The Power of Strengths-based Living

I am a strengths-based educator, but that is not why I believe in seeing the best in others, nor is education — especially in its traditional definition — where my strengths-based beliefs live. Strengths-based living is so much bigger than just one element.

A strengths perspective is much more complex than focusing on the good in others, setting people up to succeed, or anything else of that sort. Those are parts of it, but only parts. No matter how many studies, how many innovations, or how many # step programs designed to enhance the strengths of <target audience x>, pessimism snarkily lashes out, plucking at isolated details and demanding quantitative proof of immediate tangible results. But, a strengths perspective is more akin to living healthy than it is to an intervention or an innovation.

Innovations and interventions are solution oriented and product driven. The purpose of either is to supplant an existing structure and bring about a positive change. This is very important and, when done well, very effective. However, they are also parts of a whole. No single innovation or intervention can be or is intended to be a replacement for an entire existence. We know this because when people try to do that, they fail and often cause harm, seen or unseen. If casual Fridays are the extent of a company’s employee engagement, they’ve already failed. Though few companies would tout casual Fridays as the end all be all, many choose to cobble together the equivalent of a series of “casual Friday” programs and call them engagement. Wanted benefits like a casual Friday, monthly office parties, or four day work weeks are innovations or interventions within the realm of employee engagement, but none of them are employee engagement.

In the healthy living world, innovations and interventions are diets, exercise programs, exercise equipment, dietary supplements, and the like. No one gained muscle and burns fat by purchasing a new treadmill. It has to be used Not only that, but it typically needs to be used consistently and effectively based on a number of biological factors unique to the individual using it. If you don’t know someone who’s tried a diet and failed, then I am certain you know someone who does. Most nutritionists will tell you that a diet alone won’t achieve the results, but we already know that. We just hope we’re wrong. The same can be said about exercise. Doing a few exercises, even consistently, doesn’t make you healthy. Healthy living takes a more than just a perspective, a desire, a goal. Healthy living requires us to live differently, no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Healthy living takes a more than just a perspective, a desire, a goal. (image CC)

The same goes for strength-based living. I tried to apply strengths as an innovation and as an intervention. Guess what? They worked, but only for short spurts, often failing to produce lasting results, much like fad dieting or <insert edu fad of the month here>. One semester, I used StrengthsQuest by Gallup and increased my students’ motivation and my courses’ persistence rate exponentially. However, my grade distribution was about the same, and the students’ pass rates in subsequent semesters was too sporadic to draw any conclusions due to such a small sample size. My research writing courses now apply a number of strengths approaches connected to autonomy, differentiation, and personal interest, which increase my students’ engagement with their topics. However, my persistence rates are only marginally better. In leadership activities, I found similar results when motivating and engaging employees. Almost identical really. What I really learned was that strengths as innovations within my course design or interventions for engagement, motivation, attendance, etc. are well and good but short lived because strengths need to be lived, not just applied.

So I have turned my focus from applying strengths to the classroom, workplace, etc. and focused internally on living a strengths-based life. But what does that mean?

Just like with healthy living, living in your strengths requires a person to change not just what they do but how they interact with the world physically, mentally, and emotionally.

  • Look for the positives first. Optimism isn’t ignoring negatives nor is it about saving anyone’s feeling; it’s the conscious practice of noticing the positives first and then the negatives. This simple perspective shift reprioritizes which things get most of our attention and fuel our decision making. There is a notable difference between fixing what is wrong and changing to be even better.
  • Leverage strengths. While it is true that leveraging a strength to compensate for a weakness can be unhealthy (see weightlifting), most of us use coping mechanisms (leveraged strengths) in different areas of our lives in order to be at our best. If we know we aren’t good at making small talk, we might prepare a list of things we can share in small talk situations that don’t delve into the TMI end of things. If we know we overspend on impulse buys if we use our debit card, we might give ourselves a “mad money” allowance each week or month in cash. Compensating for areas of struggle by leveraging our strengths like preplanning and analytical thinking in the case of small talk or visual and tactile associations like in the spending money situation are perfectly normal and healthy.
  • Prioritize the whole person. One of our struggles as a society is our tendency to analyze and break things into parts without synthesizing the results. This often encourages us to focus on breaking our identities into their parts and leaving them in labeled categories, often binary categories like strengths and weaknesses. By not finishing the cycle and synthesizing what we have learned about a person, we never get to see the full power and potential of their strengths in action, only flashes of them in isolation. This isolating focus leaves us with a narrow view of the person, their abilities, and their value, leading us to decreasing their productivity both actual and perceived.

These are three core elements that I have found in living a strengths-based life, but my journey has just begun. I’ll keep posting more as I discover them and revisiting those I’ve posted as I understand them better.

Once I implemented Gallup’s Strengths in my courses and leadership, I found myself at a crossroad, and the crossroad was simply “what’s next?” I knew there had to be more because it’s not enough to show people their strengths in isolation while their performance reviews (aka grades) are heavily influenced by perceived deficits, nor is it enough to compliment someone on a job well done while simultaneously increasing the demands on their work after every success like they were leveling up in a game of Tetris. After a couple years of exploring, I realized that “what’s next” was me. Strengths aren’t a strategy: they are a part of our identity. We can either live in a way that uplifts others by honoring the strengths they possess or we can continue to see them as broken and in need of fixing.

A version of this post was first published on Involuntary Verbosity.