Choices come in all shapes and sizes.
What should I major in? Should I attend grad school? Should I sleep-in or go for a jog? Do I want sweetener with my coffee? What about a career change? Should I go on that blind date? What about teaching or working abroad? What should I do this weekend? Should I do an internship?
Life and careers are full of all types of decisions. Choosing where to focus your energy is the ongoing challenge, and opportunity. You can pursue educational and professional endeavors that align well with your unique talents, gifts and skills you enjoy using. You can do the opposite as well – make decisions about your near and distant future that do not align well with the energizing ingredients that make you special.
My hope is that you choose the first option mentioned above, and invest time and energy in uncovering, embracing and sharing abilities / talents / core skills / activities which come naturally to you. Yes, I’m talking about strengths here. Merriam-Webster defines [strength] … as “a strong attribute or inherent asset”. Everybody has strengths. Creative expression. Public speaking. Active listening. Singing. Working with kids. Snowboarding. Learning new technology. Risk taking. Writing short stories. Painting. Repairing car engines & using tools. Taking initiative. Blogging. These are just a few examples. Everybody has their own unique combination of abilities that are inner motivated, core to who they are as a person. Core strengths are motivated skills that are used repeatedly in early and recent experiences in which you have done well and enjoyed what you were doing. Placing significant strengths at the nucleus of your life and career decisions, leads to maximizing more of your potential. Trust me.
Strengths grow and evolve over time. Core strengths stay fairly consistent throughout our lives, even if the venue, activity or environment where the strength is used, changes. One key to making informed and strategic decisions about our futures, is to take action to recognize, embrace and market our inner-motivated strengths. American icon Barbara Cook once said, “if you’re able to be yourself, then you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to that essence.” Alternative rock band Audioslave sings, “to be yourself is all that you can do”. Good advice, now let’s get started.
The best place to look when identifying significant strengths, is to reflect upon good experiences throughout your life. Not just happy memories, but good experiences in which you did things well, you enjoyed doing them and you are proud of what you did.
Here are three questions to help you begin the process:
* What is the good experience that first comes to mind? Write a paragraph about it and try to be as detailed as you can.
* In your latest assignment, project, activity or work, which parts of it did you do best and enjoy most? Try for two or more examples.
* What activities give you the most enjoyment when you are not at work/school? These could include hobbies, volunteer work, ventures, projects with the family or anything else. Try for two or more examples.
Now that you are getting into the mindset, try to identify your top 10 good experiences. It does not matter when they occurred, but rather what you did to make the good experience happen and whether there were outcomes that you felt good about. These experiences can come from any part of your life: school, sports, employment, personal relationships, hobbies, travel, etc. Cover all parts of your life from childhood to the present. During this reflection, remember the definition of a good experience: 1) something you did well, 2) enjoyed doing and; 3) are proud of. For each of your top good experiences, write up one or two paragraphs using the STAR method, describing the Situation, the Tasks you completed, the Actions you took and the Results you felt good about. Try then to identify patterns of skills or talents which show up repeatedly in your top good experiences. Pay attention to the obvious and more subtle connections.
After you have identified a list of strengths appearing in your good experiences, take the next step to see if they are significant strengths or not. For each strength, identify three distinct examples of experiences in which you strongly applied that strength. It should be relatively easy to come up with three examples, if the strength you are testing is truly a significant strength. Try to test 6-12 strengths. I know this is not easy. This reflection is important. You can do it.
Consider making deeper examination around your strengths a priority for the near and distant future. Expand your network, conduct informational interviews and engage in conversations about strengths with others.
Many people leave decisions about life, careers and relationships up to chance. We often hope that things will just work out ok. Make decisions about your future a priority. Carve out the necessary time for these important decisions. There is so much about your life, attitude and future which is within your control. Be intentional.
Finally, try your best to shake the social conditioning we all face, of focusing on weaknesses and shying away from self promotion. When you back up what you say about yourself with evidence and examples, you are not bragging, just sharing the truth. Becoming your own-self-advocate takes time and practice. You can do it. Focus on your strengths. Build on your strengths. Incorporate insight about your strengths into career, life and academic decisions. You will end up thanking yourself in choosing that strategy.
The Career Center
University of Washington, Seattle
Senior Career Counselor
chidsey [at] uw.edu