Who Are You? Section One
What is Your Story? – 2.1.1
You tell the story first and then you live your way into it.
FIERCELY ALIVE: Who Are You?: 2.1.1
Would you notice if a gorilla walked in the room? Of course you would. But, what if you were asked to watch a video of six people passing a ball back and forth and were told to count the number of passes you saw. Do you think you would notice if a gorilla appeared, faced the camera, beat its chest, and left? We all swear we would. So it is surprising, that in one of the best-known studies in psychology, researchers at Harvard University found that half of us don’t see the gorilla.
We continuously select what we see, and we continuously select the stories we tell about what we see. When faced with any set of “facts,” we can choose to tell any number of stories. In The World Café, social entrepreneur Lynn Twist, is quoted as saying, “We don’t live in the world, we live in conversation with the world.” Given the fact we have about 50,000 thoughts a day, that’s a lot of conversation and choices to make.
Moment to moment, we assess the performance of ourselves and others. While the situational facts might be determined, the associated story is malleable, and we have the freedom to select the story we will adopt. I might consider two alternative stories to explain why my daughter left her clothes all over her bedroom floor. Is it that she wanted to drive me crazy or that she valued being on time to meet her grandparents more than tidiness? The latter interpretation clearly works better for both of us.
I love the way Carol Dweck describes the potential for evaluating students, replacing the notion of failing with “not yet.” Her version of the story leaves the next chapter open, allowing room for continued action toward a successful outcome. Or consider the way co-founder of the VIA Institute on Character, Neal Mayerson, describes an interaction he had with a client in his former therapy practice. The patient told her story as one filled with multiple broken relationships. Conversely, Neal told the story as one of hope, bravery, and perseverance. With this version, she now had something on which to build her life and successful future relationships. Her version of the story held no such potential. For each of us, the stories we choose to tell determine our experience with life.
The way we craft the stories around the facts of our lives has been shown to have a profound impact on anxiety, depression, workplace performance and satisfaction, relationships, experience of challenge, and innovation.
Telling the whole story of who we are requires incorporating four abilities – awareness, suspension, discipline, and knowledge.
- Awareness – acknowledging that you are selecting among 50,000 daily thoughts to create a story.
- Suspension – pausing and determining if the crafted story is actually helpful.
- Discipline – committing to a daily practice of unpacking stories as choices of mental construction.
- Knowledge – expanding your language to include who you are at your best and including that knowledge within the story.
Most of us aren’t prepared for number four. We have plenty of language about our shortcomings, but typically are limited when it comes to recognizing and describing the best within ourselves. Think about how to expand your vocabulary and understanding here.
You Are Strong – 2.1.2
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
FIERCELY ALIVE: Who Are You?: 2.1.2
Frequently when my Mayerson Academy colleagues and I work with groups, we ask participants to pair up for conversations. Something quite extraordinary happens nearly every time. Pairs are first asked to share places in their lives where they would most like to see improvement or change. Pretty instantly, the room is filled with conversation, often accompanied by nervous laughter, as the pairs discuss the 10 pounds they need to lose, the list of house projects they can’t get to, or the relationships they want to work on. The dyads are dissolved back into the original large group and we ask participants to find a new partner and discuss their strengths. The room noticeably shifts from unbridled dialogue to quiet self-conscious concern. It’s hard for people to talk about their strengths. There is certainly a long list of reasons for this phenomenon, but right at the top is lack of awareness.
While Michelle McQuaid, best-selling author and workplace well-being teacher, has noted in her recent research that strengths awareness is on the rise, she also suggests that many of us are still in the dark about who we are at our best. Abraham Maslow’s words written in 1963 in Toward a Psychology of Being still ring true. He asserted, “We find another kind of resistance, a denying of our best side, of our talents, of our finest impulse, of our highest potentialities, of our creativeness. It is precisely the God like in ourselves that we are ambivalent about.”
It’s beyond my wisdom or expertise to know exactly why we resist knowing our best selves. What I have witnessed, particularly with mission-driven leaders, is that the conversations about personal strengths can feel selfish or arrogant and in conflict with work that is primarily about others. If that rings true for you, consider how knowing your best self is a contribution to others.
