When you graduated from university, threw your mortarboard, and entered the world of work, did you ever expect this?
Not doing well at your job. Feeling incompetent. Asking stupid questions all the time. Staying silent in meetings. Not being interested in your job.
Why? Why do you dislike your work after working so hard to get to a job?
Yet why do others seem to thrive in their jobs, getting promoted, getting ever bigger assignments, and even bigger pay checks?
Of course, there are many reasons. But I want to explore one principle today.
The principle of playing to your strengths.
When we go to school, we are taught to do things that we don’t like. If we step out of line, we are punished. Our natural tendency to play, have fun, and do what seems natural becomes inhibited. Slowly, we are fed the narrative:
you have to learn to do things you don’t like.
Having fun is not good. You need to learn how to grow up and be mature. You need to be serious about your work!
Work ceases to be something fun. Learning stops being play. Instead, we learn that maybe, just maybe, this is all there can be to work.
That all we have to accept, is that work, may never be fun.
Sir Ken Robinson shares this beautiful story of the girl who struggled initially in school. She was given diagnoses like ADHD and learning difficulties. Eventually, she was brought to see a psychologist.
The psychologist put on some music.
And the girl started dancing.
The psychologist said to her mother.
Your girl doesn’t have a problem. She just needs to go to dance lessons.
Eventually, this girl became a world leading dancer.
I love this story because it reveals to us what can happen when we truly tap into the creative potential of our strengths. You are born with a certain strength.
The question is,
do you know that strength?
Do you dare to use that strength?
Why this matters to me
Can I share something with you?
In my first job, I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). If you don’t know what that is, it says,
Get better or get sacked.
This came during a time when I felt very engaged with my work. I was thinking of my work before bed, jotting down whatever ideas came to mind. I would be spending hours practising presentations, even though it wasn’t part of my job scope. I would work beyond the required hours, because I wanted to do a good job.
The PIP killed that. Why did it happen? Because I disagreed with how someone had shared my misdemeanours with the director, assistant director, supervisors, and admin assistants, copying all of us in the same email.
The next day, I walked up to her, and asked why she needed to send out the email. There’s a heated exchange.
Over the next few days, I’m asked to discuss a performance improvement plan. All the mistakes of the past year are laid out for all to see. I’m told to improve all those things over the next 6 months.
1 month into the PIP, I receive a great job offer. It involves strategic thinking. Something I think I will be really great at. Something which I have demonstrated in the past that I’m good at. What happens?
I turn down the offer. Because I think I need to work through my weaknesses, instead of playing to my strengths.
Over the next 6 months, I learn to shut up. To stop caring so much. I lose the joy I have with work.
Whenever I look back, I see that moment as a particularly poignant one. Because it shows me what can happen when you distract yourself with all your flaws, and you stop seeing your strengths. You stop believing that you have something to give to the world. Rather, you believe that you need something from the world – money, retirement security, pensions…and you give up your soul and spirit in exchange for what they offer.
It’s scary, isn’t it.
Let me say this. The world can do that to you. Why?
Our modern world has been premised around the Industrial Revolution.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2019:410), Harari points out,
One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry…
In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity.
Our Industrial Revolution argues that to be truly efficient and effective, everything needs to be uniform. Including the workers.
Rather than encouraging you to bring out your unique individuality, modern work encourages you to shear off some of your unique edges to do the job description.
Today, you may not be engaged in work. But you may argue,
It doesn’t really matter, does it?
The sinister thing is not that work is painful. In fact, for many of us, it may not be painful. It may be okay.
As long as you follow the job description, reply your emails, stay in line, ask less questions, don’t try to change too many things, you probably wouldn’t get into trouble.
The danger isn’t succeeding. The danger is settling. You learn to settle for okay. Enough.
You convince yourself that because this is what the whole world is doing, surely it’s not a problem for me to do this!
The danger is how much of yourself you lose in the process of doing that.
What can you do?
Realise that there’s more to this
For you to play to your strengths, you can start by realising that there’s more than this. Think back to the last time you felt excited about your work. Where you felt – gosh, I’m so excited by how this is going to turn out! Where you have that childlike excitement and playfulness towards your work.
When I was young, I used to look forward to the annual church camps we had in Malaysia. As a young boy, this was the only time we got to travel out of the country. I would get my clothes ready the night before.
I would pack my bag the week before, packing my favourite books, comics, and snacks.
On the day of departure, I would wake up at 5AM, get washed, and wait for the time to come when we could set off on our adventure!
I was excited, even though it was something small. Can you connect to the time you felt as a young child, when you were excited about something you were going to do?
Have you found that at work?
These questions might help.
- What gives you joy?
- What do you do when time seems to just run away?
The world tells us to follow our passion, but it also says that if you’re too passionate, that’s dangerous. You might lose everything. You want to pursue, but you also fear the consequences if you really went all the way.
Here’s my encouragement.
Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen if you played to your strengths, and pursued that?’
Can you live with the worst consequences?
You might realise you can. And that it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and pursue.
Play to your successes
If you’re not doing well in something, you may not be a natural at it. Playing to your strengths is playing to your successes.
When I was younger, my parents used to tell me that science was the only way to success. Being obedient, I studied all I could for it.
