“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning in life is to give your gift away.” – David Viscott*
*While a beautiful sentiment that resonates with many folks, this quote has some drawbacks to it. It implies that we have an innate purpose and a single thing we must do. It would be more accurate to the scientific literature if it read: “Purpose in life can be built by cultivating strengths and giving them away.” Perhaps not as catchy, but certainly more on the nose 🙂
If you were to reach out to the people who know you best, what would they describe as your greatest strengths? What things can you see in yourself?
The following subsection on strengths dives into important points for you to consider as you continue your purpose crafting expedition. We’ll cover what they are and how they affect purpose, pitfalls to avoid, and resources for digging them up. Here is a brief summary of the points covered below:
- “Strengths” are any ability you’re better at than your other abilities and/or better at than others with similar experience.
- Employing and emphasizing strengths in the realm of purpose helps both others and ourselves. It enables us to make a more effective impact on the world while building our own self-esteem, sense of agency, and satisfaction with our working endeavors.
- We have to beware using strengths as the primary guide to purpose (or satisfactory jobs generally, for that matter) because doing so can not only lead us astray but may cut off a host of possible abilities we could develop in the future.
What Are Strengths?
For our purposes, strengths are anything you’re “good” at (which is a bit subjective). Another way to think of it is as any ability you’re better at than your other abilities and/or better at than others with similar experience. This might mean your most potent character attributes (such as personality traits or virtues) or it could be your skills, aptitudes, or expertise. All of these types of strengths can be useful in purpose crafting.
Here is a brief list of examples of things that could fall under the umbrella of strengths. Note that these categories can overlap, which is okay. What’s most important is supplying yourself with a range of options that inspire you to cast a wide net when generating a strengths list.
Such as the Big 5:
Or more conventional personality descriptors:
- Loves to learn
- Writing software
- Public speaking
- Idea generation
- Child care
- Graphic Design
Your innate capacity for a domain of activities
- Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
- Working with a specific population
- Intensive study in a niche topic
- Extensive experience in a particular role
- Programming in a unique language
Wait- how are virtues strengths if they’re also values?
Perhaps you’re wondering why virtue is appearing here if it appeared in the values section. When it comes to purpose, virtues mostly play a role in the strengths part of the purpose equation, rather than what our purpose is. In the values section you may have used virtues to point you towards what principles you value, while here we’re examining which virtues you exemplify best. In other words, valuing a way of being isn’t the same as practicing it well. You may deeply value authenticity or patience, yet find that you struggle with practicing either virtue expertly. Perhaps authenticity points you towards a value for truth and patience points you towards a value for peace. Meanwhile, let’s say you also treasure inclusiveness and find that you are able to practice it more adroitly than other abilities you have or other people tend to do. Inclusiveness, in this case, would count as a strength, while authenticity or patience would not. All three can be involved in your purpose crafting process, albeit for slightly different reasons.
Some important points about strengths to keep in mind as you read this section:
- Strengths exist across a spectrum– it’s not a “I have it”/”I don’t have it” binary.
- Strengths can be developed. You may identify a skill that you’d like to develop and can enhance over time.
- Strengths are often context specific. Being a great leader isn’t going to show up if you are doing a solitary project like writing a book.
- Strengths can exist in groups that don’t exist in the individuals that comprise a group. A team may be able to accomplish something together very well that any one person on the team may be mediocre at.
We’ll go over ways to come up with your own list of strengths shortly. In the meantime, here is a printable master list for you to browse to get your brain firing about the types of things that you could write down.
Yale cognitive scientist and happiness expert Laurie Santos explores the work of Martin Seligman & Chris Peterson on character strengths in this 7 minute video. The concept of virtue is one aspect strengths, and here Santos explains how engaging with our virtues impacts our well-being and fulfillment, especially through job satisfaction.
