You can read that CliftonStrengths report as closely as you want. If you’re searching for it, between the lines of description of success, you’ll interpret something that describes all your failures. What you’re too much of, why people haven’t loved you, a scientific validation that you simply don’t measure up. Hell, maybe you don’t have to look very hard.
But that’s not what the research is based on. Even in that brilliant CliftonStrengths 34 report, where you’ll find insight into potential blind spots, that’s just it—a highly educated guess. Gallup did not spend the exhaustive research trying to understand what was right with people by also studying how those talents could go sideways. Reading your strengths as having only two sides, whether you call it the light and the dark, the help and hinder, the balcony and basement—it’s a misinterpretation of the research. There is no scientific definition of the shadow of your strengths.
It’s a tempting coaching trick to promise you can read ways that a client’s strengths might get in their way. It’ll get you called back to coach them again. That sense of scarcity, that we have to watch over our shoulder for ways we can stumble, it’s easier to get swept up in. It’s oftentimes far less scary that exploring the vast potential of how you can succeed.
Your strengths aren’t just things you’re kind of good at. They’re not even areas you’re above average. Your strengths are the most potent concentration of alignment between your soul and your purpose in this world, when you strip away your conditioning and skills and practice, you’re left with natural patterns to solve problems, to love people, to tap into your truly creative connection to receive the beauty of the universe. And it’s scary to start to see that you are made of that kind of magnificent stardust. Not ready to believe that? Fine.
Let’s ignore how truly astronomical the chances are that you’re even alive today. That you’re healthy enough to be reading this right now, that out of all the possible things that conspired against the science of you being created, you lived. You survived every single one of your bad days. Here you are in a world where there is freedom, laughter, art, and the promise of having a helium tank shipped directly to your house at the click of a button. Maybe the biggest shock is we aren’t constantly wandering around, slack-jawed in awe.
I get it. Back here on earth, you have responsibilities. Perhaps it’s even unsafe to walk around with your mouth open in awe. It’s at least weird. But if you swing the scarcity pendulum to the middle, where most people land with Strengths and Weaknesses, you’ll find the majority of people want to qualify their Strengths in a two-sided shape. We can’t handle the vast beauty of our potential, so we decide to label ways our Strengths could get in our way, and we spend equal (if we’re lucky) amounts of curiosity studying times our talent made us trip as we do times we were truly in Flow. But we are a spectrum of talent. Not a black & white cookie.
I’m writing today because I’m experiencing it myself, and I’m learning right alongside you. A few of my top Strengths are Positivity, Woo, and Empathy. The power of these makes me a fast and fantastic caregiver. I get a rush out of understanding people, meeting them where they are, and leaving them better for it. I even have a tattoo on the inside of my left foot that honors the idea of having a positive impact on others.
My Strengths also define my gut-wrenching vulnerability. It’s not a 50/50 share. I’m not equally likely to experience hurt, shame, or guilt from these pathways of talent. It’s a very good bet that I will be better than most people you meet at them.
The power and the vulnerability of my Strengths is more like and 85/15 split. But what’s extra threatening about that vulnerability is how hard it can hit when it does. Failing at something you’re not naturally good at hurts because no one likes failure. But tripping over the very value you live and breathe? That stings on a level that threatens to cut you open and stop you in your tracks, to change your very trajectory. I know, because it happened to me.
It’s rare that these Strengths hinder me, because by their nature they’re what enable performance. But recently I realized I had fallen into the rare and more dangerous vulnerability that exists not for who I’m not, but for who I am at my very core. Specifically, I stayed hopeful about people who weren’t honoring me. I got cocky in my own ability to set a better tone. I worked so hard to spin a difficult situation into a good one that I left myself spinning in circles long after everyone else had left the party. I got so lost in my own light that I became blinded by my darkness.
And I can only know this because of the decades of work I have done getting to know my Strengths as good. Because learning to name, value, and utilize your Strengths means you are learning what they truly are—which, by definition, has a positive slant. Invest there. Be brave enough to marvel at the true and natural splendor that you naturally are. Don’t water down the experience, keeping it at arms’ length by instantly defining an overly-simplified binary of good and bad. That’s the human development equivalent of memorizing the chemical makeup H2O, rather than dipping your toe in running water, and feeling the sensation of a river.
You cannot be simplified into half. Stop cutting your potential off at the middle. Lean into the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you truly are more powerful than you realize.
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