F has been talking a lot about strengths.

I am interested in strengths, because I teach, and I want people to be able to use their strengths to help them learn. And a big chunk of my own life involves learning, or quite often failure to learn, so I want to be better at it.

I’m getting there, slowly. I am twice the learner I was since F and I got into a conversation, a couple of years ago now, about learning styles and about how highly visual she thought I was (I then proved her point by winning an argument, over the phone, about whether or not she had freckles). I had, in F’s parlance, a moment of clarity: my name is Curious Bunny and I am a visual learner.

What I have been working on since then, in fits and starts, is how I can make this lopsided ability work for me. Because I have a terrible memory. Terrible. I can remember clear as day where I was and when we had such-and-such a conversation (and frequently what you were wearing at the time), but I can’t remember much about the conversation at all. And this happens all the time: at home, at work, you name it. Serious Bunny has learned that if I am to understand something complex, then it must have pictures, or at the very least examples.

So I figured, if I’m all that when it comes to visual detail, how about I try using it, instead of being hamstrung by it. And so, over about the last year, I’ve been trying to use my visual memory to claw back all the context that I can muster, in order to try and re-experience conversations or learning environments, and hopefully pluck out the things I want to remember.

I’m having mixed results. I tried this with a colleague at work – who is similarly-abled, though he has the added gift of understanding abstraction, whereas I do not – when we were trying to remember the contents of a conversation. We sank ourselves back into the visual context and we nearly had it, but the crucial details escaped us. But on the other hand, I’ve been able to go back and reconstruct once-seen movie trailers, in search of the movie title. I can go back and piece together the visual elements of long walks taken in unfamiliar cities, and find what I need to find, even years afterwards. Recently, I had good fun trying to picture each word on the page while Serious Bunny read to me (it was exhausting! But it helped a bit).

I’m still practicing. I keep a paper week-view diary, and once I’ve written things in it, I can usually remember them (yes, I am also partly a kinesthetic learner). My latest exercise is, at the start of the week, to review the whole week’s appointments in my mind before I actually open the diary, and I’m getting most of them right. (Incidentally, I also have an electronic diary on my phone, but I only use that for reminders/alarms – because the writing and the appointments all look identical, my visual memory can’t get much purchase on it. But, kinesthetic learner: the act of programming it into the phone is usually enough to make me remember it.)

Can I improve my memory? I think so, with practice and discipline. I am inclined towards neither, but I want to not suck at remembering information. So.

Learning styles as a concept goes in and out of fashion (I think someone recently told me it’s coming in again, but who knows; it’s hard to keep up). I’d like to see more use of it in real life, as well as in the classroom. I’m a big advocate of working with what you’ve got, and I’m pretty sure everyone’s got strengths, so perhaps we should spend more time fostering those.

I’m not challenged by the abstract; I’m visually gifted. Ha.

(Title is from Thom Yorke’s And It Rained All Night)

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We are simply his slaves

September 17, 2008

I do not pull my weight in the house.

There are several reasons for this, some rational and some bad.

My flatmate, V, is much cleaner than I am, for example. She minds when the kitchen is dirty, and I don’t really. So she cleans it more often than I do. QED.

She is a natural-born cook and I am a learner. So she cooks more often than I do.

She has always done for herself, and I had a cleaner until last year. So she is conscious of chores that need to be done, and I still expect someone else to do them for me. I am quite happy to empty the bin and clean out the litter tray if reminded, but I do not remember on my own. So quite often she ends up doing them more than half the time because it’s easier than reminding me when I get home.

She does the garden. That’s not actually out of order per se, because I said when I moved in that I was not going to do the garden except for the odd bit of hired manual labour, so I am not reneging on the deal here. But it still adds to the imbalance.

I’m rather tidier than she is, but the problem with tidying is that you can only really do it for yourself, not for someone else. I don’t know where all her things live, and if they’re not in their places then there’s probably a good reason for it and I will muck up her system by putting them away. So I keep my stuff pretty tidy most of the time, but this is not a major contribution to the smooth running of the household.

