We all have strengths–activities that drive us and energize us. They leave us wanting more, and we think about them long after we’re done. Our strengths can form an integral part of how we work, and we do our best when we focus our work around them. Unfortunately, many people never put any thought into shaping their work around their strengths.
This doesn’t have to be the case. I recently came to the realization that I wasn’t using as many of my strengths in my work as I wanted. Up to that point, I hadn’t really figured out how my strengths could play into my job.
After a few months of feeling uneasy about this, I decided to fix it. My journey toward making my strengths a part of my work is far from complete. Along the way, though, I’ve discovered five main ideas that have helped me make significant progress (and that can help you get started, too).
1. Figure Out What Your Strengths Actually Are
If you ask people to name things they’re good at, most of the responses will involve hobbies or general activities like woodworking or biking. While hobbies often involve strengths, they aren’t strengths themselves.
Strengths are the specific actions and activities that most naturally align with you–the areas where you’re most naturally proficient. We have an intuitive understanding of our strengths, and we tend to improve at these skills quickly and easily. For example, if woodworking is one of your favorite hobbies, one of your strengths might be the ability to make sure all the small details of a project are correct.
It’s those actions—the ones that constitute our strengths—that we need to consider. One way to do this is to think of your favorite hobbies, your favorite interactions, or a recent accomplishment at work. What made those things stand out to you? Spend some time thinking about what made them so enjoyable, and you’ll often find the strengths that underly them. These are the strengths you may want to incorporate more into your work.
Pay attention to conflicting strengths
I recently realized some of my own strengths when I was pairing with a team member. Every time we finished working on a piece of code, he would jump immediately to the next piece. This made me feel somewhat uneasy—I felt like I needed to take a step back, think, and really understand how the code we were writing should integrate with the system as a whole.
As I got to know my team member more, he told me that one of his strengths was being able to get something done efficiently. He felt a sense of accomplishment in checking boxes off his to-do list. I realized that my own strengths were more centered around connecting all the dots and using that bigger picture to create a plan of attack, and that it’s hard for me to feel comfortable just diving into something.
Once we both realized where our strengths were, it helped us to work together more effectively. Not only does having a better understanding of my strengths help me be a better teammate, but it has helped me align my work with my skills.
Use your resources
My teammate and I were able to put this realization of our own strengths to good use thanks to a StrengthsFinder workshop that Atomic put on. Taking the StrengthsFinder assessment and engaging in the workshop helped me gain some valuable knowledge about my strengths. They also helped me learn how to work more effectively with the strengths that others bring to the table.
I’ve found lots of value from similar initiatives Atomic has put on which are dedicated to increasing team awareness and cohesion. If you’re still searching for what your strengths are, asking around about the opportunity to take StrengthsFinder or a similar assessment is a great place to start.
2. Recognize the Value that All of Your Strengths Bring to the Table
Another strength of mine is getting people excited and onboard with new ideas. I especially love doing this if it helps create community for others. One way I was able to use this strength recently was by creating an Atomic soccer team.
For a long time, I thought I could only use this strength in ways peripheral to my work. I might start a soccer team alongside my coworkers, for example, but it wasn’t actually part of the value I was producing for my company.
Here’s what I didn’t realize: Establishing a soccer team for the place where I work does bring value to the company. It establishes community and helps people feel more connected to the place where they work. People are generally going to like their work more if they know it has a good social atmosphere, and a soccer team certainly contributes to that.
This is one small but representative example of how our strengths can create value even outside of our job description. I think we should start seeing the value our strengths can bring to the workplace, even if they don’t directly correlate to the work we do for most of the day.
3. Don’t Compare Yourself (or Your Role) to Others
Not long ago, I was feeling some career uncertainty. I loved being a developer but knew that I eventually wanted to try doing something more on the sales or project management side. When I looked at people who had those roles, however, I was unsure about what I saw.
I had one Delivery Lead, for example, who excelled at team organization and maintaining a well-groomed backlog. Their primary strengths centered in these areas, and they achieved a lot of success by spending most of their time catering to those strengths.
This made me feel like I wouldn’t be a good fit as a Delivery Lead. My strengths were more aligned with working with customers and helping create a team dynamic where people could thrive. Because I had modeled my expectation on what a Delivery Lead is from how my coworker played the role, I didn’t feel like my strengths would be as valuable in that position.
