have.
And finally, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s a strength you want to build on. Research on strengths differentiates between a skill, which is something you’re good at, and a strength, which is something you’re not only good at but something that energizes you when you do it.
For example, after years of working in corporate strategy I got really good at writing Powerpoint decks. Did I feel energized after working on one? Uhhhhhh, no. Not at all. In contrast, connecting with people one on one and really getting to know and understand them makes me feel alive.
As you work to uncover your own unique strengths, here are four tips to help you identify them:
1) Ask other people to tell you what they think you’re good at.
Asking the people closest to us what they think we’re uniquely good at can be really eye opening. It can also be eye opening to hear their perspective on what makes us happy or energizes us. Be sure to apply your own filter to the input you receive, because sometimes the people closest to us can have a vested interest in what they think we should do.
Given that caveat, think of at least three trusted people who know you well and ask them:
When I’m at my happiest or my best, what kinds of things am I doing?
What do you think I do uniquely well?
How do I inspire you?
What seems to come easier to me than to most people?
Look for patterns. What rings true? What surprises you?
2) Connect with your inner child.
You’ve probably heard this one before. The reason it’s a cliché is because looking back at your childhood really does help you uncover valuable insights about yourself.
Think back to when you were a child and what you loved to do. What was most fun to you when you were 5? 8? 12? What did you spend hours doing? What was it about those activities that made them so fun? Was it using your imagination, planning, connecting with others, being a leader, creating a sense of adventure, being creative?
See if you can identify some of the “transferrable” strengths (so to speak) from those childhood activities.
3) Pay attention to when you feel the “flow.”
One way to uncover your unique strengths is to identify what activities are so engaging to you that you lose a sense of time or feel like you could do them forever. This was always a tough one for me. I had a hard time coming up with anything where I really lost sense of time or could do it forever.
So another way to think about it is just be aware of when you feel a sense of flow—that feeling of being in the groove, or so engaged in what you’re doing that it feels almost effortless, or you feel a pull towards wanting to keep doing it because it gives you a natural high. Identifying which activities are ones where you can tap into this feeling of “flow” is a way to uncover your strengths.
4) Give yourself some space.
Identifying what makes you unique is a process, and it’s one that can take time, especially if you’ve spent years doing what you thought you “should” do rather than what truly makes you happy.
Give yourself some time and space to uncover your strengths and make it a daily practice. For the next two weeks, carry a journal and pen with you and set an alarm on your computer or your phone for a few times a day. When the alarm goes off, stop and jot down your response to these questions:
What have I done so far today that came easily to me and/or gave me energy?
What activities have felt most draining today?
Notice what patterns you start to see and what you learn about the activities that give you energy vs. those that drain you.
You’ve got this!
Julie Houghton is the mom to two girls and a life and career coach who specializes in helping women find the courage to do work they love. This post previously appeared at Maybrooks.