Discovering Your Strengths

{Rettew & Lopez, 2008. Discovering Your Strengths.}

{Bowers, 2008. Making the Most of Human Strengths.}

{In Lopez (Ed.), 2008. Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People. Volume 1, Discovering Human Strengths.}

What are your strengths? Can you name your trait-like strengths?

Strengths are good for you, so it makes sense to know about them, understand what they are, and know what they mean for you, your life, and your wellbeing.

What are you good at, and what are you not good at? Give yourself 60 seconds to write down all the things you do well in one column and all the things you do poorly in another. Which list is longer? Why? Which one was easier?

Your response to this question might be influenced by a cultural reluctance to boast about yourself, being raised with modesty as an aspirational value, and being encouraged to focus on what you do not do well.

We seem to be hardwired to focus on the negative in life. This is explained as an evolutionary adaptive strategy; focusing on our weaknesses or what goes wrong has promoted survival because what goes wrong has had dire implications. In today’s society, what we do not do as well, and the daily problems have more mundane consequences. {All unnecessary fears shall come to an end.}

Positive psychology seeks to help the whole person, examining and promoting strengths and managing deficits, maintaining that human strengths are as natural as human weaknesses.

When you were very young, and things didn’t seem as serious and overwhelming, didn’t you gravitate toward something you were good at? What were you good at, and what did you enjoy doing? What activities did you participate that you excelled in?

Using your strengths has benefits, and there are ways in which you can capitalize on your strengths.

We get the most out of our lives by building on our strengths. “One cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all available strengths. …These strengths are the true opportunities.” (Drucker, 1967). When you deploy your highest strengths, you are more engaged, productive, successful, healthier, and happier; you’re at your best.

Defining and Measuring Strengths: What they are and how to find them

Knowing what a strength is will help you build a vocabulary for describing the positive in people around you.

Discovering your strengths will change how you see yourself and interact with the world daily.

A strength is a capacity for feeling, thinking, and behaving in a way that allows optimal functioning in pursuing valued outcomes. This is a pragmatic definition, referencing human potentiality, benefit as directionality, and phenomenal real-world interest as the application domain.

In current psychological research, strengths are being examined and conceptualized as pieces of a larger, holistic understanding of positive human functioning.

Strength is defined as consistent and near-perfect performance in an activity where talents or naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior combine with knowledge, which consists of facts and lessons learned, and skills or the steps of an activity.

For a cluster of activities to be labeled as a strength, they must be performed consistently; that is, strength is a predictable part of an individual’s performance. The strength does not need to be present in all aspects of an individual’s life for the individual to excel. By maximizing on strengths, an individual will excel. Talent, the natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving imbued with skills, will yield strength. Investing time in developing skills that build on talent enriches your resources.

The Clifton StrengthsFinder

The Clifton StrengthsFinder is based on a platform of 34 talent themes that are prevalent in society and predictive of educational and vocational success; it is a tool for strength identification, discovery, and development. Strengths are viewed as extensions of talent; the strength construct combines talent with associated knowledge, skills, and effort and is defined as the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a specific task.

{The Clifton StrengthsFinder is rebranded as CliftonStrengths Assessment, available for purchase from}

The assessment provides supporting materials to help individuals discover how to build on their talents within particular life roles. The assessment report includes information on an individual’s “Five Signature Themes” on which he or she scored highest. The remaining themes are not rank-ordered or shared with the individual. The “Five Signature Themes” are provided to foster intrapersonal development. This instrument is not designed or validated for use in employee selection or mental health screening. It is not sensitive to change over time. Your results may vary slightly over time but will primarily remain stable.

The youth version of the assessment identifies areas in which a young person’s most significant potential for building strengths exist. This knowledge provides youth with the language to talk about their strengths. Giving youth positive labels and experiences of success encourages later success and improved self-esteem and confidence. Explicitly naming human strengths; be it in conversations, self-talk, or pondering about what activity to engage in and how to tackle the issue; suggests to the person and those in conversation or the surrounding environment that there is merit in this identified characteristic.

