SELF Magazine January 2006
LIVE TO YOUR STRENGTHS
By Nancy Hass (with modifications)
Want to live your dream life?
Experts say that means listening to your gut and tapping into your natural smarts. Figure out what makes you jump for joy, then do more of it every single day! Focus on what you do best, than DELEGATE the rest!
When I spotted a former high school classmate on the street recently, I looked around for an alley to duck into rather than listen to what I assumed would be her tale of woe. I considered her a loser back then-I know that sounds harsh and judgmental, but it's the truth. A so-so student with jet-black dyed hair, a guitar over her shoulder and a pack of Marlboros in her pocket, she ran her brother's pizza parlor at night when she wasn't playing in one of the local garage bands. To my college-bound pals and me, she was virtually nonexistent.
But there she was, more than 20 years later, impossible to avoid. I had no choice but to ask what she'd been up to; my guess was she was still ringing up slices. I girded myself to feel pity and condescension. Then she handed me her business card: She was an executive at a major record label.
The joke was on me. It only took a few minutes to realize that, despite my conventional smarts, in many ways she was light-years ahead of me. She might have had lackluster grades in high school, but clearly she'd figured out how to parlay her love of rock and roll into a top job in the music industry. I, on the other hand, had drifted along for years with a liberal arts degree, unclear on what I was good at and beating myself up for not being as together as friends who'd marched lockstep into law or medicine.
"You were the really smart one," I heard myself saying as we air-kissed and waved good-bye. It was something I could never have imagined uttering in high school.
Walking away, it occurred to me that she was proof of what many scientists and educators now believe: Intelligence is more than simply having a big vocabulary or getting an A in calculus. What most of us lump together as smartness is actually a constellation of intelligences, most of which can't be measured by an IQ test, according to Howard Gardner, professor of cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
whose theories are at the vanguard of educational thought.
1. Interpersonal intelligence (enable us to understand other people), or "people smarts," is usually found in those who also possess verbal acuity.
Typical among teachers and psychologists.
2. Intrapersonal intelligence (understand ourselves - self-awareness)
Often found in psychologists and writers.
As we gain experience in our real life, we're able to reach out and understand ourselves and the world more deeply. Personal and spiritual acumen continue to grow into the 80s.
3. Spatial intelligence
Often linked to scientific ability or talent in the visual arts. Strong in people with good visual skills (artists and architects).
4. Musical intelligence
Musical intelligence, for instance, often appears in people who are mathematically gifted.
5. Logic/Mathematic (number smarts)
Think science and tech professions.
Mathematical facility tends to peak in the 20s
6. Linguistic intelligence (deftness with words, word smarts)
Used in writing, law and advertising.
The passage of time does not seem to affect linguistic intelligence. Vocabulary continues to grow into the 80s
7. Kinesthetic (bodily) intelligence
Pronounced in athletes and dancers
Kinesthetic intelligence peaks even earlier than the 20aEU(tm)s, as evidenced by the raft of prepubescent Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters
We all possess elements of each, although we may not always be aware of or use them. "Certain intelligences tend to cluster together," says Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of 7 Kinds of Smart (Plume).
The idea that you can be only one type of person or the other intelligencewise is a fiction, according to Armstrong. Far from being static, intelligences can also shift over time, Armstrong points out.
But whatever a person's various abilities, psychologists now believe the key to success and happiness in life is to concentrate on the ones that come most naturally, even if they don't meet the definition of what is typically considered smart. In other words, stop denigrating yourself for what you can't do. To get ahead in life and, more important, feel fulfilled, you need to play to your strengths aEU" your gifts. That may seem obvious, but a remarkable number of people don't do it, says Paul D. Tieger, coauthor of Do What You Are (Little Brown). "Over the course of my 20-year career counseling patients, I've seen that by the time my patients are 45, more than half say they wouldn't choose the same path if they could do it again." That may be because many of us either muddle through life with only a vague idea of what we're good at, or we ignore our true talents. "A lot of people focus on something simply because they like the idea of a particular career or the lifestyle that goes with it, even though they don't have the talent for it," Tieger explains. "Unfortunately, they may be setting themselves up for unhappiness because they haven't gotten to know themselves."
