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How to Build Your Strengths

kiel week 2009

When I was an undergraduate at SUNY College at Buffalo (1972-1976), I majored in English and minored in Philosophy and Creative Studies. Creative Studies was unique to this college, with faculty led by Sidney J. Parnes and Ruth Noller, pioneering experts in the creativity field.  Dr. Parnes (Sid) went on to later co-found the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Center at Buffalo.

Every summer the Center for Creativity Studies at Buffalo State College held a Creative Studies Conference, inviting the brightest innovators in this field to present their study findings and to present workshops about the creative process. I attended one in 1974 that I shall never forget, as I acquired a simple tool there which I have always remembered and still utilize and about which I share with my own university students—and now, you!—to this day. It was offered in a workshop titled something like “Strength Building: A Creative Process.” Unfortunately I do not recall the name of the presenter. I believe he was a CEO of a creative corporate consulting firm.

Colorful Hot Air Balloons in Flight

“Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Now I would like for you to write down 10 of what you consider to be your Greatest Weaknesses.”

That is how the workshop began. The workshop presenter, a well groomed man in his early 40’s, gave us around ten minutes to compile our list of weaknesses. I don’t recall at all what I wrote down then; which is good, according to the insights he shared over the rest of this exercise.

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“Now then, on a separate piece of paper, please write down a list of what you perceive to be your 10 Greatest Strengths. I’d like for you to rank order these strengths of yours from one to ten, with ten being your highest, greatest strength of all.”

I seem to recall a few of these even today, forty years later. “A good listener” was on the list (I don’t think at the top); “persistent” was probably there, too; “a Friend” I am guessing I would also have included on my self-perceived list of strengths at that time.

“Now then, please take out your page with the list of your perceived weaknesses. I would like for you to TEAR THIS UP.  Please throw the paper scraps away in the waste basket that I will now pass around the room.”

Hmm! I was surprised. I thought for sure we would be focusing on those weaknesses to learn how to “build our strengths.”

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“Never focus on your weaknesses,” the creativity consultant stated. “If you were ready to deal with them, they probably wouldn’t  be on your list of weaknesses anyway.  Instead,” he invited, “ ALWAYS CONCENTRATE ON DEVELOPING WHAT YOU ALREADY FIND TO BE YOUR STRENGTHS.  IF YOU DEVELOP YOUR STRENGTHS FURTHER, SOME DAY YOU WILL LOOK BACK TO FIND THAT SOME OF WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE COUNTED AS WEAKNESSES ARE NOW AMONG YOUR STRENGTHS, TOO!”

Snail Shell

This man explained about how developing our greatest strengths has benefits that expand all of our skills or talents along the way. I could relate this to fencing at the time, as I was on an intercollegiate fencing squad that placed within the top 10 in the nation at the the following year’s national tournament.

I applied the workshop KEY to fencing all that next year. ACCENTUATE STRENGTHS! Develop those skills or fencing moves and attacks that I liked most and could do the best. Don’t dwell on weaknesses, and all will improve. I must say, he was so right! They did! I learned that when I focused on a weakness in fencing, a move or skill I had not yet been able to master, I became self-conscious on the fencing strip, and any athlete knows that is never a good thing! When instead I focused mainly in practice and coaching lessons on honing particular moves and attacks I already felt naturally good at, I developed a portfolio of strengths, a repertoire of successful strategies which I found I could rely on “without thinking” during a bout. That is what fencing absolutely requires is the fluid capacity to ACT and to CREATE strategy in the immediacy of the Moment. This approach was highly successful. That next year I defeated many of the best fencers from the best university teams throughout the country. I was focussed on what I COULD do, and DID that!

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So, I invite YOU to write down a list of what you perceive to be your ten greatest weaknesses. Put that aside and on another sheet of paper, write down what you perceive to be your ten greatest strengths. Rank order those strengths to compile a final list of your strengths. Now then, please tear up your list of weaknesses and throw that away. What you are left with is the list of Your Greatest STRENGTHS! Place that list somewhere so you will see it often. Contemplate your strengths. DEVELOP them. Then go about your business, whatever it might be, and APPLY these Strengths mindfully. This is a win-win scenario for all!

I welcome your Comments, Your Insights and Your Stories to Share !