“Genius”- another way to look at strengths
The Conscious Leadership Group urges us to give ourselves permission to focus on living in our “genius zone,” which means prioritizing tasks that channel our strengths above tasks that do not, as doing so is a gift to both others and ourselves (and not doing so could be a detriment). For some context, Conscious Leadership is an organization dedicated to supporting leaders and their teams to build trust and create conscious cultures through coaching, consulting, forums, trainings, and speaking engagements. Their approach is based on “The 15 Commitments to Conscious Leadership,” and the one most related to strengths is the commitment around living in your genius:
“I commit to living in my genius zone and inspiring others to do the same.”
They define the “Genius Zone” as the unique thing that you do exceptionally well that is practically effortless to you. Founder Jim Dethmer describes it in the following 3 minute clip as the thing you do that “you get a disproportionate return on the amount of energy expended.”
It may not be realistic to limit all your activities to only being things that check the “genius” box. We have complicated jobs and life obligations that require us to operate from what Conscious Leadership calls our zones of incompetence, competence, and excellence as well. These will be different from person to person.
Incompetence: Financial management
Excellence: Journalistic writing
Competence: Time Management
Even though we will have to do tasks outside our zone of genius, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy goal to aim for responsibilities that we’re talented in, that energize us, and that we deeply enjoy. (That being said, we don’t have to pile all the responsibility for checking all of these boxes onto a single engagement. You can distribute these aspects over various parts of your life.)
Strengths + Purpose
Employing and emphasizing strengths in the realm of purpose helps both others and ourselves. It enables us to make a more effective impact on the world while building our self-esteem, sense of agency, and satisfaction with our working endeavors. When we exercise our core strengths in ways that contribute to others, we foster our sense of mattering, and when we feel that we matter, our subjective well-being increases (Flett 2018).
It can be pretty challenging for some of us to name our top strengths. This may be due to us focusing primarily on our weaknesses, or perhaps because some of the things we’re good at come easily to us so we don’t consider them exceptional. Maybe we don’t get a lot of feedback. Or, perhaps it’s difficult to acknowledge that we have positive attributes at all.
Even if it’s difficult, we all have strengths that can be applied towards cultivating enjoyable, truly impactful purposes. And it’s important that we do, as utilizing our strengths in the realm of purpose means we’re more likely to be effective and stay motivated.
Research indicates that doing work that engages our greatest character strengths is strongly related to job satisfaction and engagement as well as well-being indicators, academic achievement, a sense of vigor, and absorption in relevant tasks (Bachik et al., 2020)(Kuijpers et al., 2020)(Els et al., 2018)(Harzer et al., 2017).
Acknowledging our strengths is a practice in self awareness that not only helps us identify our growth areas, it helps us understand other people’s strengths and weaknesses as well – thus increasing our capacity for empathy (Abbate, Boca, & Gendolla, 2016).
Applying our strengths increases our sense of mastery and autonomy, which builds self-esteem and a sense of agency (Pink 2010)(Wood, A. et al 2010). Fulfilling our needs for mastery and autonomy checks boxes proposed by Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation that argues intrinsic motivation is inspired when we have autonomy, feel competent, and our efforts are connected to others (“relatedness”). When we choose work of our own volition (in which we have a sense of control) that engages our strengths and has an impact beyond ourselves we meet the criteria for SDT. Therefore, we will likely experience more motivation regarding purposes that engage our strengths.
Benefits like motivation, confidence, satisfaction, and task absorption are great aids in crafting purposes that we love, find deep joy in, and can sustain.
Strengths aren’t everything
Strengths oughtn’t be the be-all end-all of determining the direction you set out towards on your purpose journey. While playing to our strengths can moderate our impact, staying open-minded about skills we currently do not possess but could develop in the future may increase our chance of cultivating a more satisfying, effective, and joyful sense of purpose.
“Follow your strengths” as advice for creating happiness and/or purpose isn’t quite as common as “follow your passion,” but it’s definitely still a thick vein in the career guidance field.
Author and professor Cal Newport wrote an entire book on the premise: “So good they can’t ignore you: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”
He argues against the conventional wisdom that one ought to prioritize passion as the most relevant guide to satisfying work and instead tells us to apply our strengths towards creating value for others if we want to stay engaged and motivated.
