Most people haven’t taken the time to dig down into what they’re really great at — or what they have the potential to be great at.
But not you — if you’re reading this you’re not most people. You’re already ahead of the game because you’re (obviously) interested in finding out!
In this section, we’ll dive deep into how to figure out exactly what your signature strengths are.
Download the whole guide as a PDF
We’ve talked about how your signature strengths aren’t just skills like, “I’m really good with Excel.”
There’s more to it: It’s that intersection of things you’re really, really good at with things you really, really love — combined with your experiences, disposition, and a few shakes of both nature and nurture. 🙂
“Signature Strengths are your unique combination of experiences, skills, knowledge and even the way you’re wired. It’s the stuff that makes you, you”
Often when you drill down to your signature strengths, these are the things you can’t stop doing if you tried, you can’t help it. Many times they come easy to you because you enjoy them and also you don’t recognize them because you don’t think that they’re that big of a deal.
Right now, you might be thinking:
“Okay, Scott. I get what signature strengths are. But if it’s something that’s really easy for me and something I enjoy, how can it possibly be valuable? How will anyone pay me for it?”
We’ll dive deep into this in Parts 3 and 4, but I want to address it now so you can concentrate. 🙂
It’s natural to think that if something is easy for you, it is easy for everyone else, too… but that’s simply not the case.
Think of an athlete like quarterback Tom Brady or Olympic gymnast Simone Biles — they can do amazing things with their bodies, like throw a football 50 yards with amazing accuracy or do a back handspring dismount off a 4-inch-wide beam set 4 feet off the floor. Why? Because they have the experiences that are natural activities for them. It's so easy they don’t even think about it.
But very, very few people can perform those feats. And as a result, they are compensated very well for them.
You may not throw a touchdown pass or win a gold medal, but you still have “natural as breathing” activities that contribute to your signature strengths. And the fact that these ARE so easy for you makes them huge clues to what your signature strengths are!
But don’t get too far ahead of yourself. I’m going to ask you to work through a series of exercises looking at your past, present and future, and then we’re going to look at patterns and themes among the answers.
This is where you really need to trust the process. Any one exercise in and of itself is not going to generate a neon arrow with letters reading, “Your Signature Strengths Here!”
Instead, you’ll start seeing patterns and themes emerge, which will then give you connections between dots that maybe you had before, but you didn’t know how to connect. And just like a dot-to-dot worksheet from your childhood, a picture will slowly emerge.
LOOK TO THE PAST
Exercise: Job Inventory
Here’s an easy exercise to get you warmed up. Take out a piece of paper or open a Word doc or Google doc on your computer.
Start by listing out all your past jobs and roles on the paper
Then, underneath each one, do three things:
- First, list out the things you enjoyed in each of those roles, even if you hated the job. There’s always something small like, “I loved goofing around with everyone when we were on our break,” or “I really loved learning how to use the CAD/CAM program.” Nothing is too small to add!
- Next, go through the list of jobs and add a column for which things in each role that you’d consider yourself pretty good at. It could be answering customer complaints, or staying calm while everyone else got more and more stressed as deadlines approached. Again, don’t pre-judge which things “matter” and which ones don’t. Just list them all.
- Finally, go through your lists and circle the skills and elements that contributed to success in other positions or roles in your life. For instance, learning how create a budget in one job may have helped you run a successful program in another position. Look for connections and patterns. They’re there.
Review your lists.
Circle any patterns or themes you see recurring.
If nothing jumps out yet, don’t worry! It will. 🙂
LOOK TO THE PRESENT
Exercise: Passions Inventory
So I have some questions for you to answer to get you started!
1. What do I love enough to do for free?
2. What do I do that causes time to feel differently? What causes me to lose track of time?
3. If I had to teach something, what would I teach?
4. What do people typically ask me for help in?
5. What do you get complimented for?
6. What do you find you can’t stop doing? (Mentally rearranging the furniture in other people’s homes, dissecting Super Bowl commercials to see which ones are most effective and why, organizing the gum and candy in the checkout line at the supermarket, reading books and writing short reviews for your friends…?)
Exercise: Ask for input
The most direct way to get input is to ask for it — directly!
Reach out to five of your closest colleagues and friends to ask them to weigh in on your strengths and what they see that’s unique about you.
If you aren’t sure how to phrase your request — and most of us are really bad at asking for this kind of feedback! — you can get a copy-and-paste template straight from our Career Change Bootcamp.
Exercise: Five Whys
Jason was having difficulty defining his signature strengths. He said, “I know I’m good with people, and that people trust me, but I don’t know how that relates to my strengths.” I led him through an exercise called “The Five Whys,” which helps get to the heart of a situation or topic.
This is a great exercise to use in combination with some of the discoveries you’ve made in the previous questions, to determine the root of the signature strength.
