Last week I had dinner with my friend. We’d grown up together in the 1970s and 80s. We’d shared so much that I thought we knew each other really well. What she told me that night at dinner shocked me. She said she wished she’d never become a nurse. She said what she really wanted to do was drama. In my mind, she had always wanted to be a nurse and I remember her mum, having conversations about it. She wasn’t sure why her mum wanted that for her, but she did and Jane took on that aspiration as her own. She’s 52 now and has spent her entire career doing something that she didn't really want to do.
I’ve heard variations on Jane’s story many times in the last decade during conversations about how we can inadvertently try to make us ourselves into something we’re not.
Have you ever been in a job that you feel is totally wrong for you, or maybe even less dramatically, do you just don’t really feel energised by the work you do?
Well, here’s the thing, we know from neurobiology that we are who we are by the time we’re in our mid-teens. After that we don’t change all that much. If we’re a person who loves to connect, we can't help but stay that way. If we’re not a competitive person but are in a sales job, then no amount of coaching or training can make us into a competitive person. Yet, for the most part, this simple insight into human beings is lacking in schools, colleges, careers’ services and organisations in which we work. For some older people, it means that not only have they been disenchanted in their working lives, but also they face ‘retirement’ or at least a post-paid work phase with little idea of how to find meaning and satisfaction in life.
A strength is something that someone is naturally good at, loves doing and is energised by. Our values and our motivations are also our strengths. For example, great nurses are motivated by the values of making a difference and doing the right thing.
Our strengths are innate. They are developed by the time we reach our mid-teens. By then we are who we are and don’t change very much. We can learn new skills or acquire new knowledge but what we are like as a person fundamentally doesn’t change that much.
Many have little idea of who they really are, what they are naturally good at, what energises and motivates them and what really matters to them. In my parlance, they don’t know their strengths.
Without this fundamental understanding of ourselves, it’s always going to be hit and miss as to whether we find fulfillment. Or, like Jane, we might end up spending a good deal of time doing something that we’re okay at but just don’t love.
This work matters a lot to me because had I known about strengths when I was young I would have refused promotion into a job that I wasn’t cut out for and, in doing so, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration and unhappiness.
When I was in my 20s I was doing a fabulous job that I loved. I was a round peg in a round hole and I couldn’t wait to get to work every morning.
I was doing so well that I was promoted. The new job couldn’t have been a worse fit for me. I found it draining and I was just ‘ok’ at it, I definitely wasn’t great at it. Whereas my previous job had been so energising for me.
My confidence dropped and neither my boss nor I could really understand how it was that I was so vibrant and successful in my previous role but not in my new one. I had ticked all the boxes in the interview but it didn’t occur to any of us to ask whether it was actually a good fit for me.
Needless to say, I didn’t last long in that job. But it played in my mind – how could an organisation with such apparently sophisticated selection approaches have got it so wrong.
Now, almost thirty years later, thousands of people are still struggling being in a job to which they’re not suited and organisations are still inadvertently getting it wrong.
Had I known about the importance of strengths and discovered my own strengths years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of angst and made some better decisions.
It is very sad that the self-insight which is crucial to our happiness and wellbeing is as elusive in the under 20s as it is in the over 50s.
What I am talking about here - is knowing our strengths so that we can make choices that are right for us.
Think of your strengths as something that you can’t not do. They are the things that feel like a natural part of who you are. Have a think about what that means for you. What sort of things do you naturally do? So you almost always…talk to people in lifts, queues or on trains?
Have a list of things to do, even on weekends?
Strive to come first? See the problems that need solving?
If you said a big ‘yes, that’s me’ to any of these things, this an indication that this is one of your strengths or several of your strengths.
Using our strengths energises us. If you said a definite ‘no’ to any of these things, chances are it’s because it’s not a natural strength. These are the things you would probably avoid doing and if you did them, they would drain you.
Think of your strengths as the real you. The things that are naturally you, that you can’t not be or do, that you’re naturally drawn to.
Whatever your age I would heartily recommend investing some time discovering your strengths. It’s a simple exercise and the time spent is a fantastic investment as the self-insight serves as a guide as to what to spend your time doing (and just as importantly, not doing).
Doing what you love, having a purpose and enjoying the small things in life will help you to spend the rest of your days in ways you find meaningful and fulfilling.
Sally Bibb is the author of The Strengths Book: Discover How to Be Fulfilled in Your Work and Life. It was published last month and is a practical book that contains a series of exercises to discover your own strengths as well as advice about how to apply them in all aspects of your life.