- As a parent: According to James Hillman, in The Soul’s Code, you must bear witness to your own sense of self first, to be capable of the central task of parenting, allowing a child to express her truest self. (To activate your strengths as parent, no one knows more than Lea Waters. Check out The Strength Switch)
- As a leader: In research reported in Harvard Business Review, Sterling Livingston suggests that, “What managers believe about themselves subtly influences what they believe about their subordinates, what they expect of them, and how they treat them.”
- As a citizen: In one of my favorite quotes about learning, Tom VanderArk, says, “Learning is a personal journey that becomes a common good as individuals and the larger society benefit from the contributions that emerge from development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.” (Recall the Ripple Effect)
Knowing your strengths marks the beginning of creating a strengths-based life that will impact your life and the lives of everyone around you. Take the free VIA survey and see your unique character strengths profile. To learn more about the meaning of each of the strengths check out this free resource. Or for a deeper drive, take a look at The Power of Strengths by Ryan Niemiec and Bob McGrath.
Once you know and are ready to fiercely own your strengths, learn about the strengths boomerang here.
How Do You See? Section Two
The Strengths Boomerang – 2.2.1
Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.
FIERCELY ALIVE: How Do You See?: 2.2.1
If you took the VIA, (see You are Strong) I’ll bet nothing happened. Unless of course you reminded yourself of your strengths on a regular basis. If you did this, you may already be experiencing less stress and anxiety while enjoying an expanded sense of meaning, purpose, and confidence. According to the research of Creswel and Sherman as shared by Amy Cuddy in her book, Presence, simply affirming the best within ourselves, our most valued strengths, makes this possible. Try it out. During a challenging meeting, before a presentation, at the end of a long day, reflect on your signature strengths and notice what happens.
Affirming the best in others is similarly powerful. With your new-found knowledge of who you are at your best, you will also become more adept at spotting strengths in others. In doing so, you help those around you realize a deeply-held need we all share — to be appreciated. Strengths spotting can happen anywhere with anyone (a partner, a child, and Uber driver) and may sound like this:
Sue, the creativity you used to pull our limited materials together to produce such an appealing presentation was amazing.
Mike, thank you for energizing the group with your zest as our energy began to wane.
Kim, in the midst of cutbacks it has been hard to look to the future, I so appreciate the perspective and hope you brought to our team to help them see what is possible.
Fluency with strengths spotting is deceptively simple relative to its outsized impact. When individuals are authentically and specifically appreciated, their positive emotions are elevated, leading to expanded psychological, social, and mental capacities. (See research in A Powerful Antecedent) People simply perform better on every level with the fuel of positive emotions. The impact of appreciation goes even further. It actually bolsters our health, resulting in less stress, better sleep, and less time required to recuperate from illness, according to Ron Friedman in The Best Place to Work
But strength spotting is also a gift we give ourselves. Somehow, when we extend ourselves to others, we become happier and enjoy all of the benefits that happiness brings. (See research in Happy and Well) According to Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage, those who actively appreciate and support others are 10 time more likely to be engaged in their work than people who are least likely to do so. They are also significantly happier and 40% more likely to be promoted.
Clearly, it’s easy to see the strengths of star employees, friends, and loved-ones, but if you cultivate the capacity to dig for strengths when they aren’t obvious, the results can be astounding. Get fierce about strengths-spotting and you might even make friends with a carjacker, as this extraordinary strengths spotter did. Check out the video here.
To see how strengths spotting impacts the most important factor in our well-being read here.
The Most Important Thing – 2.2.2
It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.
FIERCELY ALIVE: How Do You See?: 2.2.2
- one of the strongest predictors for measuring productivity in the work place.
- more important than money or fame when it comes to keeping people happy throughout their lives, according to the longest-running study of adult life.
- able to reduce bullying and lower dropout rates
- a key factor in helping parents build protective resilience in their children.
- essential to being seen as an effective leader — without it, your chance is about 1 in 2000, according to a study of nearly 52,000 leaders.
What is this seemingly magical “it?” Our ability to create good relationships, which impacts our lives unlike nearly anything else. Of course, many things go into developing good relationships. In case this doesn’t already appear obvious, consider the emergence of a three-billion-dollar online dating industry, constructed to help singles form relationships and become couples.
