A few days ago, I began the intimidating process of packing for college. To be fair, it is infinitely easier and less stressful the second time around. As I perused my bookshelf to decide which books (that I will not have time to read) I should take, I came across a particular one that brought forth a whole storm of self-realization. The book is called StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond, by Donald O. Clifton, Edward Anderson and Laurie Schreiner. A gifted education counselor had given me this book in my sophomore year of high school, claiming that it was a nationally renowned book that was even used in the corporate world to bring out the best in people. (Sure enough, my mom had used it, giving it the immediate stamp of approval.)
The basic premise of the book was that for too long in education the paradigm has involved identifying childrens’ weaknesses and then working to improve them. Instead, claim the authors, studies have shown that identifying a child’s strengths and figuring out how to best leverage them produced much better results. Additionally, the book included a code to enter an online test, a “StrengthsFinder” to discover your “Top 5.” Of course, I had taken numerous tests like these before and did not really expect this to reveal anything life-changing, but I continued anyway. After the test, the site spit out my top 5, and I had to read the description in order to “affirm and celebrate” my talents. Here’s what I discovered as my top 5 talents:
Learner-“You love to learn…You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you… It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you…are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one…The outcome of the learning is less significant than the ‘getting there’…. The genius of the Learner talents is that you not only love to learn; you also intuitively know how you learn best.
Input– “You are inquisitive. You collect things…Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing, it is often hard to say…but who knows when they might become useful?.. you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away… It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh.”
Focus– “’Where am I headed?’ you ask yourself. You ask this question every day… you need a clear destination. Lacking one, your life and your work can quickly become frustrating. And so each year, each month, and even each week you set goals… Your Focus is powerful because it forces you to filter; you instinctively evaluate whether or not a particular action will help you move toward your goal… This makes you an extremely valuable team member…The genius of Focus talents is in your intense concentration on one task. Your single-mindedness enhances the speed and quality of your performance.”
Competition– “Competition is rooted in comparison. When you look at the world, you are instinctively aware of other people’s performance… No matter how hard you tried, no matter how worthy your intentions, if you reached your goal but did not outperform your peers, the achievement feels hollow… You like contests because they must produce a winner. You particularly like contests where you know you have the inside track to be the winner. Although you are gracious to your fellow competitors and even stoic in defeat, you don’t compete for the fun of competing. You compete to win…The genius of Competition talents lies in your ability to stimulate yourself and others to higher levels of performance.
Significance– “You want to be very significant in the eyes of other people. In the truest sense of the word, you want to be recognized…you want to be known and appreciated for the unique strengths you bring…An independent spirit, you want your work to be a way of life rather than a job… Your yearnings feel intense to you , and you honor these yearnings. And so your life is filled with goals, achievements, or qualification that you crave. Whatever your focus… your Significance theme will keep pulling you upward, away from the mediocre toward the exceptional… The genius of Significance talents begins and ends with the difference you are determined to make. You want the world to be a better place because you are in it.”
I remember reading these results with a peculiar feeling of both awe and disappointment– the former for the feeling of actually being known, and the latter at the same time because I realized actually could be known (I guess an individual should be a dynamic, mysterious type of being, not something that five words could define.) Yet, for the first time, I did find words to match my basic foundation, the principle tenets of Anisha-ism, what truly made me, me. These were the words given to my often inexplicable tendencies, the reasons behind my instinctive comforts and dislikes, and the mysterious processes in my deepest mental recesses that lead to my decisions every day.
At the time, I thought that I just had to use these “strengths” of mine, and find hobbies, activities, and experiences which best utilized them. Yet over time, small, seemingly insignificant moments would plant seeds of doubt. I loved to learn, but why was it that after quickly learning new skills needed in research projects, I soon became bored with the long-term nature of the research itself, knowing that I had already picked up the new skills? Why did I continue to try different things, like coding or knitting or environmental data analysis, and then having gained a level of proficiency, want to move on? For that matter, why was I so scared to enter a music competition that my mother really wanted me to try? I loved competition, right? And if my ability to focus on a goal was so great, why did team members sometimes get frustrated with me for “taking control?” Why did I find so many things interesting that I could not even clearly define my future career field to those who asked? (Right now, in case you were wondering, the interest is patent law. Why? Because it is an inherently interdisciplinary field requiring the application of both engineering and law every day in the context of a business innovation, and a typical day at a law firm could involve preparing and prosecuting as many as 10-15 different patent applications in a day.) Sometimes most importantly, why do I care so much about whether others approve and praise my accomplishments? Why does this desire for “significance” often singlehandedly determine my emotional well-being?
Today I opened the book again for the first time in four years. Interestingly, lines that I never remembered existing suddenly came to the forefront. Apparently, “this Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert” and a Learner “can get frustrated about wanting to learn so many different things because you fear you’ll never be the expert.” As a Competitor, “over time you will avoid contests where winning seems unlikely.” What’s more, “significance talents are sometimes perceived as egotism or a need for attention.” The “flip-side of [the Focus talent] is that it causes you to become impatient with delays, obstacles, and even tangents, no matter how intriguing they appear to be.”
It’s funny how often what you want to see or hear infiltrates reality. I had been so busy with figuring out my strengths in 10th grade that I didn’t even realize that these aspects were not actually called “strengths;” they were called “Signature Themes.” These five themes are my pillars. They are what define me as a human being. Just as no one characteristic is always good or always bad, every one of the themes listed in this book has the potential to be a strength or a weakness. It’s up to me to figure out how to make my themes bring out my highest potential, to be the most significant, competitive, inputting, focused learner I can be.
P.S. I have a confession to make. I never actually read past the discovery and “affirmation” of my five signature themes. Turns out there’s a whole chapter about using your Signature Theme “Talents as the Foundation of Strengths,” with a section devoted to how to make each theme a strength. I guess I found my bedtime reading for tonight.