Values in Action Inventory of Strengths

The Values in Action (VIA; Peterson & Seligman, 2004) Classification of Strengths is based on the belief that strengths are the lived manifestations of virtues and are associated with wellbeing. The corresponding measure is the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) which measures 24 character strengths organized under six overarching virtues. Individuals do not live in distinct categories regarding their character strengths but instead on a continuum of dynamic states in response to their experiences and situations.

Users should not treat the results as more real than the actual traits and habits exemplified in their real life. If someone scores relatively low on the VIA scale of kindness yet lives a life of obvious charity and benevolence, life trumps the scale. The report provides feedback about the individual’s top VIA strengths, identifying what the individual may do well. The comparison is to other measured individual strengths and not those of other people. The self-report questionnaire measures the extent to which respondents endorse items reflecting each of the 24 VIA strengths.

An alternative way of identifying signature strengths is through a structured interview by talking about situations in which these strengths are most likely to be shown, asking respondents how they usually act in a given setting concerning particular character strengths. Strengths may have a more or less narrow focus, and some are more specific than others in their applicability across situations. Probing into a more narrowly focused strength, such as courage, may require more detailed interview questions. With broadly deployable strengths, the situation may be presented as everyday life. If people describe an incident in which they displayed the strength the majority of the time, they are asked follow-up questions about how they “name” the strength; if the strength is “really” who they are; and whether friends and family would agree the strength is “really” who they are.

Discovering Your Strengths

Discovering your strengths allows you to navigate your everyday life more efficiently and sheds light on what you already know about yourself. Discovery is about finding something that is already there in you. Strengths identification techniques or tools, such as assessments or strength spotting, reach beneath our awareness and give strengths a name; they provide the language to talk about strengths. Labels simplify communication and provide pathways to usefulness and understanding. Labeling something seems to improve our understanding of it.

Alternative ways to discover your strengths: The positive introduction exercise

Tell a story about yourself at your best in three hundred words; give an in-depth account of a discrete period, including where you were, what you were doing, who you were with, what sounds you heard, what you smelled, etc. Then, review the story and pick out different strengths that seem to emerge. Once you have done that, write a second story and repeat the process. Look for common strengths that show up in both stories. The story does not need to be about a momentous achievement.

Alternative ways to discover your strengths: Feedback analysis

Whenever you make a crucial decision or take significant action, write down what you believe the results of your efforts will be. Then, approximately one year later, compare the expected versus actual results and reflect on how you (and your strengths) influenced meaningful outcomes. Feedback analysis will show you where your strengths lie and highlight what you are doing or are failing to do that inhibits reaching the full potential of your strengths. It will also show you the areas in which you are not competent and should refrain from performing.

Alternative ways to discover your strengths: The Strengths Strategies Primer (Lopez & Berg, 2006) (A Hope Strategies Primer)

This exercise involves pairing a guided imagery session focused on using strengths to achieve a goal with interactive dialogue and a skills enhancement piece. The primer builds on hope theory’s goals, pathways, and agency components to identify and cultivate strengths.

Strengths programs

Typical steps in strengths-based programs include identifying strengths followed by strengths-enhancing exercises and tracking the potential effects of strengths to determine the program’s effectiveness.

In strengths-mentoring sessions, students learn about their strengths and how best to utilize them in their everyday lives. Students complete various homework assignments ranging from emailing friends and family with their strengths to elicit feedback to actively using one strength during the week. Students are asked to write reaction papers on their strengths which helps to synthesize their strengths-related knowledge.

Small-group projects focus on applying strengths; students use their personal strengths and learn about other student’s strengths and how to work with them.

Benefits of knowing your strengths include:

increased awareness of talents: knowing and understanding talents, communicating about strengths and talents, explaining successes;

increased personal confidence: more confident in individual abilities, recognizing how to be a leader based on talents and strengths;

increased academic confidence: utilizing strengths in academics, optimistic about academics and careers;

increased motivation to achieve: identifying personal motivating factors, willingness to work for goals;

increased confidence about the future: clear plans, realistic ability scaling;

increased use of talents: applying talents in academics and personal life, coping with difficulties based on skills;

development of strengths: understand the theory of strengths development, feel responsible for maximizing individual talents;

improved interpersonal understandings and relationships: noticing talents and strengths in others, communicating with others better;

and other impacts of strengths awareness: valuing self and becoming more authentic.