At their most basic, good relationships can be gauged using two relatively simple ideas – connection and intimacy.
According to the research of Art and Elaine Anon, individuals can connect, even in a lab setting, if they are having the “right conversation.” The right conversation involves replacing factual content (“I can’t believe the amount of work I have to do today.”) with something more personal. And talking about personal matters is much easier from a strengths perspective (“I admire your bravery in taking on such big goals.”). Personal conversations, fueled by strengths language, grow over time with increasing self-disclosure and intimacy, which further strengthens relationships.
John Gottman, another world-renowned relationship researcher draws similar conclusions outside the lab setting. Gottman has found that people in successful relationships continually look for the positive in the other person. Intentional strengths-spotting allows us to magnify the best within the other and de-emphasize weaknesses, drawing us closer together.
Consider this co-worker story:
Mary and I have worked together for some time and are frequent collaborators on projects. In the midst of a very busy and demanding period, we had a misunderstanding that festered and threatened our working relationship. I was eager to resolve the situation and let her know how sorry I was for what I did to upset her. Mary listened and immediately forgave me.
It seems like that would be a great end to the story, but I have to admit I was a bit confused. Surely forgiving me that quickly couldn’t be a sincere response. I wondered if she was actually being passive aggressive? In reflection, I recalled that one of Mary’s signature strengths was forgiveness – her response suddenly made sense. It was natural and effortless for Mary to forgive me. Honestly, that isn’t true for me, so that made it harder to understand. I shared with Mary what happened and I spotted and appreciated her strength of forgiveness. Our relationship has never been better.
To build solid strengths-based relationships, we have to stay focused and stay with it – we have to remain fierce. That will lead us to the full breadth of positive impact, as in the story above. And as we become fierce, we create new possibilities. See how here.
Bending Reality – 2.2.3
One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.
Simone de Beauvoir
FIERCELY ALIVE: How Do You See?: 2.2.3
A student takes a standardized test. Upon analysis of the results, her teacher learns that the student and several of her peers have been identified as “growth spurters.” The results revealed that this subgroup of students is on the brink of significant intellectual growth and dramatic academic strides. The test’s findings are borne out over the course of year as the spurters show significantly greater academic performance gains over their classmates, as confirmed by end-of-year testing.
But it is a lie.
In one of the most well-known studies in all of education, the so-called spurters were chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, according to researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, “was in the mind of the teacher.”
Subsequent research by Rosenthal and Jacobson, and work by many others, has repeatedly confirmed our amazing capacity to alter the performance of others in schools, workplaces, sports teams, and military environments based on our expectations.
Knowing this, why wouldn’t we look at our children, partners, colleagues, students, and neighbors with an eye toward spotting their strengths, activating the best within them toward positive future outcomes? We have the chance, as author Chris Berdick says to, “bend reality” toward expanded positive potential through our expectations with the people we engage every minute of every day.
To bend realities, we might say:
- Wow, I can see how you two will use your shared capacity for honesty to build a great team.
- I know you can tap into your strength of love and look beyond the things that frustrate you with your little sister.
- Your capacities for creativity and curiosity are going to make your work really stand out in this class.
- I am excited about how our unique strengths will come together to help us meet our stretch goals this year.
In their book, The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander describe the process of positive expectations beautifully as they discuss the practice of “giving an A,” asserting that, “ When you give an A you find yourself speaking to people not from a place of measuring how they stack up against your standards, but from a place of respect that gives them room to realize themselves. Your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone.”
Recently, one of our partners shared this story.
Terry lives in a depressed area of town and faces a lot of challenges in his life, including homelessness. In getting to know Terry, our team discovered that he has a real passion for community beautification. We saw in him the capacity to lead a new neighborhood beautification committee. This experience has been transformative for him – he now sees himself in a new light as a community leader and is channeling his energy and strengths toward something all community members can appreciate. We know that in a more typical social-service setting, Terry might be perceived as a nuisance or would receive support that focuses only on helping him overcome his challenges and shortcomings. We take a different approach by focusing on people’s strengths then do whatever we can to help them maximize those strengths in our community.
After learning about strengths and how to spot them, if you want to apply them in your life and help others do the same, read more here.
What Will You Do? Section Three
A Through Line to the Peak – 2.3.1
You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.