There is one job that I do much, much better than she does, however. You guessed it. Laundry.

My endless passion for clothes is well documented. I’d write here more about it if it weren’t for the fact that (a) I am not sure SJ would approve, and (b) I can’t really convince myself that anyone else is interested in my wardrobe.

V does not look after her clothes very well. She leaves them all over the floor. She forgets to zip her lingerie into the protective bag before it goes in the wash. Sometimes she leaves her clean laundry in the washing machine for too long, and it has to be washed again. I am too narcissistic to do anything like that.

So, as of tonight, I am taking over the laundry. It kills three birds with one stone. Firstly, I will be closer to pulling my weight, which would clearly be a Good Thing. Secondly – and most importantly; we’re making a big deal about this at the moment – washing will be more environmentally friendly. No more half-loads. Finally, I will no longer have to be offended by the mess that V makes of her tights I will be able to contribute my particular expertise to the smooth running of the household.

I’m most interested in strengths. I am doing a lot of coaching around strengths right now, asking my clients: How could you use more of your strengths to get what you want? The answers are fascinating, and so is the energy around the question. People want to use their strengths. They are happy using their strengths.

Clothes is a strength of mine. I’m happy to do as much laundry as needed (although I draw the line at matching Hano’s socks). I just walked into V’s room and picked up all the clothes on the floor and folded them and I felt energised and cheerful doing it. I don’t feel like that when cleaning the bathroom.

This is a good way to divide up household chores. I probably have other strengths that can be brought to bear in this arena, although I’m not immediately sure what they are. We could maybe work on this.

I was thinking about my winter wardrobe, which I do a lot. In particular, I was thinking about the brown splashy-flower-print skirt from the clothes swap. I adore this skirt, and I would wear every day if I could work out how to stop it being too revealing when I walk.

It put me in mind of a black splashy-flower-print shirt that I had in college, which I idiotically swapped with my friend E for a white delicate-flower-print shirt that, of course, looked appalling on me. It was a ravishing garment, but it just did not suit me. I felt like I was trying to be E (which I was) and failing miserably. I felt like a carthorse next to her delicate beauty.* (And, of course, my shirt did as little for her as hers did for me, although I couldn’t see that at the time.)

Then I started thinking, what would happen if I saw that shirt now? It would still be utterly, utterly beautiful. But I would not buy it. Because I know it isn’t me.

So what changed?

One thing that changed is that I learned that there are things I look good in. As a student, I thought myself very plain, and I didn’t know about clothes, so I didn’t think it made very much difference what I wore. So I wore what other people were wearing, especially the people that I wanted to be, and I wore what I thought men would find attractive. And, for years, that’s how I bought clothes, as if the garment would somehow magically confer upon me the properties of the wearer.

And, over the years, I slowly found more things that I actually looked and felt good in, that were me. I started wearing long skirts because I wanted to look like someone I worked with, and I discovered that they felt wonderful, floating and sensual around me; I felt like a goddess. I started wearing colours that people admired me in, and discovered that green wakes me from the dead like Sleeping Beauty, but black and beige, the colours that the other bankers were wearing, made me look like a zombie Lady Macbeth. And I started being willing to look like me instead of wanting to look like someone else, because I started thinking that it might be okay to look like me, and because I realised that I would always be better at looking like me than I would ever be at looking at anyone else.

And, thinking about this, I started to get the glimmer of an idea that I think might be important.

My research focuses on strengths – star-shaped points. What are the unique qualities that make us who we are? What happens when we use them? And one of the things I keep noticing is that, when people use their strengths, they become more okay with being themselves. It switches from a vicious circle to being a virtuous one – the more they feel okay with being themselves, the more they value and use their strengths. And the more they value and use their strengths, the more they feel okay with being themselves.

And I’m starting to wonder, is the same true of how we look? When we see ourselves looking our best, or when someone else can see the beauty in us that we can’t see in ourselves, do we become more willing to look like ourselves instead of trying to look like others? Is this one step in the journey?

And, if so, how do these two things relate?