Feedback on what students did best, what strengths they had that caused their performance to be high in those areas, and how they could intentionally apply their strengths to increase performance even further generated a series of exemplary behavior patterns compared to control groups receiving feedback on weaknesses.

Discovery, and then what?

Discovery is only the first step on the strengths journey. You may then aim for the benefit of living an intentional life, building from strength. Strengths are like fuel; whenever you feel drained, you may purposefully seek out a way to use one of your top strengths. Look out for the energy you get from enlisting your strength.

Decide to use your strengths more intentionally, capitalize on your strengths, and make your life better. Take one top theme from the Gallup feedback and one signature strength from the VIA results. Look at the “action items” associated with your signature theme and choose one daily activity to enhance your strength use and, thus, your life experience. Take dedicated action. With the same approach, take intentional action with your signature character strength; experience the joy and aliveness that comes from living from your authentic self, enrich your emotional life and strengthen your relationships as you live your strengths.

Family tree of strengths: Have all family members complete the VIA-IS (or VIA-Youth) or the Clifton StrengthsFinder (or CYSE) and then create a family tree, complete with each family member’s signature strengths or themes of the highest talent. Look for strengths that you have in common and that complement one another.

Consider the real potential of your highest strengths. What would it look like to immerse yourself in them? How would it feel to swim in that pool? Deployment of strengths is essential to increasing positive emotion, engagement, and wellbeing. In addition, using your strengths to serve something larger than yourself leads to an increased sense of meaning, purpose, engagement, and connection.

Capitalizing on Strengths

How do individuals apply their strengths after identifying them? After identifying their strengths, students become excited about this knowledge and build on their strengths daily and in a meaningful way. Capitalizing is defined as turning something to one’s advantage. By capitalizing on strengths and incorporating these strengths into daily life, individuals turn personal strengths into personal advantages.

Students participating in a strengths-development program take the online assessment and receive a printout identifying their signature strengths. They then spend a few weeks in class discussing these strengths with trained instructors and complete both class assignments and homework assignments designed to help them think about their strengths. Some become enthusiastic about this new information and creatively apply it to their everyday life, utilizing their strengths in several arenas: academics, social endeavors, etc. They are living their strengths each day. This is the notion of capitalizing.

Student development involves the following tasks: developing competency, managing emotions, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity.

Hope theory might help to understand the capitalizing phenomenon. Hope theory begins with the assumption that human actions are goal-directed. Goals may be short-term or long-term. To reach goals, individuals must generate routes to those goals. This process is labeled pathways thinking, the perceived ability to generate workable routes to desired goals. The motivational component in hope theory is agency, or the perceived capacity to use pathways to reach desired goals. The agency then is the belief that “I can do this” and “I am not going to be stopped.” This theory states that positive emotions should flow from successful goal pursuits. Identifying strengths may assist with goal achievement through greater pathways and agency generation, allowing an individual to capitalize on strengths effectively.

Similarly, self-efficacy may play a role in applying strengths, so students with high self-efficacy may be more confident in utilizing their strengths. Self-efficacy beliefs are essential in the degree of effort people choose to exert toward an activity. Individuals with high self-efficacy beliefs are able to perform and manage difficult situations calmly.

A third psychological theory that may help explain capitalizing is Frederickson’s (2002) “broaden and build” model of positive emotions. The possible positive emotions gained by individuals through identifying strengths may enable them to widen their utilization of strengths. Positive emotions widen the variety of thoughts and actions that come to mind. This widening of options builds people’s enduring personal resources.

In addition to the perceived benefits of capitalizing, it is necessary to have continual social support, experiences of success, and the reinforcement of personal strengths for the capitalizing process to occur. Reinforcement occurs when the individual feels her strengths work for her. It is through the ongoing and cyclical relationship of these three overarching constructs: social support, successes, and reinforcement, that capitalizing may be achieved.

Students are reporting that to utilize their strengths (capitalizing), having success in their school life is essential.