Margaret Young (Readmore here.)
FIERCELY ALIVE: What Will You Do?: 2.3.1
Once we see character strengths in ourselves and others, we can watch our world change for the better (see last two posts). To continue to foster our strengths-based life, we can consciously apply our strengths in our lives. On this journey, one of the first things we need to consider is strengths alignment.
A favorite experience of mine from our Mayerson Academy workshop series is when participants tell their stories of when they were at their best. We ask them to talk about when in their recent histories were they firing on all engines? When did they feel most alive? Of the thousands of stories we’ve had the privilege to hear, there are recurring themes.
- I was acting freely for the sake of the work itself, not because of external motives.
- I was really challenged to my limits, felt completely stretched, but at the same time, felt like I could do it.
- Although I had never done it before, I was very clear about what I had to accomplish and that it was important to me.
- I had the time and space to concentrate on doing my very best.
These statements rest on a foundation of strengths alignment – a match between the requirements of an activity with personal character strengths. The result of this match is a feeling of authenticity, deep enjoyment and accomplishment. We can align our strengths to the profession we choose, the organization we join, the partner we select – every part of our lives – and create pinnacle experiences with more frequency.
Mark’s story below is a great example of strengths alignment.
I was hired to expand the reach of an organization. The conventional path would have been to hit the road and schedule as many sales calls as possible. I did some of that, but my greatest strengths don’t lie in social intelligence, love, and zest which that strategy clearly called for. The alignment for me came when I saw my role as an author and a presenter, promoting the work in a different way – a way that allowed me to live my strengths of judgement, creativity, and honesty. I am happy to say that the pause I took to seek alignment paid off — the organization has grown significantly as a result.
When it comes to fostering satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning in our work, it is the alignment of our character strengths that matters most, according to research from Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch.
Just as individuals can create their own alignment, leaders can support alignment for others by jointly unpacking the meaning of their organizational missions and visions and by encouraging colleagues to find the connections from those statements to their roles and to their character strengths.
An example might include an organization committed to serving as a bridge to change lives, families, and communities through education and job readiness, whose benefits administrator sees her strengths of prudence and judgement central to her role but also sees her strengths of hope and love as essential to the way she works with her colleagues and expresses their shared mission.
A clear through line from the heart of the organization to every individual’s strengths is the ultimate incentive. It is undeniably powerful for building motivation, engagement, and performance.
See here how we can also reinvent the tasks associated with our work to expand engagement and performance.
Adapting to Flourish – 2.3.2
It is how we choose what we do and how we approach it that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur or to something resembling a work of art.
FIERCELY ALIVE: What Will You Do?: 2.3.2
The need to be appreciated and to be in relationships with others are two of the deepest longings we all share. We also possess a profound and deep-seated need to direct our own lives. Shawn Achor, in The Happiness Advantage, reports on a myriad of studies which suggest that absent a sense of control in our lives, we experience significant, negative impacts on our health and well-being. One study indicates that lack of control at work is as great a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure. Conversely, the National Study of the Changing Workforce survey of 3000 workers indicated that feelings of control at work produced greater satisfaction at work, at home, in relationships, and in life in general.
Gaining more control at work can begin with realizing that although at times we may not have a choice with what we need to do, we can decide how we will go about it. We can proactively adapt our activities to utilize our character strengths. As a result, we are significantly more likely to flourish – up to 18 times more than those with low strengths use, according to the research of Lucy Hone.
In Jane Dutton’s research, she uses the term “job crafting” to describe how we can customize our work by re-defining tasks, our interaction with others, or the way we perceive our work. The process of adapting our work to match our strengths can begin with a small step. When the Mayerson Academy team works with individuals, teams, or organizations to adapt roles to activate character strengths, we frequently begin with a simple question: “Is there an area of your work, or a specific task, where you would like to increase your performance or engagement?”
Having established that there are plenty of places for improvement, we then explore what the selected tasks or areas might look like if participants proactively brought their strengths to the work. This is an “aha moment’ for people. Being able to see work as malleable and adaptable for personal expression creates new potential. A member of our own Mayerson Academy team tells a great story about a small change that made a big difference.
