Knowing your strengths (and, of course, your weaknesses)

Focusing on your strengths helps put a positive spin on your weaknesses. 

When I started in my current position, it was my first full time job out of college. I was eager to please, extremely critical of myself, and absolutely determined to do everything right.

This was, of course, unrealistic; the nonprofit field is always evolving, which means you can’t always know everything. There might not be one right call and there is a lot of trial and error. When you're working on outcomes versus outputs, the whole process to get there is less linear and more, well, “squishy.”

For a Type A person with high ambitions and even higher personal expectations, this was a recipe for disaster. I spent the first month picking out everything that I did wrong and writing it down: “get better at this”, “stop doing this”, “improve on this”, etc. I was unwavering in my criticism towards myself. I believed that fixing these problems was key to success. I left everyday feeling anxious and exhausted. Of course, when I came in every morning there was a novel situation where I could make new mistakes.

What I didn’t see at first was that this was a good thing. I had so many opportunities to learn and to hone in on my strengths. However, this wasn’t going to happen while I was leading with my weaknesses.

To combat some of this anxiety, I began rowing. When I started rowing, I was so excited to get out on the water after my initial Learn to Row Day. Afterwards, one of my friends asked how it went. I said, “It was great! I didn’t make any of the same mistakes, just new ones!”

So how is making new mistakes good? Well, it means I learned and I didn’t make the same ones. Making mistakes is okay. Oftentimes, what we consider a mistake isn’t even a big deal. It’s when we dwell on those mistakes, those perceived weaknesses, that we end up not only making the same mistakes again, but leading with those traits or issues that we want to change. Writing down everything that I did “wrong” and hoping to chip away at that list everyday wasn’t going to help me improve, but identifying what I did well and why I did well was going to help me improve.

This is why it is so important to be cognizant of your strengths. I really loved the Clifton Strengths Finder Assessment. It helped pull my five key strengths and gave me lots of insight into how I use these strengths. I printed them out and they are posted on my door to remind me what I’m good at and where I excel. Your strengths are your toolbox, so focus on the tools you have at your disposal instead of your insecurities, your ego or poor communication skills when faced with conflict, or whatever areas you think you need improvement in.

Now of course there are ways to identify these strengths without buying a book or taking a test. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. What is a situation I handled well? What were the key behaviors that led to the situation being handled successfully? What are the values or strengths behind that behavior?
  2. What is listed on my resume / in my interview talking points or elevator pitch as my strengths? This is the time to be honest with yourself: is what you’ve listed there accurate? If not, what should be listed there? What are some examples of times that you’ve utilized these strengths? This will help you not only gain insight into your strengths, but it also doubles as great interview practice.
  3. If someone asked my closest friend what my strengths are what would they say? If they asked my family? If they asked my boss? These people will often see you differently, and looking at this from the perspective of several people will help you to see a more holistic picture of your strengths. Of course, you can also just ask these people yourself, tell them to be honest, and be open to what they see even if it is different than how you see yourself.

All three of these questions can also be changed to explore your weaknesses, but as I said, focusing on your strengths will get you further. When you do explore areas of improvement, focus on how you can turn your weaknesses into positives. Say you don’t want to delegate a marketing task to a member of your team because you know they’re great at Canva and you don’t want them to do a better job than you could have. Use this opportunity to not only challenge that weaknesses, but to empower that individual. Offer to trade for a task you know you excel at, and offer advice, support, and encouragement. Now you’re being a team player, improving your leadership skills, and improving your time management all at once.

I am not saying don’t always strive for improvement, but I am saying that we don’t have to be the best at everything and that’s okay. If we focus on leading, and reacting with our strengths not our weaknesses, then we will find we are happier and more successful.

Charlotte Lewis is a contributor to the YNPN Cleveland blog. To write for this series, or the blog in general, contact Outreach Chair Erin Zaranec at 

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