Monthly Archives: November 2012

Do what comes naturally: myths & pitfalls

Strengths-based development has been touted by the Gallup consulting firm for more than a decade.

Through their best selling books, Now, Discover Your Strengths and Strength Finder 2.0, Gallup authors advocate building your strengths instead of fixing your weaknesses.

The related Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment tool, helps you uncover your talents (natural patterns of thoughts, feelings and behavior) and identify your top five of 34 talent themes (e.g. Achiever, Adaptability, Communication, Empathy, Responsibility).

The strengths-based approach is rooted in positive psychology: Do what you do best. Focus on what you’re good at. Play to your strengths. Praise positives rather than punish negatives. Take more time developing your talents and spend less time overcoming your flaws.

Capitalizing on your strengths is an effective path to maximizing your potential and achieving extraordinary success. You also enjoy your work more when it allows you to leverage your talents, knowledge and skills.

But there are myths and pitfalls to watch out for:

1. The strengths-based approach does not excuse you from addressing your weaknesses.

In Strengths Finder, strengths are loosely defined as “consistent near perfect performance in any activity.” Weaknesses are “anything that gets in the way of excellent performance.”

Because weaknesses can create problems for you and others, you can’t ignore them. Weaknesses have a stronger hold on you if you don’t work to improve them.

As a budding pianist, I prefer to practice playing the notes by ear instead of reading the sheet music The sooner I learn to play a piece by heart, the happier I am. But as much as I dislike reading music, I take a stab at it anyway. It’s integral to my appreciation of music and my growth as a pianist.

Awareness of your weaknesses helps you avoid blind spots. You can choose to improve your deficiencies or surround yourself with others who have complimentary gifts and talents.

2. Playing to your strengths is not always possible.  

Being a top performer often requires you to do what doesn’t come naturally. Taking on more responsibilities might demand that you learn new skills irrespective of your natural talents.

Your strengths might not be what your organization, your team, or the world needs now. In complex, uncertain or changing environments, versatility and flexibility matter.

3. Strengths can become liabilities when they are overused or when they are used at the wrong time or in the wrong way.

Whether a natural tendency (or innate ability) is a strength or weakness depends on how and when you use it.

While being direct encourages open communication, it can backfire in a situation that calls for greater tact and more empathy. Being too action-oriented can lead to impatience, poor decisions, a judgmental attitude, and extreme competitiveness.

4. A focus on strengths can limit your growth.

What you think is a weakness could simply be an unknown potential or untapped ability. If you focus too much on your strengths, your learning and development will stagnate, says Robert B. Kaiser, author of The Perils of Accentuating the Positive.

Talent can also be developed with time, effort and tenacity. As Carol Dweck notes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, it’s not just your aptitudes and abilities that create success. Whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset plays a huge part as well.

With a fixed mindset, you believe that ability and talent are fixed capacities that primarily determine outcomes. With a growth mindset, you believe that ability and talent can be cultivated through growth-oriented activities that largely determine outcomes.

While not everyone has the capacity to be Einstein or Beethoven, it’s hard to know your true potential until you apply yourself and get some experience.

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Affirming your talents and leveraging your strengths are keys to long-term success and lasting fulfillment. By all means, switch to a new role if your current one doesn’t fit and wears you down.

But to truly reap the benefits of a strengths-based approach, you need to watch out for the myths and pitfalls.


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Photo by: Ed Yourdon

Choose experiences over possessions

After Thanksgiving comes Black Friday. This is when retailers break out their doorbuster sales and early bird specials to kick off the start of the Christmas shopping season.

This year, retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys “R” Us are getting a head start by opening their stores and offering mega-deals on Thanksgiving night.

Gray Thursday (or Black Friday Creep) is sparking employee protests, rallies and strikes. Some aren’t happy about working on the federal holiday. The stores say they’re just giving their customers what they want.

As Black Friday creeps into Thanksgiving, ask yourself whether more stuff and more shopping hours are really what you want.

Will upgrading to a new iPad make you that much cooler? Will switching from a 46” to a 58” flat screen turn a crappy movie into an enjoyable one? Is buying stuff for your loved ones the only way to show you care about them? Is exchanging material items the most meaningful way to celebrate Christmas? Is paving over open land, woods and forests to make room for more shopping malls worth the sacrifice?

In our consumer culture, we buy and buy to fill our lives with material possessions. But after the thrill of the purchase (and receipt) wears off, what we are often left with is clutter.

Yes, some material items get used, shared and cherished. But many don’t. Many just take up space. Many merely gather dust. Many get buried in the back of our cupboards. Many remain in the nook and cranny of our closets. Many get crammed into our garage. Many are taken to off-site, self-storage facilities.

My friend and colleague, Taran, recently asked me to name my biggest expense outside of necessities (e.g. food and housing). He threw out “shoes” as an example. I cracked up because I couldn’t remember the last time I bought a new pair of shoes. I tend to spend my disposable income on life experiences: e.g., my weekly piano lessons, travel, and meals at restaurants.

When Michael and I married, we couldn’t name a single material item that we wanted as a wedding gift. My in-laws thoughtfully suggested we set up a wedding registry, but we never got around to it. My parents gave us mula, which we deposited in a joint account and have yet to use. Except for one lovely vase that sits on a bookshelf, the gifts we received from family and friends came in the form of love, good wishes, shared meals, and a few visa cards (which we have yet to use).

