Build On Your Strengths

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how to identify your strengths.
  • Learn how to build upon the strengths you have and the ones you want to develop.


“I’m wondering how I will ever finish graduate school if I’m having so much trouble in my first year.”

“I’ve always wanted to go into an industry job, but all my training is for an academic position. How will I be able to be competitive on the job market if I don’t have those skills?”

Identifying Strengths

Most people are aware that they have some good characteristics. They receive positive feedback on certain things they do, like when someone gets a good grade or is the computer whiz all their relatives ask for technical help. But people have many more strengths than the outside world knows or appreciates. The tricky part is appropriately identifying what they are and capitalizing on your skill set.

For instance, someone may know that he or she is a good mathematician, but may not be aware that they also are a great creative writer. This is most likely because they have had plenty of experience with solving equations and little exposure to writing poetry. Awareness of our own abilities is key in identifying or overlooking a skill. It’s also important to identify strengths that help us enjoy many aspects of life, not just be successful in the academic setting.

People are also very comparison-based. Maybe you are not Pablo Neruda, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. Be careful about comparing yourself to someone else when determining your strengths. This happens quite frequently within everyday life. If your roommate, who is a year behind you in your program, has already taken her comps, there is the temptation to think that she’s more capable, smarter or successful than you are. However, other people's strengths are not your yardstick. You have your own strengths and you are the best judge of them.1

When identifying your strengths, it’s important to focus on what’s right about you and what makes your life good in a variety of aspects, apart from the experiences of others.2 You may be a great mathematician, but you may also be a good friend, and an avid sculptor (key word: avid, not talented).

Different Types of Strength

Strengths are not merely skill-based. They range the full spectrum of human behavior, taking into account how we interact with the world around us, at work, at home, within a community and as members of a larger society. It is the conglomerate of multiple kinds of strengths that gets someone to their desired goal. It may be an unexpected strength that gets you through difficult situations.

If you are struggling in one of your classes, you may think your knowledge of, or difficulty with, statistics is the linchpin. However, it may be your tenacity that gets you through the semester and determines how successful you are versus your basic understanding of the materials. If you are tenacious and ask for help, diligently do your homework and seek feedback, you can tackle not just your stats class but many other (possibly more important) life issues.


Strength Classification

Expression of Strength

Wisdom and Knowledge

Cognitive Strengths

Acquire and use different forms of knowledge


Emotional Strengths

Willfully accomplish goals under any circumstance


Interpersonal Strengths

Cultivate relationships


Civic Strengths

Assist in creating healthy communities by being a fair and responsible leader


Strengths that Prevent Excess

Forgive, be humble and thoughtful of one’s actions


Strengths that Create Connections to the Larger Universe

Be hopeful and appreciative of everyday existence


Which statement reflects the “Courage” strength?

Best Answer: D. Statement A reflects Justice, statement B shows Temperance, and statement C suggests Wisdom and Knowledge.

The Perception of Strength

Strength is about perception. It depends on how broad you cast your stroke. Is it a strength to have a great sense of direction? How about being able to paint your house? Is a skill less of a strength if anybody can do it? It boils down to your perception.

Don’t place yourself in a conceptual straightjacket by limiting how you think of your positive attributes.3 People who think they have many strengths have a higher level of self-efficacy. They think they can accomplish something because they are good at it or possess a certain attribute that enhances their success. And then, what do you know — they do it! Are they actually “good” at it? Maybe not. It could just be that everyone else around them is equally “bad” at it, like when no one from your program has published an article in Operations Research or some other top-tier journal.4

So regardless if your strength is “real,” if you have belief in your strengths, you will have an enhanced sense of well-being.4 This gives you the freedom to be creative with your list of strengths. Don’t limit yourself to the obvious or disregard what, when compared to others, seems like a weakness.

Drawing Strength from Past Experiences

It’s key to recognize that you utilize your different strengths at different times in your life. It’s like using different muscles to rock climb versus cycling. People develop their strengths through their different unique life experiences. But often, we don’t think of these positive attributes as overlapping. It takes some reflections and a bit of self-dialogue. How have you dealt with challenges in the past? Often people’s toughest moments serve as pivotal life lessons and character builders.

Drawing from your past experiences can be very helpful. Ask yourself:5

  • What stressful events have I been through before?
  • How did I deal with those?
  • Who helped me? Or who did I think of at those moments?
  • What did I learn about myself?
  • Did it help to assist others in similar situations?
  • How have I maintained hope for the future?