The reinforcement construct simply means that students feel strong when they use their strengths, and knowledge of strengths helps them make sense of the world. Specific statements used to describe this included, “Strengths help me understand others,” “I understand myself through my strengths,” and “I feel more confident using my strengths.”

Personal mini-experiments: Discovering and capitalizing on your strengths

Personal reflections

Spend some quiet time making a list of your strengths. Write down anything that comes to mind; don’t edit yourself. Instead, jot down activities you have historically been good at or enjoyed doing. Then, consider writing a personal strengths story in which you tell about a time in your life or an activity you performed during which you felt like you really used some of your strengths. While writing, consider the emotions and actions attached to these strengths.

Use the strengths language

After identifying your strengths, use the strengths language to tell others about them and talk with them about their strengths. Many people find it helpful to share a common language with friends and family.

Making the most of your strengths

For now, capitalize on one strength. Pick one of your strengths and try to use that strength five times a day for five days. Your 25 attempts to capitalize on that strength have the potential to bolster it and create a habit of using that strength more each day.

A Hope Strategies Primer

Hope Enhancement: Imagery and Interaction (Berg, 2006)

Part A: Hope Imagery

I’d like you to relax in your chair, recline or lean back if you like, and close your eyes if you want to. First, I ask that you pay attention to the instructions, as they are important. I invite you to think about a time when you wanted to achieve something important to you…a time when you felt really motivated…a time when you had a plan…multiple plans for getting to your goal. Sometimes people find it helpful to close their eyes to see the images more clearly. Have you thought of a time like this? A time when you felt hopeful that you could achieve something important to you…something that motivated you…something that you had strategies to achieve. (Long pause.) You might notice how driven you felt…how empowered…you might remember times when you wanted to give up…but didn’t…you kept going because of your commitment…your desire…instead, you might have worked harder…you may have tried a different strategy for dealing with the hard times…you might have broken your goal down into steps…with each step you achieved making you feel more energized…more empowered…more confident…you may have noticed how you focused on the goal…adjusting the goal based on what was happening…so that you knew that your goal was challenging…difficult…but achievable…knowing that once you achieved your goal…you would feel confident…motivated… proud of yourself…knowing that you have everything that it takes…the motivation…the ability to plan and create strategies…the ability to set challenging goals…and achieve them…everything that it takes to be successful with future goals…much like your goal of being a courageous leader. Take a moment to absorb all these thoughts, and then open your eyes (if your eyes are closed). (VERY SLOW AND DELIBERATE.)

Part B: Interactive Dialogue

What situation did you think of?

Why was this goal so important to you?

How did you maintain your motivation when things got difficult?

How did you decide how you would go about getting to your goal?

How did achieving this goal make you feel?

How did these experiences help you to prepare for the future?

What did you learn from this experience that will help you on the task?

Part C: Skills Enhancement

I’d like to share with you some things we have found through extensive research that enhance one’s ability to reach goals. There are three main components to achieving goals. One is your ability to set goals. Here are some strategies for setting goals:

First, set goals that will be difficult but achievable.  Set goals that align with your expectations, not those of others. 

Second, be specific about your goals; define them objectively. 

And third, take time to set your goals and allow yourself to adjust your goals once you have experiences to guide you. 

The second component is your ability to think of multiple strategies and alternative ways to reach your goals. Here are some ways to improve this skill:

First, think about the steps involved in achieving your goal. 

Second, think about your different strategies for reaching the goal.

And third, in your mind, rehearse what you will need to do while pursuing your goal to be successful in reaching it. Also, anticipate your problems in achieving your goal and the alternatives you can use to overcome the difficulties. 

The third component is the motivation to reach your goals. Here are some ways to increase motivation:

First, think about the process of reaching your goal as a journey. Anticipating roadblocks that you might face may help remind you that when you start to feel discouraged, it signals that you must increase your motivation and work harder.

Second, as you work toward your goal, remember how far you have come and think positively about your progress on the plan. Think about similar challenging situations where you were able to overcome the problem. 

And last, using positive self-talk like “I can do it,” “Keep going,” and “I am doing really well” tend to be helpful.

Which of these are you particularly good at?  

Which of these could you stand improvement on?