What are Strengths?

People talk a lot about strengths but it’s hard to find a concise definition. Here’s one: In the Embody Your Strengths program, “strengths” are defined as your most meaningful, energizing, and effective actions.

This is a definition that’s supported by about 50 years of motivation research through a world-wide effort involving over a thousand scientists called Self-Determination Theory.

To elaborate; meaning, energy, and effectiveness are like three legs of the sustainable motivation table. Without one of the legs your motivation will falter and you’ll be prone to burnout.

If we’re missing a sense of meaning in what we do, we may be asking ourselves questions like, “What does it all add up to?”, “How am I contributing?”, or “Is this all life has to offer?”

If we’re missing a sense of energy we’ll say things to ourselves like, “Does it have to be this hard?”, “Why is work such a grind?”, “How much longer can I keep dragging myself through the day?”

If we’re missing a sense of effectiveness we may wonder, “What is the goal?”, “Am I doing this right or not?”, “Why do I feel like I’m flailing?”

The more we do a certain task, the more it matters that we have all three ingredients: meaning, energy, and effectiveness; or we’ll lose strength.

The Embody Your Strengths program helps you dial in, very specifically, how to get more strength from your actions. This can be very helpful for things like:

  • Career direction
  • Job crafting
  • School program decisions (i.e. What should my major, masters, Ph.D. be? How can I study in a way that uses my strengths?)
  • Retirement decisions (i.e. How should I spend my time in retirement?)
  • Parenting strategies (i.e. How could I parent in a way that uses my strengths?)
  • Designing an exercise routine
  • Relating to other people, like your partner, your kids, your boss, your co-workers and so on…

Anything that you do over the long or short term is going to be better if you know how to play to your strengths.

Getting a Deeper Understanding of Psychological Strengths

Self-Determination Theory says we have three basic human needs for psychological wellbeing:

  • Autonomy. The need to endorse our own actions.
  • Relatedness. The need to care about others, be cared about, and to be part of something greater.
  • Competence. The need to learn and grow, and the need to be effective at our daily tasks.

There are two important things about the above basic needs:

  • The basic needs of relatedness and competence tend to flow from the need for autonomy.
  • In addition to experiencing wellbeing, when the above basic needs are met people tend to do their best work, and also do it more sustainably.

Therefore, if you’re interested in the wellbeing and performance of others and/or yourself then you’ll want to pay particularly close attention to whether the autonomy need is being met.

The need for autonomy is satisfied by two kinds of actions which happen to be part of how we define strengths:

  • Meaning. When we take meaningful actions there’s a sense that what we’re doing adds up to something important. We’re taking action that’s aligned with our values or a sense of purpose.
  • Energizing actions are rewarding in themselves. We do them because we find them pleasurable, interesting, or enjoyable. We often read books because they take us on a journey of some kind. We take up hobbies because we find them fascinating. We eat food that tickles our taste buds in delightful ways. These kinds of actions could be exciting, calming or something in between. They might invite us into a flow state where we completely lose track of time.

Why bother with Effectiveness?

Since we define your strengths as your most meaningful, energizing, and effective actions I should explain the ‘effective’ part. We use the term effectiveness as a test regarding whether you can do the thing you intend or desire to do. It’s not a high bar. For instance, I’m effective at tying my shoes, typing, and walking.

Why not add relatedness in there too? Why not just define strengths as your most meaning and energizing actions and leave it at that?

In my 8 years of teaching Find Your Spark classes I’ve noticed people tend to readily fill in their relatedness needs from their sense of meaning and energy. They’ll say things like, “The most meaningful thing I do is spend time with my family and I really enjoy it too.”

However, they tend to think of effectiveness as something that happens completely apart from meaning and energy. It’s as if they believe doing something meaningful and energizing will harm their ability to be productive. This makes sense given the work and school environments I’ve witnessed.

The truth is that people only try to separate meaning and energy from effectiveness when they’re trying to control you. If you endorse your own actions you are no longer in anyone else’s control. You are autonomous.

An autonomous person can be seen as threatening to the status quo. The sad truth is many people will readily trade productivity for control. But that’s not the way to do great things, or to experience wellbeing.

Be a proverbial sheep or play to your strengths. It’s your choice.

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