I would sleep at 11, wake up at 4am, and do my homework. I would attend every lecture, copy notes, and do ALL the homework.
Yet despite all that effort, I promptly failed. It just didn’t come naturally to me.
Where are you naturally succeeding, even though it may not be a conventional idea of success? Success can mean different things for different people. But when I talk about success, I talk about what outcomes you aim for come more easily than others. What comes naturally to you? Rather than feeling like you have to work very hard to get a result, what feels like play to you?
Stick to your strengths
When it came for me to choose my university course, I was very scared. I saw the experience I had with science and math. But I also saw that during the Alevels, I had scored a D for English Linguistics. That D was the first in the history of the school. I was the first ever to score a D for the subject.
I know, it’s not something to be proud of.
I thought I had a flair for writing… but D was ridiculous! I feared that if I really did what I wanted, studying the arts and humanities, I would do equally badly again.
That’s why sometimes, it’s important to stick to your strengths, even though certain incidents may make you question them. When you face such situations, it’s important to ask,
Is this an anomaly? Is this unusual? Were there circumstances that led up to this ‘failure’?
For example, in my previous job, I thought I was no longer good at the strategic work anymore because bosses told me that I should just focus on my job.
But there’s a distinction.
Just because people don’t like what you do, doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you do.
In fact, if people liked what you did, you may not even be making an impact. You’re preaching to the converted. The real test of your strengths comes when you’re able to change things that aren’t easily changed.
Look at Superman. He can lift weights. Everyone can!
But the difference is that he can lift HEAVY weights. That not anyone can.
It wouldn’t be called a superpower if it could do what everyone could do, right? You wouldn’t call your ability to write a superpower if everyone agreed to what you wrote. Rather, you would call it a superpower if some didn’t agree initially, and yet had their views changed after they read what you did.
Playing to your strengths is therefore the courage to stick to your strengths, even when naysayers laugh at it.
Know your strengths.
Authors like Epstein, in Range, argues that personality tests are too neat and tidy to be effective. But rather than using them as prescriptions of what we could do, it serves as a better description of what you already do well.
For me, Strengthsfinder has been helpful in understanding what my strengths even are. Sometimes, we think that we can ‘figure’ it out on our own. But assessments help us to reduce the bias and noise in our own judgments by filtering the information we give it through a filter of data companies like Gallup have studied and processed.
Quit your job if it doesn’t give you bliss
The most radical thing I did to play to my strengths again… I quitted my job.
I realised that fear kept me stuck. And it would continue keeping me stuck if I stuck to a job where none of my strengths could be used.
Since then, freelancing as a writer, speaker and facilitator has been … extraordinary. I laugh when working. I sit back after finishing an article, and go,
Wow, I was paid for this? Really?
Wow, I was able to share so much insight through an article?
Here are 2 reasons why you should quit your job, to find your strengths again.
1. Fear can keep you stuck.
Firstly, fear can keep you stuck. The fear of needing to keep within the lines, can leave you in a place where you no longer dare to transcend yourself, because you’re scared of the consequences of what would happen. When I finished the 6 months of my PIP, the feedback that came around me was,
John, you’ve been very quiet.
I thought to myself,
Isn’t this what you asked for? When you asked me to follow the JD, and stop focusing on the strategic work, what did you expect?
That I would continue putting myself out on a limb, trying to do my best to transform things?
Some jobs, some bosses can set you back in your development. When I first chose to stay in my job despite a fantastic job offer, the intentions were good. I wanted to grow and improve.
But the environment wasn’t conducive to that intention to grow.
You will never grow if you don’t find the nurturing people and the environment to grow with. As you can see from the graph below, reproduced from Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, you need both the environment, people and practice to help you grow.
2. You get a kick up your butt.
Quitting gives you a kick up your bottoms. When I quitted, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have another job lined up. All I knew was that if I didn’t quit, I would end up quitting on myself. That was dangerous.
Quitting gave me a bottomline.
That no matter what happened, I was going to take care of myself.
No matter how bad things got, I would not put my happiness in the hands of someone else again.
It forced me to play to what I was good at, rather than what people wanted me to be good at.
Why do you accept less, when there could be so much more that you bring to your work? Why do you need to make a dying at work, rather than a living? Why do you need to drag your feet to work, rather than really being happy, fufilled and excited?
Like a child playing with his toys?
Because your strengths are your greatest gifts. They are your toys. They are for you to play with, not for you to struggle with.
Playing to your strengths starts with you acknowledging that you have strengths, regardless of what others say. It’s about you owning those strengths. It’s about you recognising that life is about you enjoying your work.
Here’s a final story before I end. I hope it encourages you to start your journey too, of playing to your strengths.
We all live our lives, chasing freedom of some sort. But sometimes, you may look outwards at what others have, more than you look inwards, at what you have.
One afternoon, whilst I was serving in the army, I got a message from a friend. He told me he started selling insurance. I started becoming very anxious. I looked at the life I was leading, where I was doing small, insignificant and seemingly stupid things.
I compared and compared. And ended up getting depressed. I landed up in front of a psychiatrist that night, as I thought seriously about ending my life.
The past 4 years have been a journey to stop comparing. To start celebrating the skill I have.
It’s been phenomenal.
And I pray you start, and enjoy your journey too.
What has been the best thing for you in playing to your strengths?