However, it’s important to recognize that starting with your strengths is only one approach of many to cultivating purpose, and it’s probably not the best one. One snag people could run into is starting with what they’re good at right now, which can leave strong options- that probably check a lot more boxes- off the table.
When we go all in without having all the information (e.g., choosing to pursue a career in sports because we’re the star of our highschool basketball team and don’t think we’re good at anything else even though we don’t have much life experience) we might miss out on better options that could suit our various needs more effectively.
What if you’re exceptionally skilled in a task that you happen to not enjoy? Imagine you’re an excellent salesman but the interactions feel hollow and disappointing to you due to their transactional nature. If you follow the advice of applying that skill towards purpose, such as using your sales skills to promote a service that genuinely improves people’s lives, you may experience some purposefulness, sure. And, ultimately you’d relinquish experiencing optimal purpose, aka, purpose that is not only personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and self-transcendent, but also something you’re good at, absolutely in love with, and that’s sustainable.
If optimal purpose is on the table (which it is) we might as well aim for it while purpose crafting, no? So rather than narrowing the field of possibility by basing your purpose journey principally off of strengths, you’ll be able to tick off more boxes (such as meaning, passion, and joy) by starting with what you value (aka, what’s meaningful to you) and figuring out how your strengths can fulfill said dearest values in conjunction with your interests, dreams, and the forms of impact that appeal to you. (We’ll dive into that process in the Alignment: Planning phase, but for now you just have to focus on generating fodder for each category.)
To take it a step further once you have arrived at working strengths into the equation, you can widen the viewfinder even more by considering what you could become good at in the future.
Don’t fret if the things you desire to be engaged in are not things you’re currently a master of. Yes, aptitude is a factor, and a growth mindset and willingness to experience challenge can get you far.
Below is an example of someone driven by their strengths at a young age and someone who wasn’t deterred by the absence of strength.
AS A CAVEAT, it feels obligatory to note that you do not need to be good at something for it to be purposeful. And, your competency in a particular endeavor can moderate the quality and scale of your impact. You could be a mediocre philanthropist, teacher, or doctor and still have a sense of purpose. Despite the depth and breadth of your impact possibly not satisfying its full potential in such a scenario (it could even be detrimental depending on the circumstances- such as being a subpar doctor) you can still be ticking the boxes of personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and impactful beyond the self. Not being excellent at your chosen purpose(s) is by no means a death knell, and ultimately, becoming good at what you choose is relevant to exercising an effective purpose.
Like passion and interests, strengths can be cultivated in the realm of your purpose. But before you run off and start bulking out whatever muscles you’ve chosen to focus on- perhaps try some of the strengths exercises below and make an informed decision about which skill sets and attributes you want to foster.
We’re going to go through some exercises to clarify skills you already have and ones you might like to work on that you can consider while determining your purpose(s). We all have unique strengths, insights, and experiences to contribute.
Things to keep in mind as you generate your list:
- Think broadly. It can be easy to get stuck in thinking about career-oriented skills, but we have so many strengths that might not show up on a conventional resume. Consider many different dimensions of your life: What are your strengths in your relationships? For that matter, what about different types of relationships (such as friendship, partnership, parenting, support roles, leadership roles, etc.)? What are your strengths in terms of hobbies or interests? What are you good at when you’re at home? What types of tasks do you gravitate towards? What resources or expertise do you have that others may not?
- Be specific. Rather than putting ‘writing’ as a strength, clarify what type of writing and in what context. Writing could be narrowed down to “composing comedic, relatable, and informative emails and blog posts.” Rather than “curiosity” you could specify, “a ravenous desire to explore new places.” Rather than “Good with people” you might put, “Able to relate to and build rapport with a variety of people of different backgrounds, ages, belief-systems, and attitudes.”