It's never too late to start that self-exploration. Indeed, because some intelligences ebb and flow with age, Armstrong recommends staying open to unexpected changes in your abilities. "Some may fade over the years, others grow stronger; it might even make sense to refocus your energy," he says. First, though, you have to assess your passions, intelligences and temperament, then figure out how to make the most of what you've got. Use the exercises on these pages to help you discover what you're truly meant to be doing.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
There's a reason it's so tough to recognize your core intelligences: Most people aren't brought up to be aware of them. "Parents often want their children to be carbon copies of themselves or to fulfill some dream they have," Tieger says. As a result, too many of us get all the way through college without a clear idea of what we do best. We end up making long-term life and career decisions at 18, or 19, before getting a chance to go out into the world and test ourselves. "What often happens is that someone says something like, `You're good at arguing; you should be a lawyer,' and suddenly you find yourself in law school, even though you may not have an affinity for most of what being a lawyer entails, such as doing research or writing briefs," Tieger says.
That's what happened to Lisa Hedley. "I went to law school believing I'd be able to blend my intellectual interests with my creative ones-I wanted to be an art lawyer," says Hedley, 44, who lives in Washington, Connecticut, with her husband and four children. "So I joined a big law firm. Except I don't thrive in a rigid, structured environment. What I do have a talent for, I realized, was making sense of art:"
After years of slogging through mind-numbing legal documents, Hedley quit law to make documentaries; her first film was about dwarfism, a condition that affects one of her daughters. "It took a big part of my adulthood, but I found my calling-a messy blend of the analytical and the creative:"
It's not always easy to switch gears. If you hold on to beliefs about yourself long enough, sooner or later you may come to accept them, whether or not they're true. Or you may be loath to give up a hefty paycheck or face uncertainty, even if you're in a job-or life-that feels as if it's a bad fit. If that's the case, experts suggest asking yourself the questions in this exercise:
SELF-DISCOVERY EXERCISE #1
* When exactly did I decide to take the path I'm on?
* What was going on in my life then?
* Were my career decisions based on my making a clear evaluation of my native abilities?
* Were they based on others' expectations or outside factors such as economic necessity?
* Am I the same person now as I was back then? What have I learned about myself and what I'm truly good at since that time?
* Would I make the same decisions in my career and life if I had it to do all over again?
If your answers indicate you're treading a well-worn trail in the wrong direction, you may need to take stock of who you are now, regardless of your past perceptions. "It's helpful to write down any old clichA(c)s or messages you've internalized about yourself-for instance, `I'm too scattered to be a good leader'-then think about whose voice you're hearing in your head as you make your list," suggests Dale Atkins, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City specializing in life transitions. Is it your father who always teased you about your so-called ditziness? A guidance counselor who intoned that the most important thing to think about when choosing a career was maximizing your earning potential? "I usually find that the people who are most unhappy have been listening to internal tapes that were actually made by other people," Atkins says. "When they erase those tapes and start listening to their own instincts instead, the various ways in which they might change course suddenly become abundantly clear."
ACCENTUATE YOUR POSITIVE
In our go-go culture, most people are brought up to believe they need to improve what they're not good at rather than revel in their strengths. "The trouble is, once you start thinking in terms of where you fall short instead of where you shine, you negatively color your attitude toward yourself and the world," says Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of Now Discover Your Strengths (Free Press). "What if Beethoven, Pavarotti or Einstein had spent their time working on what they were bad at instead of perfecting their natural talents? Why pour huge amounts of effort into shoring up your weak points, when at best, you'll probably wind up being only average at those things? If you constantly beat yourself up for the qualities you lack, your most outstanding abilities will never get the chance to flourish," he adds.
