The absolute best part of having time off work is having time to read to my heart’s content. I’ve finished six books since Thursday afternoon and am finally starting to feel like myself again after too little reading time for way too long. But two of the books I’ve just finished worked together to give me a most wondrous gift this Christmas. In fact, my entire being is still singing with joy at what I’ve glimpsed.
The first book is The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level by Gay Hendricks. Gay’s premise is that most of us manage to function in our Zone of Competence or maybe even in our Zone of Excellence, but we all have one basic issue that keeps us from making the leap into functioning in our Zone of Genius, that place where we are doing the work we are meant to do and there is no difference between work and play for us. The one problem is what he calls the Upper Limit Problem. Our upper limit is place where we think we don’t deserve to have life any better than it is. If we suddenly discover that we have in some way exceeded that set point, then we manage to sabotage ourselves in some way until we drop below the limit again. We get a promotion at work, but then pick a fight with our partner to bring us back down. We get sick right before a great opportunity that could catapult us to the next level so we miss out. There are infinite ways we sabotage ourselves.
I can clearly see how I can be guilty of this. Our idea of what that upper limit is for us is usually set some time in our childhood, and we are not usually conscious that it even exists. He talks about four beliefs that often underpin this upper limit problem, and while I have at least some bit of each of them in me, there was one that was an overwhelming theme for me. It’s the idea that I can’t possibly reach for my full potential because I might outshine people I care about and make them feel bad and thereby alienate them. I know I got this message early and often from my mother who often seemed to feel like if I did something well, it made her look bad. I got this message from my first husband who couldn’t handle the fact that I was doing better in college than he was. I still get this message even now. In fact someone told me at work just in this last week that the reason why I am not a very good employee where I am is because I do things TOO well—so well that anyone who may have to do them after me might be made to look bad.
The saddest thing is that I’ve let this idea hold me back all my life. There are so many things I have wanted to do or think I am meant to do that I don’t let myself reach for because there’s the chance I might be good at them, and that might make someone else look bad. So I self-limit, I make myself smaller than I am, I dim my own internal flame, I set my standards low. And when I can’t do things poorly (and so often I can’t, but I’ll talk about that in a minute), I do my best to make sure I am not only as miserable with my success as I can be, but I make sure others know that I am miserable to ensure that my success won’t make them feel bad in any way. What a way (NOT) to live! I hope that being self-employed will finally give me the freedom to be all that I can be without limiting myself since I’ll no longer have peers and bosses to be made uncomfortable. I still need to find some way to get rid of that limiting belief, but I think may take some time since I’ve seen it damage so many of my relationships along the way.
The second book I read was Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. The premise of this book is that we all have innate talents—things that we can’t help but do well. Most of us spend all of our time and energy trying to work on weaknesses with the idea that improvements in those areas will make us more successful by making us more well-rounded. These authors argue that working on our weaknesses is at most damage control but will not lead to true success. The only way to really be as successful as we can be (Zone of Genius) is to find work that allows us to maximize our strengths. While this intuitively makes a lot of sense to me and is an idea I had not previously entertained, what really and truly blew me away about this book was going through the list of the 34 strengths they identified after thousands of interviews with successful people. As I read through these strengths, I realized—really and truly in the depths of my being realized—that I have strengths! I really do have strengths! (I still get teary-eyed just writing this.)
The authors claim that each person has five key strengths that are things that can’t NOT do. These things form the very basis of how they operate and inform every decision, every action they take day in and day out. And, like me, most people don’t even know that they have them because they can’t imagine working any other way. We also have secondary strengths that we use to good effect when we need them (like using strategy when developing a five-year plan), but usually only five that are so ingrained into us that we can’t NOT do them. I’m still working out which five are my key strengths; I’m pretty positive about four of them, but I’m still trying to nail down the fifth from a few options. The most intriguing thing to me, in light of the previous book I mentioned, is that all of the strengths I’ve pretty definitively identified so far are things for which I am routinely criticized! I thought these things were my greatest faults!
For example, one of my strengths is Responsibility. When I commit to doing something, I do it to the best of my ability. No shortcuts, no excuses, no half-assed efforts. If I can’t do it to my absolute best, I don’t do it at all. I can’t NOT give something my best. I don’t know how. For me to do something at less than 100% would take me longer than it does for me to do it right because this is how I’m made. It’s not a fault! It’s a strength!
Sure, I may need to find ways to work around my greatest weaknesses if those weaknesses are getting in the way of success, but I bet I can find ways to work around most of them so I can spend my time focusing on what I do well instead of what I don’t. For example, another of my strengths is Intellection; I love to think about ideas, to ponder, to mentally explore things. But I don’t have the strength of being an Activator who pushes toward action, so it’s easy for me to get stuck in the pondering phase forever and never reach a conclusion. However, I’ve learned to work around this by finding ways to force myself to organize and express my thoughts by some deadline. That’s largely the purpose of this blog: to force me to reach conclusions and move ahead with all that I am constantly pondering about my life.
I have ordered the latest version of this book, StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath, that comes with a free code to an online test to determine my strengths. I can’t wait to nail down which five things are really my strengths so I can work on designing future work that I might be able to truly excel at because it fits my strengths. As I anxiously wait for delivery, though, I am still floating on a cloud of absolute bliss to find out that I really do have strengths that might be useful to someone! I can only imagine what life might be like if I truly claimed my strengths and learned to enhance them to my greatest ability without worrying that it might cause me to outshine anyone!
Oh, what a wondrous gift this is! It feels suspiciously like hope. Hope that I might actually have something worth offering to the world.