Discover more from Super Sunday
Strengths, the Middle Way, and Work
Taking an active role in shaping our lives
Hello friends! 👋
First, a warm welcome to our new subscribers and a deep thank you to everyone sharing and helping spread the word. I'm excited about the community of like-minded people we are creating here, together. 🙏
In the welcome post I started my introduction by sharing my strengths. Today I’d like to expand on this topic further since it is considered foundational to positive psychology and coaching psychology studies. We will look into the details of strengths, expand on their usage, and how to cultivate these strengths to live a more fulfilling life.
You can skip to the relevant sections by clicking on the links below: (Edit: it seems this functionality is only available on laptop/iPAD access)
As always, let's start with a definition:
Strengths: or specifically, character strengths are personal, innate capacities to act, feel, or think in a certain way.1 They connect to our deeper personal values; hence exercising them (or bringing them to life) results in optimal functioning and development.2
In other words, it is essential for us to utilize our strengths in order to live well. It is also important to note that in this definition, strengths are not skills; they are more about our personal traits (hence the use of the word character to describe them).
The work with character strengths is at the core of positive psychology concepts and study. It allows us to see the good in ourselves (and others) and leverage that to create a higher impact for ourselves and others.
This proposition may be contrary to the general understanding most of us grew up with, which mainly asks us to focus on overcoming our weaknesses. Sometimes, this work may be necessary in specific instances where our absolute inability in doing something leaves us at a disadvantage; therefore working on developing those areas will generate outcomes necessary to survive. However, it is not the best use of our time and effort if we aim to thrive beyond surviving.
I will use a simple example here; if we do not know how to use a pen to write, we would be at a significant disadvantage in situations requiring us to do so - hence working on developing (this skill) may be essential. However, if we already know how to write using our dominant hand, putting effort into developing this skill in our other hand will fruit in much less impact than putting that same effort into advancing our existing skill - assuming we ultimately want to become world-class calligraphers.
While this example refers to skills, the same concept applies to utilizing our innate character strengths. Focusing on our strengths helps us create a bigger impact and live more authentically with who we are. As stated earlier, these strengths stem from core values that we hold dear to ourselves. Acting in line with our values is directly related to higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.
So, how do we find out our strengths? Many tools were developed under the positive psychology research aimed at helping individuals discover their strengths.. As stated in the welcome post, research estimates that only 1/3rd of the population are aware of their strengths. And only a portion of those people deliberately use their strengths in their everyday interactions and in designing their lives.
One of my favorite tools is the VIA Survey developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is regarded as the father of positive psychology. The reason why this survey is unique lies in the work that went behind bringing it to life. Starting in 2001 and over the course of 3 years, and with a team of 55 other scholars, Dr. Martin and his colleague Dr. Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan researched what makes human beings flourish. After reviewing all methodologies and teachings of living a good life taught throughout history "from the Buddha to Tony Robins", they found six main virtues of the good life that are consistent across nations, religions, cultures, and times - they are the virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These virtues are brought to life by exercising distinct character strengths. More about those virtues at another time, for now let’s unpack what character strengths are.
Character strengths are pathways toward those six virtues - there are 24 character strengths that are unique and valued in their own right. These strengths do not show up in isolation; they show up in different degrees and alongside other strengths depending on the situation and context. For example, one's expression of love differs when offering help to a stranger vs. love expressed at home towards family, which may also be coupled with honesty and/or forgiveness.
Each individual has a unique profile in which these 24-strengths are arranged from their most prominent to their least. Notice that everyone has the capacity for all 24 strengths. However, the higher-ranking ones (generally called signature strengths) show up more effortlessly and naturally.
Given the importance of those character strengths to expressing the virtues of a good life, coupled with the uniqueness of our profile of strengths based on our unique personality traits, and the degrees to which each one can be displayed helps us explore a few possibilities.
Knowing what our character strengths are, helps us understand what matters to us most, our values, and what guides our feelings and behavior.
Focusing on bringing those strengths to life can help us live life more authentically and in line with our values.
When we deliberately use those strengths, we can find value in situations where those strengths can be exercised. This has the power to reframe and change adversity into opportunity, a wall into a door.
Science suggests that these strengths can help you change your job into a career into a calling. We will unpack this further in the third section of this newsletter.
As I shared in the welcome post, my signature strengths are curiosity, analytical-thinking, hope, gratitude, and love of learning. I put deliberate effort in bringing these strengths to life everyday whether in my personal or professional life. They are the very reason I started this newsletter which helps me embody all 5 strengths.
Back to you now.
✏️ Have you taken the survey? Link here again
💪 What are your signature (top 5) strengths?
⭐️ How often and to what extent do you bring those strengths to your daily interactions with yourself (in your thoughts and attitude), your relationships, and your work?
Stop to recall and note this. Familiarizing yourself with the degree to which you exercise your strengths is by itself an intervention that can help you make better decisions about what matters to you.
And if you feel inspired, let me know in the comments below 👇
On that note, when I shared this with my friends, a curious friend in our WhatsApp group (thanks Ahmed!) decided to create a spreadsheet capturing the signature strengths of each member of the group. Once compiled, he shared the group’s most common strengths; Love, Humor, Kindness, Fairness, Perspective.
In a similar attempt, a study conducted in 2014 with 1 million participants, a size slightly bigger than our WhatsApp group 😅, across 74 nations found that the global ranking for signature strengths was Honesty, Fairness, Kindness, Judgment, and Curiosity.