Buckingham's words make me think of all the years I spent trying to hide my difficulty with arithmetic. Although I was a whiz at language and writing, my poor performance in math horrified my parents. They, too, were great at English and bad at math and were determined that I not be like them. So they hardly noted my verbal proficiency and instead talked constantly about how I needed to improve my math skills. I know they had the best of intentions, but I would have been better served (and felt less stressed) if they had nurtured my talent for language and helped me understand that I didn't need to be exceptional at math, only proficient enough to pass exams. Making the most of your strengths, it turns out, means forgiving yourself for your weaknesses-and compensating for them, whether that means delegating to others who are naturally good in the areas you're not or by employing a high-tech gadget to take over functions that don't come easily. (Despite what your teachers may have told you, using a calculator is not cheating.) By making good enough your mantra when you're charged with doing something that is not your forte, you'll have more energy to devote to areas in which you truly excel.
If you're not sure which skills feel natural, it may help to remember that the things we most enjoy are typically the ones that come easiest to us. Remember back to your childhood. What did you like to do as a kid? This was our most natural state, when we did do what came "naturally"..... Too bad that as kids, we're often taught that one has to suffer to succeed. The truth is that if you spend most of your time doing things you don't like, there's a good chance you shouldn't be doing those things. It's better to start with your natural abilities and focus on taking those to a higher level. In the long run, that's what is likely to make you happiest.
To get back in touch with your natural strengths, try the following exercise, developed by Gary Lockwood, a business coach in Ontario, California:
SELF-DISCOVERY EXERCISE #2
Be your own talent scout
1. List all the activities you do easily (anything that seems nearly effortless or that you know you do better than most people). Don't confine yourself to what your current job and life require. Think outside the box-everything including helping friends get through emotional crises and solving complex puzzles such as how to program TiVo.
2. Jot down the activities in which you are able to lose yourself (time seems to fly when you do them), including hobbies and physical chores.
3. List all the activities that make you happy, including the ones you do just for yourself, with no promise of gain, simply because they're enjoyable, interesting and fulfilling.
4. Compare the three lists to find the overlap; they are likely to be your areas of natural aptitude and talent, where your greatest potential lies.
5. Are you still stumped about where you shine? Ask your parents, friends, coworkers and a perceptive former boss to name your top five strengths. The common answers in their lists could be enormously illuminating.
Chasing a dream, even an outlandish one, can be a wonderful, mind-expanding experience. The trick is to go for your goal within limits. "Most people assume they can learn to be anything they want to be. That's not necessarily so," Buckingham says. "Skills and knowledge can and should be acquired, but talents-the inherent, persistent patterns of thinking, feeling and acting that seem to emerge almost on their own-are enduring and unique:" Even when raw ability is there, success is not guaranteed. Being a painter, for instance, calls for talents beyond brushwork (thriving in the solitary environment of a studio, for example).
Which brings to mind a college acquaintance I'll call Anna, who discovered what can happen when a person's dreams overshadow her true talents. Bright, enthusiastic and social, Anna loved organizing events on campus, and she often blew off writing classes for them. So we were all surprised when, seemingly on impulse, she became convinced she could be a writer. After college, she moved abroad, found some cheap digs and spent the next two decades scrimping so she could focus on writing. Yet despite her tireless efforts, she never managed to get published and, at 40, ended up back home in the United States, frustrated and miserable.
"People often build their lives on the notion that the most important thing is to follow a dream, even if that dream doesn't have much to do with their talents," Tieger says. "But it's just as important to experience success and recognition, even if it's not for writing a novel or cutting a record:"
Of course, some goals are elusive no matter how much talent you have. After all, there's room for only so many actresses on the red carpet. To get a realistic sense of your chances of making it in an ultra-competitive field, Atkins suggests getting feedback from people who've done well in the area you want to pursue. Take a class with a prominent teacher who agrees beforehand to give you an honest appraisal. Apply for a program that requires an audition or a portfolio for admission. Set a deadline for success-a year, five years-and write a contract with yourself stating your parameters for achieving reasonable goals by a certain point in time.
I heard that Anna figured all this out, eventually. While freelancing back in the States, she worked for a children's arts organization. Her bosses fell in love with her warmth and organizational skills. She still writes in her spare time, but her focus now is doing the behind the-scenes work to ensure the group's survival. She's networking, fund-raising and planning events to raise the group's profile, exactly the kind of thing she liked to do back in college. In other words, she's making the most of what she has always done best.
