know thyself

When one of the kids I mentor gets down on himself, which they often do, one of my go-to responses is “Tell me three good things about yourself.”  The first time I ask this, the reaction is usually the same as if I’d asked them to divulge their deepest and darkest of private secrets to me.  Awkwardness.  Squirming.  Grimacing.  And inevitably, a drawn-out “Uhhhh … I don’t know.”  After much cajoling, I may get a sort of backward concession, such as, “Well, I guess my vocabulary isn’t terrible.”

But ask them to tell you about their failures, or the things they wish they could change about themselves, and now you’ve got yourself a conversation.

I’m famous for saying that adults are just kids in older bodies.  So it is not surprising that I see reactions similar to those above, even in the responses to blog posts.  Most people are adept at exclaiming their own faults.  Sometimes it’s even an ongoing conversation in their head.  But identifying and speaking about their good qualities feels — wrong somehow.  Like conceit.  Yes, in certain social settings, people might brag about this ability or that exploit.  But it seems to me that, in real conversation away from the crowds, the majority of people tend to define themselves in terms of their shortcomings and not their strengths.

However, consider this.  If we do not identify and feel comfortable with our positive qualities, how can we develop them and use them to their fullest potential?

For instance, I know that I am a good teacher.  I enjoy teaching.  But beyond that, when I explain something, students learn.  Even if they hadn’t understood it after much explanation elsewhere, I see the light go on.  They get excited.  And they engage.  Perhaps most satisfying is when a student is so excited about what they have learned with me and the way in which it finally got through to them, that they go and teach it to others.

Do I sound like I’m bragging?  I hope not.  This just happens to be one of “my things.”  And if I didn’t accept that about myself, I would not be a good teacher.  In fact, I might not teach at all.  Knowing that teaching is both a passion and a strength helps me to feel confident when something needs to be learned.  And that confidence is actually part of the reason that I am an effective teacher.  I can honestly say to a kid who’s struggled for years in reading, for instance, “Listen, I know you’ve had a really tough time with reading up to now.  But this time will be different.  The way I teach is different, so the way you learn will be different.  I know you can do this.  It’s not your brain, it’s how you were taught.  It just didn’t connect with your style of learning before now.  But I understand brains.  And if you help me, I can understand how yours works best.”  Just in saying this with confidence — not false confidence; I really believe it! — students approach “this time” differently.

They believe me.  Because I believe me.

I am also a singer.  I am not by any means the most talented singer on the planet.  I wish my range extended higher and that I had a little more natural grit to my voice.  But I can sing.  I have a very good ear, and my voice moves easily where I want it to go with little effort.  In addition, I am able to communicate real emotion when I sing.  Because I know this about myself, I sing a certain way.  I don’t hold back.  I believe that I can tell a story with my voice, and so I do wind up telling stories with my voice.  If I did not acknowledge that I could sing, I would approach it much differently — perhaps even allowing other perceived weaknesses to impact performance.  If I sang at all.

If I don’t know that I have money in my pocket, I can not spend it.  It only makes sense that we can’t intentionally use or benefit from something we don’t acknowledge that we possess.  Likewise, if I don’t know the strengths and good qualities I possess, I will not use them very often, if at all.

This leaves me dwelling primarily on — you guessed it — my faults.  And as I ruminate on those faults, it stands to reason that I will evidence them more often.

What’s more, if I do not see my strengths, then I am left to only see my weaknesses. And if I perceive myself as a sum total of my weaknesses, change seems an impossible goal.  It is too overwhelming.  All shadow and no light.

In fact, to make changes in an area of weakness implies that the goal is to move toward a position of strength in that area.  Yet if I cannot be realistic about my strengths, I have no marker for where I’m headed or how far I’ve come.

Further, knowing my strengths can actually help me to address my weaknesses.  Growing up, it was all too easy for me to fall into conversation with friends where we people-watched.  We would make sarcastic and hysterical comments about those at the mall, or in an airport, or passing by on the street.  Some years back, I realized that this was not a quality that I wanted to keep.  It was treating people as “things” for my entertainment, and I didn’t want to do that any longer.  However, I acknowledged that compassion and listening are strengths of mine.  In identifying these strengths, I was able to apply them to the people that would otherwise be the subjects of my not-so-nice asides.  I would think something like, If I were to sit down with that person, what would he tell me about his life?  What is hard for him in life?  What does he like to do for fun?  When is the last time he got to do that?  This imaginary “listening” brought my compassion to the forefront, and being witty at the person’s expense just didn’t seem all that appealing anymore.  By using my strengths to redirect my thoughts, I was able to see real change in an area of  weakness.

What are your own strengths?  In a previous post, I challenged readers to make a list.  Allow me to do so again.  Grab a piece of paper and write down three things that are strengths or positive qualities you possess.  Phrase them this way:  “I am ____________.”  This may make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s why it’s called a “challenge.”  And don’t  ask others, “What do you think are my good qualities?”  Take the time to work through identifying them yourself.  Go ahead.  Really.  Take a few minutes and do it now.

All set?  Now, take that list with you for a week.  Put it someplace you will see it several times a day.  And act on those strengths.  If you wrote “I am a good cook,” then use your cooking to make something special that will cheer someone up.  If you wrote “I am an encouraging person,” then remind yourself of that and look for opportunities to encourage those you encounter.

You can be realistic about your good qualities and still be humble.  Remember that humility does not mean being silent or demure.  It means knowing your rights and willfully giving them up for the benefit of someone else.  Similarly, knowing your strengths is the only way to put them to use in positively influencing the people around you.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

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