I love working with groups, exploring strengths, and helping folks discover how to be at their best to realize their aspirations. But I what I really don’t love is designing, building curriculum and content. I could create an end product that I felt good about, but the process was pretty miserable. One of my signature strengths is humor. When casually engaging with colleagues, I like to inject a sense of playfulness and fun. I realized I could actually do this with my presentations. I could inject funny gifs, memes and slide titles into my materials prep. The result? A task I dreaded is now enjoyable. I am bringing more of my authentic self to the work, and as a result, participants are more engaged, too.
The more we engage in job crafting, integrating the very best of ourselves, the more automatic it becomes. We can also apply our character strengths to realize and enjoy new achievements. More on this here.
Be and Do Your Best – 2.3.3
FIERCELY ALIVE: What Will You Do?: 2.3.3
Building on your capacity to align and adapt so your tasks play to your strengths can fuel audacious visions. When you are ready to define entirely new boundaries, consider new horizons, or attack big goals, three things are critical to activate the best of yourself and create your most engaged, strengths-based performance.
Pick a goal that aligns with who you (or your team) are at your best. One way we do this in our work with organizations is to encourage participants to look at the types of strengths that are most present. If your signature character strengths tend to be heart-centered and outwardly-oriented, you will likely define inspiring goals differently than if you tend to be head-centered and inwardly-oriented. Based on individual signature strengths, two different version of a similar goal could look like this:
Strengths: Kindness, Love, Humor
Goal: I will lead my organization to be characterized by warm relationships and a sense of connectedness; I will work toward having our organization being identified as a Great Place to Work.
Or alternatively like this:
Strengths: Judgement, Perspective, Love of Learning
Goal: I will lead my organization to be recognized as a thought leader in our sector; we will produce five major publications this year.
When working to achieve a big vision, your progress will be supported and your commitment sustained by the emotional boost and energy you get from identifying a challenging goal resonant with who you are.
Break the goal into smaller workable parts to help determine how to best leverage your signature strengths. As an example, consider the goal of becoming an extraordinary leader. When it comes to leadership at the Mayerson Academy, we favor The Leadership Challenge model developed by Jim Kouzes and Larry Posner. Their analysis of extraordinary leadership identifies 5 essential practices: Model the Way; Inspire a Shared Vision; Challenge the Process; Enable Others to Act; and Encourage the Heart. Seeing extraordinary leadership via its components, makes it easier to understand how we can apply our strengths. One example would be to use a signature strength of honesty to Model the Way as you ensure your language, actions, and intentions authentically match your values. As you do so, you will build trust which is the lifeblood of every effective organization. To see how to activate your unique strengths to develop each component of extraordinary leadership, take a look here.)
Fiercely activating your signature strengths, will release the resources you need to realize your most ambitious goals. Not only are your prospects for achieving increased, but by their very nature, your strengths will help you contribute to the common good and experience authentic self-expression.
When your strengths are engaged, taking action can be as natural as writing with your dominant hand. But, sometimes we cover up aspects of who we are. In fact, 61% of employees indicate doing so at the office on a regular basis. This is where you have to be fierce. Don’t shy away from living the best version of yourself. Activate your kindness, prudence, love, appreciation of beauty and excellence — or whatever your signature strengths are. Allow your strengths to shine and you will give permission for others to do the same, creating a positive upward spiral.
When just one person decides to align goals to strengths, adapt the project where necessary, and drive to achieve authentically, an entire community can benefit. Susan’s story of overcoming a fear by activating signature strengths resulted in powerful outcomes.
Susan had a vision for her community. Looking through the lens of her love of learning and perspective strengths, she wanted to see her community as a place where learners were reminded of who they are at their best from the moment they approached their school. Susan has a vision for visual reminders of character strengths at pedestrian crossings and the circle drive in front of the school. She was intimidated by the prospect of leading a team and making a funding pitch. She didn’t believe she could do it. However, she tapped into her authentic sense of hope and love and made a moving and successful pitch for funding to a packed room of community residents. As a result, she led a team to create the project she had dreamt of. Today, learners within her community elementary school are greeted by positive reminders of the best of their humanity every day as they enter school and she has shared, “ I was overcoming obstacles I never thought I would. I have been changed by the opportunity and am so grateful for it. I am better because of it.”