It's not always possible to do what comes naturally, but experts say we all should spend part of every day nurturing our gifts, or at least moving in that direction. Ask yourself if, in your current job, you typically use your top abilities. "If not, there is no clearer sign that you need to refocus," Atkins says. "It can be terrifying to realize you're in the wrong position or even career, but it's worth being honest, or there's no way you'll feel satisfied:" Keep in mind, too, that even if you switch gears (or careers), you won't be returning to square one. You'll begin with an edge because you'll be tapping into your natural proclivities. In the end, you'll be ahead of the game and feel happier, too.
My moment of truth came in my mid-20s, when I wound up running the New York office of a French wine importer. Sure, I loved the travel to Paris, touring vineyards and the $400 bottles of Bordeaux. But one day, as I stared out my window, bored to tears with paperwork and feeling bad about how often I made mistakes, I realized I wasn't particularly good at the job. The only thing I'd ever done very well was write, yet here I was, a mathphobe crunching numbers. I quit soon after and went back to school to hone my writing skills. It was the hardest-and best-decision I ever made.
WHO ARE YOU?
SELF-DISCOVERY EXERCISE #3
Most people tend to have a number of intelligences and gifts and excel at several. To get more aware of yours (the first step to using them), check the statements that describe you best. (Ignore the abbreviations that follow each; we tell you what they mean at the end.)
____ IaEU(tm)d rather draw a map than give someone verbal directions (S)
____ I play (or used to lay) a musical instrument. (M)
____ I link music with my moods. (M)
____ I do calculations in my had (LM)
____ I like working with calculators (LM)
____ I pick up dance steps quickly (BK)
____ I can express myself easily. (L)
____ I enjoy a good lecture or speech (L)
____ I always know north from south (S)
____ My life would seem empty without music (M)
____ I can usually follow the directions that come with new gadgets (S)
____ I like puzzles and games (S)
____ Learning to bike was easy. (BK)
____ Illogical statements bug me (LM)
____ IaEU(tm)m well coordinated (BK)
____ I see number patterns easily (LM)
____ I like working with my hands (BK)
____ IaEU(tm)m good at discerning the fine point of word meanings (L)
____ I can look at an object and easily see it sideways or backward (S)
____ I often connect a song wit some event or time in my life (M)
____ I like looking at the shapes of buildings and structures (S)
____ I like working with numbers (LM)
____ I hum or sing when alone (M)
____ IaEU(tm)m good at sports (BK)
____ IaEU(tm)m interested in language (L)
____ IaEU(tm)m usually aware of the expression on my face (INTRA)
____ IaEU(tm)m sensitive to the expressions on other peopleaEU(tm)s faces (INTER)
____ IaEU(tm)m aware of my moods (INTRA)
____ I am generally aware of other peopleaEU(tm)s moods (INTER)
____ I can usually tell what other people think of me (INTRA)
Four checks in any of the first five categories (L, LM, M, S, BK) means a strong ability.
One or more checks in the last two (INTER, INTRA) suggests a bent for those traits as well.
S Spatial intelligence, often linked to scientific ability or talent in the visual arts. Strong in people with good visual skills (artists and architects).
M Musical intelligence - Musical intelligence, for instance, often appears in people who are mathematically gifted.
LM Logic/Mathematic (number smarts) (think science and tech professions) Mathematical facility tends to peak in the 20s.
L Linguistic intelligence (deftness with words, word smarts) Used in writing, law and advertising. The passage of time does not seem to affect linguistic intelligence. Vocabulary continues to grow into the 80s.
BK Kinesthetic (bodily) intelligence - Pronounced in athletes and dancers. Kinesthetic intelligence peaks even earlier than the 20aEU(tm)s, as evidenced by the raft of prepubescent Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters
INTER Interpersonal intelligence (enable us to understand other people), or "people smarts," is usually found in those who also possess verbal acuity. Typical among teachers and psychologists.
INTRA Intrapersonal intelligence (understand ourselves - self-awareness) often found in psychologists and writers. As we gain experience in our real life, we're able to reach out and understand ourselves and the world more deeply. Personal and spiritual acumen continue to grow into the 80s.