- A strength could be a combination of competencies, rather than one outstanding ability. For example, maybe you’re a decent singer and have pretty good song-writing abilities. Combining these two abilities could generate quality music that a great singer with badly written songs or a bad singer with well-written songs would not be able to make. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to also write down and note your competencies and think of how they combine into strengths.
If you only do two exercises, do these two:
Use the master list of potential strengths to find ones that resonate with you. Mark the ones that stand out and narrow them down by comparing them to each other and prioritizing the ones you think are your best.
We’re limited in our ability to see ourselves wholly and accurately. By asking for feedback from others on what they see as our strengths we can get perspectives we may normally overlook.
Other strengths-related exercises:
Reflecting on Strengths
Print out this exercise for a collection of questions to help you reflect on and determine your strengths.
To do this exercise:
- Access it through the Purpose Workbook
Patterns of Strength
The AEIOU framework was originally used as an ethnographic practice. It can also be applied to different areas of our lives to look for insightful patterns. In this exercise, you will excavate strengths from moments of pride using the AEIOU framework.
To do this exercise:
- Access it through the Purpose Workbook where it is best adapted to this topic.
- Use the summary below to make up your own version.
Here’s the gist of the exercise:
Think of three moments you are proud of and use the AEIOU framework for each one. To do the AEIOU activity, take each experience of pride through the questions. Examining them can reveal insightful patterns about what we’re skilled in.
- Activity: What activities are you doing? What is your role?
- Environment: What is the place you do this activity in like and how does it make you feel?
- Interaction: Are you interacting with objects, people, or both? What is the interaction? How do you feel about it?
- Object: What objects are involved? How do you feel they impact you?
- Users: What people are there? How do they contribute? How do they affect you?
- Look back at the AEIOU answers for all of your pride memories. Do any patterns occur? What similarities can you draw about your spark activities from breaking them down in this way?
Below you’ll find a collection of inventories that could be used to expand your strengths list. Be aware that assessments can over normalize and make generalizations, so it’s best to take them with a grain of salt. The information they provide can be used as great fodder but beware taking it as fact. In the end, you will have to apply yourself to a task to know for sure if it’s something you have an aptitude for. A quiz could indicate that you’d be a poor leader, but it’s possible that if you tried to lead and committed yourself to learning that you could become an effective one!
In the AMeaningofLife.org Assessment Center you can measure over 50 factors (and over 200 subfactors) related to your well-being. It’s the most comprehensive, integrated, scientific assessment of well-being and flourishing ANYWHERE on the web. While factors of well-being may not ordinarily come to mind in the context of strengths for purpose, you’d be surprised by how you can integrate these types of strengths into a meaningful life’s work.
Character Strengths Surveys
“The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a free self-assessment that takes 10 minutes and provides a wealth of information to help you understand your best qualities. VIA Reports provide personalized, in-depth analysis of your free results, including actionable tips to apply your strengths to find greater well-being.”
The Clifton Strengths survey is a report from Gallup. It’s popular amongst employers and students alike. It measures and sorts 34 factors, giving users a comprehensive and personalized report of how their strengths show up and how to apply them.
The HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised*, an instrument that assesses six major dimensions of personality:
Agreeableness (versus Anger)
Openness to Experience
*This is essentially the Big Five plus Honesty-Humilty
The MBTI is a personality inventory made by a mother-daughter duo based on the psychological types theorized by Carl Jung. There are 16 types that are various combinations of 4 contrasting factors. While extremely controversial and shunned in the scientific community, you may find something you resonate with.
DiSC® is a personal assessment tool used by more than one million people every year to help improve teamwork, communication, and productivity in the workplace. DiSC is an acronym that stands for the four main personality profiles described in the DiSC model: (D)ominance, (i)nfluence, (S)teadiness and (C)onscientiousness.
A comprehensive career test claiming to be the world’s most powerful, Career Explorer considers personality strengths and education in its recommendations.
Imagine PhD and Science Careers are services aimed towards people who have or are considering getting PhDs. Each survey does skills, interests, and values assessments and provides insights into how those can be applied in the fields of their choice.
And here are a few more.