Myth-busting: strengths are defined by your performance

One of the most common myths I bust in my work with strengths is how they are defined. The first and biggest myth of strengths is that they are defined only by your performance and results.

Most of us have grown up being rewarded for what we are really good at, at school, home, and work. So we, and those around us, typically defined our strengths as “what I’m really good at”.

But not many of us were asked to consider how we felt about the things we were really good at. That made us vulnerable to disengagement and burnout, because we can get stuck doing the things we’re great at but dislike. And you can’t be at your best when you’re feeling drained, disengaged, and de-energised.

Strengths, re-defined

We are often reluctant to admit that we don’t like doing something we’re good at. We’ve been conditioned to think that if something is fun or enjoyable, it’s not “real work” and is therefore of less value. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we increase our potential for wellbeing, productivity, and engagement when we spend time doing what we both love and are great at.

I call the things that you’re good at but don’t enjoy “competencies” or “skills”; they aren’t true strengths – what I call “Genius strengths” (1). 

A true Genius strength is something that you perform well at and you enjoy the process of using.

The Strengths Deck Matrix

In The Strengths Deck approach, we work with five zones on The Strengths Deck Matrix. It has two axes: Performance, and Preference. Performance is the bit we’re used to thinking of as strengths – “I do this really well”. 

Preference is the bit we’re less familiar with – “I really enjoy doing this”. Most of my clients find this harder to define for themselves initially. They don’t often think about it, and most of our reward and appraisal systems deal only with performance. So it takes a bit of time to calibrate how much they enjoy something for its own sake, rather than the rewards and outcomes they get from doing it.

Apply it for yourself

Think of three to four things that you are really good at doing. They might be a core part of your job, or they might be a hobby, or something you do for your friends, family, or community.

Now, rank them in order of how much you enjoy doing them. Do you feel energised and engaged while you do them? Do you feel like your best self? Do you find yourself in flow? (2) Do you feel like you could do them all day without getting  really tired? Do you find it easier to do them than other people?

The more you enjoy something, and find it easy and “natural”, the more likely it is that you are working with your Genius strengths. If you are great at it but don’t enjoy it, we’re talking about Reputation (3) strengths. Too long spent working with your Reputation strengths can leave you feeling drained and depleted. And over time, if you’re not refilling your cup by using your Genius strengths, you can end up edging towards burnout.

Want to know more?

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(1) The name comes from the area of The Strengths Deck matrix called ‘the Zone of Genius’

(2) ‘Flow’ is a state of deep absorption in what you are doing, to the point that you lose sense of time passing. Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi literally wrote the book on it (Amazon, Goodreads)

(3) Reputation strengths: “I’m great at this but really don’t enjoy doing it”

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