Gosh, I dealt with that house fire a whole lot better than I’m taking getting my proposal rejected. I lost almost everything in that fire. OK, what did I do during that time? I called my mom, and even though it was 5 a.m. in Thailand she spoke to me for two hours. I thought of how she had survived that terrible tsunami while my sister and I were in the States. I remember refocusing on the positive things — like the fact that I had renter’s insurance and that I had a great labmate who let me stay with her until I found a new place. It was helpful to assist Hurricane Katrina victims staying in the local shelter because I could relate to that scary feeling of being homeless and to my own family’s experience. I learned that I have a great support system and that I’m not as attached to material possessions as I might have thought. There is a lot I can live without. If I can get through that, I’m not going to worry too much about things that aren’t life threatening. I can handle things that are within my control. Wow, I’ve been through much worse than a proposal rejection.

Asset Mapping

Once you have brainstormed about your strengths, it’s time to put them down on paper. You can create an asset map where you write down your personal assets and place them in the different domains of your life. This idea originally came from mapping out communities,6 but it can also be used on the individual level. It’s a personal inventory of your strengths.

This is different than defining how you want things to be or what you need to change. Asset mapping is acknowledging what you already have and focusing on your effectiveness. It’s an empowerment-centered strategy that draws from your already deep pool of skills. The idea is that you already have what you need to be successful; it just needs some development.

Start with three overlapping circles in a Venn diagram and choose three or four areas in your life that are the most important. Let’s use School, Work and Personal life as an example. Then start placing your assets on your map. Does “great cook” go in the Work circle or just in Personal Life? “Makes people laugh” can probably go in all three, so it’s placed where all the circles overlap. Ideally, you’ll have a lot of attributes in the center of your Venn diagram. These are your core strengths that: 1) serve many purposes, 2) enhance multiple areas of your life and 3) are most central to you. You probably feel like you are best at these things because they seem to come up the most for you.

Now it’s time to stretch. Really think about your strengths in each distinct domain of your life. You may actually be a very thoughtful romantic but you have so little time to nurture your relationship with your husband that he’s often getting the least you can offer. This doesn’t have to be a weakness; rather, it can be viewed as a strength that needs more development. So, include those well-intended strengths that you may need some brushing up on. You can mark those with some specific indicator so that you’re aware that they need more practice or work.

Once this asset map is filled out, you will feel amazed at how many strengths you have! This visual representation is a powerful tool for focusing your awareness on your positive attributes instead of your deficits. Your core strengths can be considered your foundation on which other skills are based. If you have “being friendly” as one of your core strengths, you can build on a skill that comes naturally and create a new skill that you may not have listed like “being a good social networker” or “being a competitive job applicant.” Being friendly can definitely help in both of those things.

Make a list of aspirational skills or characteristics outside each of your domains in your Venn diagram. If you find that you have some repeated outside certain domains, you may want to prioritize these. Then you can see how you can build upon your core strengths to cultivate these aspirational skills. Assume you can.


Create your own asset map. You can print this out and/or replace the different life domains that suit what you are trying to do.

Using Your Skills

Once you have identified your strengths, now it’s time to put them to use. Doing things that engage your skills can increase your happiness and level of energy. You have identified your strengths and mapped them out. Now, how can you utilize them?

This starts with simple tasks. Each day, do something that consciously entails you to use a strength. If that means doing what you normally do, that’s great. The difference is that you are conscious that you are doing these things. Things that are done repetitively will become your habits. It then becomes your typical behavior to do what utilizes your skills and it won’t involve as much effort.7

CareerWISE Points

Each person has numerous strengths. The key is to recognize what they are and to not be afraid to utilize them. There may be many things that you don’t do all the time that you are very capable of. Be careful not to compare yourself to others when determining your skill set. Each person has their own unique combination of strengths that work for them.

CareerWISE Tips

  • Identify your strengths by looking at both what you consider yourself good at as well as by what you enjoy.
  • Draw upon your past experiences to see where you have gathered strength in the past.
  • Take some time to construct a careful inventory of your strengths.
  • Honestly assess what you would like to work on and feel confident that it’s within your skill set to develop your strengths. If you can pass your comps, you can work on being a better listener.
  • Use what you have. Make sure you do something each day or as often as you can that utilizes your strengths, especially the ones you want to develop more. Those are the ones that are tougher to do because they take more practice. Put them on your daily to-do list.


  1. Peterson, C. (2006). The values in action (VIA) classifications of strength. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I.S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology (pp. 29-48). New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E .P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  4. Dunning, D. (2005). Self-sight: Roadblocks and detours on the path to knowing thyself. New York: Psychology Press.
  5. American Psychological Association. The road to resilience. Retrieved July 27, 2009 from
  6. Beaulieu, L. J. (2002). Mapping the assets of your community: A key component for building local capacity. Retrieved July 2, 2009 from
  7. Edman, D. (1994). Your weaknesses are your strengths: Transformation of the self through analysis of personal weaknesses. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

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