Saturday, April 30, 2011

Strengths Finder

Do you have a language to talk about your strengths? I'm not talking about how you're a "hard worker" or "good with people." No, see, that's what everyone says. If you think about it, the traditional terms and expressions used to describe personal strengths rarely do them justice. You may be a hard worker sometimes, but aren't there times--perhaps in a spreadsheet, an email, or a whole project--when its just impossible to get started? What about "good with people"? Please--as extroverted as you might be, there are just times when your people skills fall short, whether through a lack of empathy, patience, communication skills, or leadership.

So how should we understand and talk about our strengths? And why does it matter whether or not we do?

Understanding our strengths dramatically affects everything we do.

Why? The most basic essence of our functioning in society, the bar that we measure ourselves against, the elusive, ill-defined, stress-inducing phenomenon we call success hinges on our strengths. The problem is that we--students and teachers (both which we all are at different times both in and outside of school, see 4/24 post)--don't really know how to individualize our paths or goals optimally. We want to be bankers or doctors, artists or athletes, yet what kind? What innate propensities will make us good in these fields? How should we be positioned on a team? What kinds of tasks are we most likely to regularly struggle with, as opposed to those which we will consistently perform well on?

The Clifton Strengths Finder tool is one of the most powerful modern tools to help us define ourselves. It's a little like Myers-Briggs, except that, as a framework, it more readily applies to a range of personal and professional pursuits. Whether it's goal setting, team building, cover letter writing, or critical decision making, results from Strengths Finder offer a language that reveals the common threads of success throughout a range of activities over time.  I'll let you read their marketing about how it was created and how it exactly it works; instead of going into that, allow me to share with you one of the most powerful examples of how the Strength Finder changed my path.

I first took the Strength Finder test in 2006 and learned that my strengths were: strategy, input, learner, woo and futurist. After examining the meaning of these strength patterns, I reflected on the threads of success woven throughout my past. As the trends emerged, presenting a narrative of my historical successes (and failures) suddenly had unprecedented coherence and meaning. Not only could I then apply this to teamwork and leadership situations: I could use it to market myself.

And market I did. Here is an excerpt from my Teach for America application cover letter, written in February 2007:
As a potential TFA corps member I possess a few key strengths. First is my ardent desire and capacity to learn. As evidence I graduated with departmental Honors from Haverford College and after achieving near fluency in Spanish I have recently began the independent study of Chinese. Thus the extensive new learning TFA requires not only suits my strength—it attracts me like a magnet. Secondly I have an innate ease with people. In college I played important behind-the-scenes and leadership roles on committees, all which led to successful organizational re-structuring, fundraising and event planning. I have also navigated foreign cultures far beyond the range of a tourist, having visited 20 foreign countries and worked or studied in five. My ease with people will allow me to effectively work with parents, students, co-workers and superiors. I am also disciplined, seek innovative solutions and set high standards, all strengths that have brought me success academically and in my extra-curricular endeavors. Finally I have a unique contextual background of travel, education and volunteer service that help me understand the cycle of poverty and the complexity of pedagogical and human development questions.
In this portion of the letter, you will see that I didn't exclusively focus on the strengths highlighted from my 2006 test results. However, I do have a coherent framework for organizing my past successes not around categories like "education" and "work experience" or vague skills like "technology" or "detail-oriented." Instead, a unique constellation of personality traits that can support success in various settings emerges with the results of the Strengths Finder. You'll notice above the "learner" and "input" traits (a skill and desire to learn combined with an ability to take in lots of information) mixed with some "woo" (I like to meet new and different people), and a dabbling of "strategy." I held off on "futurist."

After joining Teach for America, I continued to refer back to my Strengths Finder results to decide what projects to take on or leave aside and how to position myself on a team. I've also used Strengths Finder to clarify my leadership style and envision my career path; I'd venture to say that I'd be much less secure in both without the language from Clifton.

While it may not be cutting edge brain science, there is an abundance of research that recommends this process. From my personal experience, I do too.

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