If you want to excel at anything, it’s not enough to fix your weaknesses. You also need to leverage your strengths. When Albert Einstein failed a French exam, if he had concentrated only on his language skills, he might never have transformed physics. When J.K. Rowling realized that she was highly disorganized, if she had focused solely on becoming more orderly, she might never have honed her storytelling skills to write Harry Potter. And had Dennis Rodman worked exclusively on overcoming his weakness in shooting free throws, he might have never become a seven-time NBA rebounding champion.
Before you can leverage your strengths, you need to figure out what they are. To identify their unique capabilities, millions of people have taken self-assessments like Gallup’s StrengthsFinder. After filling out a survey about what you do best, you get to read a report on your top talents. When I completed one of these self-assessments in 2004, I was pleased that kindness and generosity stood out as one of my signature strengths.
Upon reflection, though, I started to question the results. Was I really generous, or did I just want to see myself in that way? As I looked at the research, I found good reason to be skeptical. In one series of studies, psychologists Nick Epley and David Dunning showed that people “consistently overestimated the likelihood that they would act in generous or selfless ways.” This isn’t just true for generosity; people are wildly inaccurate judges of their strengths in a wide range of tasks and domains—from logical thinking and reasoning skills to math aptitude, and even in estimating their own abilities to recognize a funny joke.
So often, we see ourselves through rose-colored glasses. When I filled out the strength survey, generosity was important to me, so I thought about times that I had helped others successfully, ignoring times when I had failed in my efforts to be helpful—or failed to try and help at all.
If you want to recognize your strengths, you need other people to hold up a mirror. When you see your reflection through the eyes of those who know you well, you can begin to identify your most unique talents. My favorite mirror is called the Reflected Best Self Exercise, which is based on research by Robert Quinn, Jane Dutton, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Laura Morgan Roberts. It involves emailing people who know you well, asking them to write a story about a time when you were at your best, and then using the common patterns to create a portrait of your strengths. Many students and executives describe it as eye-opening; some even call it life-changing. Here are the steps:
(1) Choose your sources and seek feedback: Identify 10-20 people who know you well from different walks of life, and ask them to write a story about a time when you were at your best.
(2) Spot patterns: Once the feedback arrives, look for the common themes that appear in multiple stories. Make a list of the themes, the key examples that support each them, and what they suggest about your strengths.
(3) Create your self-portrait. Using this information, write out a brief profile of who you are when you’re at your best.
(4) Put your strengths into action. Create an action plan for how and when you’ll utilize your strengths.
When selecting your sources, diversity is critical; the best sources are a mix of personal and professional contacts. Research shows that feedback is more energizing and actionable when it comes from a diverse group of friends, family members, colleagues, and mentors who can paint a comprehensive picture of your strengths.
Good sources don’t guarantee good feedback. A comprehensive analysis of more than 23,000 feedback interventions revealed that more than 33% actually decreased performance.
When feedback backfired, it was usually because it lacked specificity. It may feel good to hear that you’re generous or creative, but it’s far more useful to hear about a specific situation in which you helped someone else effectively or generated a novel, practical idea. To learn about your strengths and the situations in which you’ve used them productively, you need concrete examples. That’s what makes these rich stories far more powerful than most 360-degree feedback exercises, where people rate each other in abstract, general terms. When the stories roll in, you’ll be surprised to see that some of your sources comment on strengths you didn’t know you had, and experiences you didn’t remember.
In fact, the stories are sometimes so revealing and exciting that people stop there. But if you don’t map out a plan for using your strengths, the benefits will fade. In one experiment led by psychologist Martin Seligman, people who identified their strengths were temporarily happier and less depressed, but the changes didn’t last. Only those who identified their strengths and then actively used them achieved sustainable psychological gains: over the next six months, they were significantly happier and less depressed. Similar patterns emerged in a study of job crafting that Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin Berg, and I conducted at Google with Jennifer Kurkoski and Brian Welle. Employees who worked on their strengths didn’t become happier or more effective. Googlers who planned out ways to adjust their jobs to incorporate strengths were able to attain significant gains in happiness and job performance over the next six months.
One of Oscar Wilde’s great lines read, “I don’t at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited.” If we only look in the mirror at our strengths, we may find ourselves falling down a slippery slope of narcissism. It would be fascinating to see whether weaknesses can be identified through a similar process: ask people to write a story about a time when you were at your worst, and create a plan for improving upon your flaws (or at least learning to manage around them).
I learned about the Reflected Best Self Exercise right around the time that I filled out that survey about my strengths. It dawned on me that instead of gathering feedback from other people about whether I was generous, I could tweak the process to become a bit more generous. I made a list of some people who had made a difference in my life, and started sending them stories about who they were at their best. It turned out to be a very meaningful way of thanking them for their contributions.
When it comes to assessing our own talents, we’re full of blind spots. If you can see yourself through the eyes of others, your vision will become less blurry. And by giving other people feedback about their talents, you might help their vision become clearer too.
For more on assessing talent—and giving and receiving feedback—see Adam's new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrant and LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/influencer/profadamgrant