The best way to describe it is to just show you how it works:
For instance, Jason mentioned in one of our sessions that he can’t help but get into deep conversations with people he’s just met — from the person sitting next to him on the airplane to a dad on the sidelines at their daughters’ soccer games. “They always say, ‘I don’t think I ever told anyone this before!’ I guess you’d say that I’m good with people.”
Jason: “I’m good with people.”
Scott: “Why? What does that mean?” ← “Why” #1
Jason: “I think it’s because I’m willing to have tough or uncomfortable conversations with them.”
Scott: “Why?” ← “Why” #2
Jason: “I think it’s because it doesn’t make me uncomfortable the way it does with other people.”
Scott: “Why?” ← “Why” #3
Jason: “I’d say it’s because we have an established level of trust that comes pretty fast.”
Scott: “Why?” ← “Why” #4
Jason: “Hmmm… I think it’s that I really listen to them, and I’m genuinely interested in them and curious about what they care about.”
Scott: “Why?” ← “Why” #5
Jason: “I guess I’ve always thought that everyone has a story to tell, and I want to hear their story and what matters to them. So I ask those questions that get at the core of who they are.”
You can see how we could keep going here. There’s no secret about Five Whys versus Six Whys or Seven Whys. Just keep going until you feel like you’ve gotten to the core. For Jason, five whys was enough for me to see that his signature strength — something he does better than almost anyone else — is creating strong connections with others so that there’s an immediate connection and feeling of trust.
Note: We’ll talk more about how these signature strengths relate to your career, but I bet you can begin to see how creating a feeling of trust would be very valuable in a number of fields, from medicine to hospitality to the financial world… It’s something that Jason can use to set him apart from others in his field, whatever that field is.
To get where you really want to go, you will need to practice pushing beyond these self limitations and self-imposed barriers.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE:
Exercise: Wildest Dreams
When you start thinking about what you want, typically what goes on in your head is your brain automatically filters out possibilities before you even really consider them. Your brain says to you “That’s not realistic so don’t consider it!” or “That seems unreasonable, don’t put that down.”
As a result, you are capable of so much more than you let yourself believe, because the really great ideas, the really great careers and the really great life is filtered out as “unrealistic” or “unachievable” almost as quickly as they come in!
You’ve probably heard the motivational question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I want you to take a different spin on this. By letting yourself dream your wildest dreams, you can get a hint at what really gets your passion fires burning — and we’ve already determined that your signature strengths lie at the intersection of your passions with things you’re good at.
So here’s your assignment:
List JUST 3 THINGS that you want to do, that seem wildly unrealistic.
Let’s define “wildly unrealistic”: Things that you have no idea how you’ll accomplish them and you know the folks at your job would laugh at if they knew you wanted to do.
At least three (more if you’re so inclined!)…and make sure that they are occupations, jobs, or even gigs that you want to do that seem out of reach. Put them down on paper or write them in the comments here.
Don’t filter, Don’t qualify, Don’t censor…. just put your three things down.
Here are some ideas to get you going:
- What you wanted to do as a kid (and are still a little fascinated with)
- Something you read about in an article, blog post, magazine or someplace else where you thought to yourself “how great would that be”
- What is that one thing you like doing for a hobby that you have previously thought “I could never earn any money doing this”
- You have recently seen something glamorous and had judgemental thoughts about that person and their occupation, but when you thought more you realized there was just a tinge of “I wish I could do that”
- Something you have always had curiosity about
Remember, everything you write down will seem unrealistic until you actually do it…write it down anyway!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now you’re probably staring at a stack of what seems to be disparate information — the first job you had as a fast food worker when you were 17, a list of books you love to read and re-read, printouts of emails from your college roommate and your co-worker from three companies ago… And you’re probably wondering what to do with it!
This is the fun part. 🙂
You get to play detective.
Pretend you don’t know the person that all this information relates to. You are a criminalist with the FBI, and your job is to create a profile of this “unknown subject.” You need to sort through all these clues and develop a sense of who they are and what’s unique about them.
- You’re looking for PATTERNS
- You’re looking for REPETITION
- You’re looking for CONNECTIONS
Do you see that all of your “best days ever” were spent out in nature?
Did you discover that you’ve always been complimented on your ability to remain calm in stressful situations?
Did something in your brain click when you saw that you’ve always been a natural teacher?
Sometimes we’re so close to the subject that we can’t see the forest for the trees.
That’s when it can be really helpful to have a supportive colleague or coach sift through the information with you to look for those hidden gems and connections. You might not be able to see that your love of hosting themed dinner parties is connected to the compliments you always receive on being a good listener — but an objective third party might note that they’re both rooted in your ability to connect with others and make them feel comfortable.
Whether you’re working on your own or with a “support person,” jot down your discoveries… and remember, there is no right or wrong, there are no minimum or maximum numbers of signature strengths. When it comes to self-discovery, often we have to test our findings to see if they are accurate or need more refinement.
You also may want to take some of the assessments mentioned in the Resource section to further your understanding of your unique characteristics and strengths.
Just remember: It’s all good as long as you keep moving in the right direction.