That’s when I had an important realization: I don’t have to play a role the same way other people do. If I were to become a Delivery Lead, I would still have the same primary responsibilities as my coworker. However, I could be the one who decided how to best meet those responsibilities.
If using my strengths meant that I spent more time working closely alongside a customer, that’s what I should focus on. If there were other responsibilities that were difficult or even somewhat draining, I could fulfill them as best as I can while focusing on areas where I can do more valuable work—and that’s okay.
4. Let Discontentment Lead to Action—but Make Sure It’s the Right Kind
Everyone feels discontentment at some point in their career. Often, this arises because we feel like we aren’t using our strengths at work. I don’t think this feeling of discontent is a bad thing; rather, it can be incredibly valuable when we learn how to use and direct it. It’s one of the best driving forces to figure out how to use our strengths at work.
I learned to harness these feelings into something useful by viewing the need to fix my discontentment as a goal. To do this, I need to put together a plan to reach that goal–and that involves figuring out your strengths and thinking about ways to use them at work more frequently.
If you can’t immediately figure out a way to incorporate your strengths in your work, think about ways to use them alongside your work. Maybe it would involve starting a new discussion group over a book or a podcast, or maybe you would love to speak at a conference. Those are valuable places to start.
Once you have some ideas, it’s time to act. In order to follow through on your plans, avoid keeping your ideas to yourself. Engage with your coworkers and ask their advice. They will often have valuable insight and even opportunities you didn’t consider.
Another approach is to create a schedule. Your excitement about using your strengths at work will only carry you so far. You need to commit to some type of regular action to make progress, or you’ll end up getting discouraged.
When I started this process, I began waking up early every day to spend an hour working on the talks I wanted to give. Maybe waking up early isn’t for you, but the important thing is that you make a schedule and stick to it.
5. Understand that Figuring Out How to Use Your Strengths Takes Time
You’ve brainstormed ways you can use your strengths more at work. You’ve invested significant time and effort trying to implement them, and you’ve seen some improvements. Overall, though, it may feel like nothing significant has changed, even after all of this.
If you feel like you’re in this position, here’s the truth: That’s okay. It doesn’t say anything about your strengths or your character. It’s normal to sometimes feel like you don’t have the answers you’re seeking, and it shouldn’t cause you to panic or look for another job.
This is how I felt not too long ago. I was a little discontent about what I was doing and couldn’t figure out a way to combat it. Looking back now, the real issue was that I didn’t have enough experience to recognize my strengths. It took a few months of personal growth to understand what I wanted to be doing.
There’s also the matter of trust. It takes time for people to get to know you and see your strengths for themselves. Even if others do trust you, sometimes the opportunity to start incorporating your strengths into your work isn’t there, whether in your current role or in a different position.
This uncertainty is a normal part of growing in your career. The key is how you react to it. If there’s a role where you want to gain some experience, reach out to people currently in that role to discuss it and even shadow them. If you want to be able to speak or represent your company somewhere, don’t wait for someone to ask you to do it. Look around for opportunities and work to make it happen.
I was fortunate enough to gain significant guidance in this process through Atomic’s Accelerator program. One of the goals of the program is to create a space where people can ask these types of questions. I worked alongside senior developers and mentors who helped me realize that what I was feeling was normal and just another step in my own personal development. They played a critical part in helping me discover my own strengths. If your company has a program like this, it’s a great place to start looking for resources and guidance (and if they don’t, a great opportunity to start one).
Embrace the Journey
Shaping your career around your strengths takes time. The most important thing you can do to further that journey is to make it an active process. Do the necessary introspection, come up with a plan, lean on others, and take the initiative. I hope that this post is helpful to you and will be a good guide as you try to incorporate your strengths into every part of your career.
For further learning on using your strengths at work, consider Deep Work by Cal Newport. Some of the ideas in this post were influenced by his writing, and Deep Work was incredibly helpful for me in forming habits to consistently work on things that are important to me.
Marcus Buckingham’s video series Trombone Player Wanted has some great insights into how we should actually think about our strengths. The idea of strengths as the activities that energize us and motivate us was originally inspired by those videos. Both these videos and Deep Work were introduced to me as part of the Accelerator program, and some of the most valuable insights I found about using my strengths at work came from them.
Finally, for a great way to frame strengths, look at the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment by Gallup that was mentioned earlier in the post. It provides some helpful language and understanding around what strengths are and how to use them. Their online tests do a great job of helping people identify their own strengths.