Understanding Strengths: What is What?

Understanding Strengths: What is What?

When speaking about strengths, it has the potential to cause confusion. When asked what your strengths are, some might answer with what their values are, what their talents are or their skills. Then how do these things differ from another?

I could throw around with terms and definitions and I will do that, but not now. I always like to have a good example which illustrates the point because it makes it easier for my brain to remember it. So here comes a short example which will highlight all the different terms that are related with strengths.

I used to play soccer. When I was younger, I was quite good at it. The reason I like the game is because it is a team effort and you can be creative and see progress quickly when training hard. It is also a tactical game and I like this strategic element. What made me a good soccer player you might ask? I was rather quick, I could use both of my legs to play a decent ball, I was good playing together with my teammates, and I was the go-to-guy when it came to corners and most free kicks. But this looked differently when I started playing. In my beginning birds and what happened outside of the pitch was far more interesting. But the reason I became good was that I put in a lot of effort. I remember taking my soccer ball everywhere and I can also remember hours of juggling while camping with my parents or running in the forest to increase my stamina. The other reason why I became a good player were the countless trainer and teammates I experienced over the years. Without their knowledge and help and the challenges they provided I would never have reached this level. But not everything was nice and great all the time. When you play at higher levels, people start to compete not only on the pitch but off the pitch too. They blame other for their mistakes, form groups and let people know if they don’t belong. Sometimes, you cannot really speak your mind in fear of being punished by the trainer or your teammates. This, at times didn’t feel fair to me. Still, I look back and I know how many important life lessons I learned during this time.

Okay, I hope you liked this story from my past. And now, let’s dig into the different terms. The first one is Talent. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as, “(someone who has) a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught”. I’d like to argue with that definition. Yes, there are child prodigies who can play piano or do other fantastic things, but even they had to learn it somehow. Except from this one story when a person was hit by a baseball and then he was able to play the piano (hmm or was it speaking French?), I don’t know anyone who just enters the world and is exceptionally good at one thing. But I am open to being convinced otherwise =). In my story, my talent was being good at soccer. So if you ask someone about her/his strengths, and they answer with “I am good at xyz” they don’t tell you their strengths but their talent.

The second term is Interests (also known as Passions). Again, Cambridge dictionary describes it as, “the feeling of wanting to give your attention to something or of wanting to be involved with and to discover more about something”. We might choose our interests based on our strengths. If I am really good at critical thinking and strategizing, I might feel a natural call toward things such as chess. In the example above, my interests can be seen in those two sentences, “The reason I like the game is because it is a team effort and you can be creative and see progress quickly when training hard. It is also a tactical game and I like this strategic element”. It will become more obvious when I explain the strengths in this example.

The next term that can be found in the example is Skills. Cambridge dictionary defines it as, “an ability to do an activity or job well, especially because you have practised it”. The emphasis lies on practised. In the example, I wrote that, “I was rather quick, I could use both of my legs to play a decent ball, I was good playing together with my teammates, and I was the go-to-guy when it came to corners and most free kicks”. However, I also stated that I needed to put a lot of effort into it to develop those abilities. Often, our strengths, especially our Signature Strengths are a driver for us to acquire a certain skill. To me, skills and strengths can be hard to distinguish because it is also possible to train a certain strength. Then why is it important to distinguish both? When we speak about strengths and ways how we can help people to use more of their strengths during the days, we aim at acknowledging their core, who they truly are. It is closer related with the term flourishing. If we would just focus on developing skills, we would miss a wonderful opportunity to help people figuring out who they truly are and what they want to do in live. And this has an enormous potential. Not just for the person.

The next important term is Resources. Here the definition again, “a useful or valuable possession or quality of a country, organization, or person”. In my example, resources were all the trainer and teammates who helped me to develop. Resources can also be financial or a stable and supportive family. This is the only external strengths category. Still, building and maintaining our resources demands the use of our strengths.

A term that is also heavily interconnected with our Signature Strengths is Values. By definition, values are, “the principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong, and how to act in various situations”. You can also say that values are something we internally hold dear. Values are often unconscious but still affect our decisions. For example, if you want to do something but you still cannot start doing it, it can be an indicator that some of your values are in conflict with each other. Or when you are moved to tears, be it from joy or sadness, this can also be hinting at your values. In my example, my values become clear when I talk about the unfair treatment and that I could not always be honest. In general, it might also make sense to explore your values, besides your strengths. However, a word of warning. If you know your values and you don’t or cannot live by them, you are worse off then not knowing about them at all. I wrote about it in past blog articles and I will come back to that when I write about finding meaning in our lives again.

Phew… That were a lot of terms, but we made it to the term Strengths. To be more precise Character Strengths. The VIA Institute defines Character Strengths as, “positive traits – capacities humans have for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit oneself and others. Specifically, they are the psychological ingredients for displaying virtues or human goodness. VIA views each person as having a capacity for expressing any of the 24 character strengths in the VIA Classification. Some strengths are easier and more natural for the individual to express (e.g., signature strengths), other strengths arise in particular situations where they are needed (phasic strengths), and other strengths are expressed to a lesser degree or lesser frequency (lesser strengths)”.

They further give a list of what character strengths are which I want to share with you:

  • Character strengths have individual differences. Each is distinct from one another.
  • Character strengths are plural, meaning they interact and influence each other.
  • Character strengths are generally stable, but they can change over time. Character strengths are shaped by context. They do not operate in isolation from settings, proximal and distal, in which people are found.
  • Character strengths are within people and people are within settings. Settings cannot fall to the background when focusing on character strengths.

Because I wrote a lot about Signature Strengths, I also want to elaborate on those and why they are so important to me. In Ryan M. Niemiec’s book called Character Strengths Interventions, he defines them as,

“those character strengths that are most central to who the person is and that best capture their uniqueness or essence. They also are likely to be more energizing to use and more natural to express than the other strengths in the person’s profile”.

If you want to find your signature strengths, look out for the following:

  • Sense of ownership and authenticity; “this is the real me”
  • Consistent, wide use across life domains and situations
  • Feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
  • Easy and natural to use – a rapid learning curve
  • Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
  • A yearning to act in accordance with the strength
  • A feeling of inevitability in using the strength, as if one cannot be stopped
  • Feeling energized, rather than exhausted in using it
  • A creation and pursuit of fundamental projects that revolve around it
  • Intrinsic motivation to use the strength

And now back to the example. I demonstrated a variety of character and signature strengths. I was determined and I persevered to become a better player. I used my strength of love of learning to learn from others and therefore grow. I used my strengths of teamwork to achieve the best possible outcome with my team. Furthermore, I used my strengths of creativity to find solutions on the pitch. Maybe you can find some more =).

I want to close with another quote from Ryan M. Niemiec. He wrote that,

“In summary, talents can be squandered, resources can be quickly lost, interests wane and change, skills diminish over time, but when all seems completely lost, we still have our character strengths”.

Have a wonderful day and take care, Stephan

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