Having less stuff means fewer garage sales, Craig’s List postings, and trips to Goodwill. It can also make way for a richer, more meaningful, and less stressful life.

Assuming your basic needs are met, studies show that surplus income is better spent on experiences (such as concert tickets, a weekend get-away, restaurant meals, a spa treatment, or a cooking class) than on material possessions. Many experiences are also free or almost free, including a bike ride in the park, a walk around the lake, or whipping up a hearty meal at home.

In a 2005 study, psychologist Leaf Van Boven found that experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation, are less subject to social comparison, and have more social value because they help us strengthen relationships.

Here are a few ways to cut down on material possessions and have more meaningful experiences

Declutter. Get rid of stuff that clutters your space and adds little value to your life. Sell it. Trash it. Donate it.

Focus on essentials that are less fleeting, such  as your relationships, personal fulfillment, and passions.

If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you want to have happen between now and then? Work on making that happen. How would you come to peace with whatever’s troubling you? Come to that place of acceptance.

When you invest in an experience, be fully engaged in it.  If you’re doing it just to check it off your to-experience list or to boast about it, it will be less satisfying.

When you’re traveling, soak up the environment and culture, instead of obsess about which site to visit next.

Don’t get so caught up with documenting the moment (through photos, video, etc.) that you miss out on the moment itself. The memories will remain with you when you are fully present.

Boycott Black Friday and Gray Thursday/Black Friday Creep. Many Wal-Mart, Target and Toys “R” Us employees will thank you for this. Instead of shopping and scrounging for deals, spend the break sharing conversations and meals with your family and friends.  Give them your support and attention. Start or finish a project that’s meaningful to you.

If you celebrate Christmas and want to share gifts, let them be gifts of experience. And choose wisely. Stay away from giving classical concert tickets to someone who’s into rock. Studies show that bad experiences can leave a longer lasting negative mark than unwanted material items.

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Of course, our modern world would implode if no one bought stuff. Some consumerism is healthy. But buying beyond your means, acquiring stuff to make up for lack of purpose, and contributing to unnecessary waste can take a huge toll.


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Photo by: Just.luc

Get unplugged: Make technology work for you

Creative breakthroughs tend to arise when you’re relaxed and being in the moment.

Great ideas often surface when you’re in the shower, just waking up, or on a nature walk.

Mindful communication occurs when you give others your undivided attention.

But in this modern age of technology, real downtime, reflection, and genuine connections are becoming less common.While digital devices come in handy, they also create new challenges and consequences. Information overload makes us less attentive and more impatient.

Need a quick answer? Google it. Getting bored in a meeting? Check your cell phone messages. Waiting in line? Send out a text. Want to seem productive? Update your Facebook page or post a tweet. Stuck in traffic? Listen to a podcast. Feeling out of the loop? Respond to emails or browse the web.

When you’re perpetually plugged in, your attention becomes fragmented. Although you have limitless exposure to stimuli, your brain can process only so much. Raw knowledge supersedes true wisdom. Meaningful conversations get sacrificed for superficial texting and messaging.

Addiction to technology creates an insatiable desire for instant gratification and a strong aversion to the unknown. It can harm your productivity, creativity and ability to concentrate. It can also chip away at your empathetic, listening and conversational skills.

Here are tips to make technology work for you instead of run you:

Disconnect completely.   

Don’t use technology to fill in every moment of quiet time. Power off. Shut down. Unplug.

When you go for a run, leave the iPod at home. When you’re driving, turn off the background music. When you’re vacationing, don’t take your laptop to the beach. Engage fully in activities, instead of texting, emailing, tweeting and fidgeting with your device during the parts that don’t interest you.

Resisting the temptation to plug in isn’t easy.  During wait times, I used to sit, reflect and embrace the space. Some of my best insights would arise in these quiet moments. But these days, I occupy my wait times by reading books on my Kindle and checking my smartphone. These digital devices are like security blankets. I wonder how I would feel if I no longer had them.

As author Jane Vincent states in Thumb Culture, we are emotionally attached to our cell phone and use it to achieve emotional goals. We experience panic when we are separated from it. We get a thrill and a feeling of “being cool” when we use it.

Getting new information also brings a shot of dopamine, which fuels our online addiction, as author Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. But facing withdrawal symptoms are part of overcoming any addiction. Be with the discomfort and allow it to pass.

Plus, you don’t have to unplug indefinitely to reap benefits. It could just be for an hour, an afternoon, a day or a weekend.

Log on and tune in with purpose.

Set a specific intent before you power up your device. Refrain from surfing the web and checking your emails on impulse. Decide what you’re really looking for before you log on. Set time aside to read and process your emails. Avoid sporadic checking that takes you away from your real work. Don’t react to every ping you hear.

Keep a log.

Record how much time you spend browsing websites, emailing, texting, tweeting and checking Facebook. Do this for a week to assess the level of your addiction to technology. Then brainstorm ways to make better use of your time.

Meet your friends in person. Pursue a challenging hobby that helps you grow and adds value to your life.  Start a long-term project that you’ve been ignoring. Block out external stimuli and tune in to your own thoughts.

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By getting unplugged, you learn how to use technology so it works for you instead of runs you. Overcoming your online addiction enables you to savor quiet time, filter and process stimuli, and create and sustain real connections.


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Photo by: winterofdiscontent