“I sound like a nun!” exclaimed my coaching client as she threw her VIA Survey results down on the table in disgust. “Don’t get me wrong, the results are absolutely accurate, but where’s the fun?” It’s a great question.
While a growing body of research suggests there may be all sorts of benefits to developing your strengths at work, including feeling more confident, energized and happier, what can you do if upon discovering your strengths you don’t really like your results? After all, just because your strength survey results shed light on the things you’re good at and enjoy doing, it doesn’t guarantee they will be ‘sexy’ strengths or that they will be the strengths you need or want for your job.
Can you Change Your Top Strengths?
If you don’t like your strengths, is there really anything you can do to change them?
The good news is that while our strengths exist within us, they are also shaped by the situations we find ourselves in. This is why people who take the free VIA Survey on an annual basis often find that while some strengths stay consistently high, others will move around. For example, creativity and curiosity are nearly always in my top strengths, but over the last eight years zest will move up and down depending on how well I’m physically looking after myself.
Neuroscience has also found that because our brains are capable of learning right throughout our lives with enough regular practice it is possible to build new neural pathways that help us to become good at and enjoy doing new behaviors. Although, let me be clear there is still hot debate over how long this might take and some popular estimates suggest it might be as high as 8,000 – 10,000 hours of practice. For example, eight years ago love was my 20th strength but having intentionally tried to consistently cultivate more loving behavior in my life it has recently moved up to become one of my top strengths.
Here's What to Do
So what can you do to change your strengths?
Here are the three things I recommend when people tell me they don’t like their strengths:
Firstly, check if your survey results are right. Recently I had someone in workshop who was struggling to navigate a lot of changes in his life. When he got his VIA Survey results he acknowledged that they were an accurate reflection of his strengths right now, but not of who he was when life wasn’t so tumultuous. So he took the survey again but this time answered the questions based on the way he felt and acted during more stable periods of his life. These answers felt much more like who he was at his best, so he decided to find ways to dial these strengths back up in his life. As one of the creators of the VIA Survey, Professor Chris Peterson, once told me: “It’s a tool, not a magic oracle. It doesn’t know something about you that you don’t already know about yourself.”
Secondly, by definition all strengths are good things. If you’re strengths results feel like you, but you just think they’re boring, it might be time to re-discover the value of what these strengths bring to you and others. Humility might not feel like the most exciting strength, but it’s what makes it possible for you to quietly and authentically get things done. That sounds pretty valuable.
Finally, remember your strengths are buildable and changeable. They exist within you and within the situations you find yourself in. By prioritizing the practice of specific strengths—like I did with my strength of love—or by putting yourself in situations that give you more opportunity to develop your strengths—like going to the gym to improve your zest— you can create change over time.