* Analogy nicked from Jilly Cooper

I had some more driving lessons at the weekend.

I am still not a very good driver. Paul downgrades his ambition for me further with every lesson. Now we’re at ‘I’ll be happy if you can take the car out without having a panic attack.’ I point out that I still need to be able to park the damn thing. He says, ‘You might never be able to understand what the car’s doing, but if you learn the instructions for parallel parking then you’ll be okay’.

It got me thinking about strengths again. Peterson and Seligman claim that we have signature strengths, and that we’re at our best when we use them. They argue that signature strengths are innate and immutable. Similarly, Marcus Buckingham, who has led much of the extensive research on this at Gallup, makes a powerful case for focusing on our inborn talents. It’s an efficiency argument: we work hard on our weaknesses to improve slightly, whereas we can improve our strengths rapidly with much less investment, working with the grain rather than against it.

I mostly agree. In particular, as I believe I’ve written before, I think we waste a lot of time trying to be good at everything. In the corporate world, employers waste a lot of time trying to get their staff to be good at everything. And they sideline those who aren’t gifted at their ‘core competencies’, rather than finding out what people are good at. That’s the genesis of SSP.

I do better when I focus on my strengths than my weaknesses, even when my weaknesses are more directly related to the task in hand. I don’t understand why this is true – and I’ve never successfully made the case for it to an employer – but I believe it.

But I’m not learning to drive because I want to be good at everything. I’m learning to drive because I don’t want my father to be confined to barracks when my mother isn’t there. Whether I have natural talent is a moot point. It does raise an interesting question, though – how good should I try to be? Is there such a thing as a ‘good enough’ driver? Is it sufficient to have a formula for parallel parking, or do I need to understand exactly what the car is doing? It’s particularly interesting because the stakes are high.

And, as so often, I also think that it’s Always More Complicated.

Growing up, my gifts were those of the intellect – logic, analysis and synthesis, mathematics, creative thinking. I couldn’t relate to people at all. I didn’t understand them and they frightened me. I couldn’t work out the rules of saying the right thing, and therefore I usually said the wrong thing, and I couldn’t understand why it was wrong. In this day and age, I might have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Over twenty-years, I taught myself to be good with people. It has been slow. It has been difficult. I have had many setbacks and I have often been tempted to give up. But I am now better at being good with people than most of the people who are born good with people, because I have worked at it so hard. For the last five or ten years I have mostly been employed to be good with people.

And – here’s the interesting thing – when I work with people now, it feels like I’m using a signature strength. I’m in flow. I am energised and enthused. My soul is saying, yes, this is the work you are here for. It feels very similar to solving a complex problem, which really is work I was born to do.

So what’s happening when we use our strengths? Is it nothing more than the pleasure we take in the exercise of competence? Could I feel like this when driving if I practised enough?

Or is there more to it than that?

SJ and I have been texting each other about fear, and what we do to cope with our fear. As usual, it is very different.

For example, we are both concerned about the political situation. Her solution to this is to become politically involved, because knowing that she is doing something helps her to feel that the world is less chaotic. I step away from it, believing that my impact is minimal at best. Instead I turn my attention to areas where I think I can be of some use, like helping someone I know personally or through my work.

She confronts her fear directly. I walk away from mine.

She connects to reality. I create a different reality.

She immerses herself in the truth. I am happy to ignore it and stick my head in the sand if it means I can live to fight another day.

She considers herself to have an obligation to become involved politically, to use her energy in the service of the greatest cause she can find. (Her words: “I can’t do much by myself, but most of history is lots of people doing a little. And I want to be one of those people.”) I consider myself to have an obligation to go where I am most useful, to pick the arenas where I am best able to function, even if they are not the largest and most important.

One could argue that these methods are polar opposites of one another.

Or, of course, one could argue that these methods are identical, except that she believes that she can have an effect on the political situation and I don’t.

I think the answer is somewhere between the two. If I believed I could change the political landscape, would I use my energy there? I don’t think I would, because I’d also have to believe it used my signature strengths. The people I admire in politics have the strengths of bravery, fairness, citizenship, honesty and integrity, diligence and zest – what my family would call ‘the courage of their convictions’.

I am not that person. I am closely related to two career political advisors, and although I admire them both, I find that we are very different. My strengths are in seeing both sides of the argument rather than passionately pursuing one side; in providing support and nurturing to the people on the battlefield rather than following them there; in helping people to connect with each other and build together rather than designing or leading the building. Maybe there are roles for people like me on the political landscape, but I have not yet found them.

This year I will not be doing much except studying and recovery, because I am really quite ill and quite tired. But I hope and expect to recover in due course, and when I recover I hope that my practice will grow. I do want to do work that helps others, and that helps others beyond the small circle of people I know.

But I want to do it using my strengths. I believe that this is what I’m here to do, this is where I can add most value to the world, whatever pitch I’m playing on. I believe that, when I’m using my strengths, I am myself stronger: more energised, more confident, more truly myself.

And less afraid.

Star-shaped points

May 1, 2008

We seem to have started off talking about round holes and whether they are real holes or holes of our own making.

But what I get really excited about is star-shaped points.

In her most recent post, SJ wrote “I feel just as undervalued and underused as I did then; I’m just as convinced that my job isn’t making full use of my skills.” And I thought, oh, yeah, I remember. This is why we’re here. I spent fifteen years feeling like that. Whether or not I could have done it differently, that’s the reality of my experience and I believe it’s the experience of many women in the workplace.

I’ve spent a lot of my career working for very large financial institutions (henceforth VLFI for ease of typing). VLFI tend to have very standardised processes for people management, and one of these processes is the competency framework.

I am not an fan of competency frameworks. Their intention – to make sure that employees are competent to do their jobs – may be sensible (albeit still patriarchal and privileged). They can fulfil useful purposes, like making sure that it’s not okay to bully subordinates into a nervous breakdown. But all too often they become a way to make sure that everyone behaves alike. People whose faces don’t fit find that their careers run aground on the competency framework. It’s written by the people who are in charge at the moment, so of course it highlights what they currently do well. And then they hire people who look and act like them, because it’s safer. And so the system is perpetuated.

Mostly I am not a fan of competency frameworks because they are so stupid. How can you possibly get the best out of people by telling them all to act the same way? People are not the same. We are star-shaped. We have different strengths and different motivations and different gifts.

During my fifteen years of corporate alienation, I saw amazing things happen and I occasionally – gasp! – did some really great work. Invariably this was when people were able to use their strengths. But until now, it’s seemed to happen by chance, and it’s dissolved quickly when the organisation has re-organised or the project has ended.

I am now studying positive psychology. Positive psychology encompasses a lot of areas – it is not just ‘the science of happiness’ – and my particular area of interest is strengths. Positive psychologists have started to study strengths and, although it’s a subject in its infancy, some interesting results are emerging.

The VIA Inventory of Strengths is far from perfect, but I think it’s a really great start in helping people to understand, define and connect to their strengths. Mine are creativity, spirituality, kindness and wisdom – not obvious candidates for a glittering career in corporate life. But the fact remains that those are my strengths. I might like different ones, but these are the ones I’ve got.

When I ask the question, ‘how shall I use my strengths in the work I’m going to do today?’, everything goes better. Even the small and stupid stuff goes better. I reorganised a filing system that I’d been procrastinating about for a year, by looking for a creative solution and not a ruthlessly efficient one. (And I’m thrilled with it. Go me.) By valuing kindness as a strength, I can remember that my contribution to project teams has often kept others going. Spirituality’s probably one of the hardest to find a role for in the workplace – but it can give me the motivation to keep ploughing on through the roughest of rough patches.

I think this works for two reasons. The first is that when we are using our strengths, we’re better all-round. More authentic, more energetic, more alive. The second is that using our strengths enables us to perceive ourselves in a positive way. No longer do we rank ourselves against somebody else’s competency framework and notice only how we fail to measure up. Instead we are seeing our own star-shaped points, and by focusing on them we get more of them.