⚖️ The Middle Way
Let's kick this off with a story:
According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family and grew up behind palace walls shielding him from the suffering outside. At the age of 29, he decided to leave this life of indulgence and pursue the path of the ascetic to become a monk and practice self-discipline - as the traditional stories tell us - he limited his diet to one grain of rice a day.
Six years later, he was meditating under a tree when he overheard a musician teaching a student how to tune a sitar. "Tighten the strings too much," the teacher said, "and it will cause them to snap. Leave them too loose, however, and they will cease to make a sound." Upon hearing this, Siddarhtha had a moment of realization; having experienced the extremes of self-indulgence as well as that of self-abstinence resulted in no peace. In that moment, he committed to living life in moderation between pleasure and self-regulation. In Buddhist teachings, this became known as the Middle Way.3
Thousands of years later, Aristotle coined the term Virtuous Mean as he was teaching the ways to living the good life, eudaimonia, through the act of excellence in virtue, arete. He teaches us the need to avoid deficiency as well as the excess of virtues and that the most optimal expression of virtue is the balance between these two extremes.
The degree to which you use your strengths can significantly impact your life. It is straightforward for us to see how a deficiency in this use can result in sub-optimal functioning; we can see the missed opportunities to express ourselves fully and authentically.
However, too much of a good thing is never good. Character strengths can be over-used, causing more damage than benefit and hindering the use of other strengths necessary in specific contexts. For example, too much bravery can result in irrational decisions and deficiency in self-regulation. Too much honesty can result in toxicity. Love into unhealthy dependency. You get the idea.
Science agrees; in his book "Mindsight", Dan Siegel, a renowned professor of psychiatry at UCLA, tells us that the hallmark of an optimally functioning human being is the ability to operate within the river of integration that runs between two banks; structure and spontaneity. Too much of either will result in sub-optimal outcomes; the structure can lead to rigidity, and spontaneity can lead to chaos.
It is easy for us to see how this applies to everything in life, and the degree in which we display our character strengths is one of those ways.
It is important to be aware of our strengths, cultivate the intention to deliberately bring them to life, and be mindful of the areas of our lives where we may be over-using them.
For me personally, the habitual overuse of my signature strengths shows up in many situations in my life. For example, when my curiosity is in overdrive, I find it difficult to stick to a routine, looking out for other ways to do something while the routine still works and I can instead use my time in other useful matters. Or when I'm lost in my analytical-thinking, I may "over-think" simple matters and waste energy in theorizing vs. actually doing. I cannot prevent the tendency for overuse; however, I can certainly choose to stop it when it isn't serving me.
One very relevant way in which I saw myself over-using my analytical-thinking strength is directly related to the launch of this newsletter. My initial plan was to start releasing this in January 2023 as part of the New Year vibe, as well as give me time to be more prepared as I learn during my graduate school classes. However, beneath the surface, I was just overthinking what this newsletter is and what it is meant to serve. I wanted a place where I could share concepts and insights about topics I find deeply valuable with like-minded people who find interest in them as well.
Is there more information to be learned about the topics I am discussing? Absolutely!
Will I be more confident as I learn more? Yes!
Do I have to wait till the end of the year to get started? I don't think so. I have enough knowledge to kickstart this project. To practice and have fun with it.
When seeing my excessive use of this strength, I was able to realize that this is not serving me. Therefore, instead of putting this as yet another brilliant idea collecting dust on the shelf, here I am writing about what I find valuable and building a connection with each one of you. That's exactly what I wanted to end up with anyway.
Notice how in the above reflection, I used the word "start". More often than not, my overthinking leads to procrastination. How? Well, being an engineer, I have been trained to keep a look out for all that may go wrong, so I can anticipate it and design for preventing it. With this tendency, it is easy to slip into an endless list of what could go wrong, eventually making the task too big to do and too hard to accomplish. This inevitably zaps out all possible motivation and energy to do the task and ultimately avoid it.
I didn’t need an engineering degree to develop this pattern of thinking. If you relate to this and you’re not an engineer, know that this is a common human condition. We are wired towards negative bias, a survival skill that helped our ancestors survive living in the wild and anticipate possible bear or tiger attacks.
Telling myself to start offers a more gracious approach; I do not have to finish; I only have to start. Once I start, I can choose whether I will continue or not.
Try it out the next time you’re struggling with procrastinating that project, workout, or paper.
Back to the use of strengths; by now, we are clear on the importance of regulation. That a balanced use of our strengths is key to their positive impact on our lives - left too loose and they may cause chaos, handled too tight and they may prevent us from creating a meaningful life.
Taking an active role in regulating our use depending on the context is itself an act of mindfulness. To be aware of our tendencies for auto-reaction and instead using our agency in choosing the right response is the true embodiment of applied mindfulness.
Meditation practice offers us an opportunity to notice our habitual reactivity and instead choose not to engage in it. Whether you're a long-term meditator or not, the practice is the same.
🔴 Taking this back to you, as you look at your top 5 strengths, can you recall times when these strengths may have been overused?
⚖️ What would have been a more suitable degree of usage?
👁 How will you be mindful to choose the right level at which you exercise this strength next time?
☎️ Find Your Calling (or Allow Your Calling To Find You)
In the last section of the newsletter, I wanted to discuss the topic of "work". Many people's opinion of work is that "I'm better off without it". This might suggest that work in and of itself carries a negative emotional affect, which is a fundamentally incorrect notion.
As always, a definition. Let's use the example of stress as a measure. The current definition we have of the word stress comes from Hans Selye, an Austrian-Hungarian endocrinologist. Selye defined it as the nonspecific response of the body to demand for change. He recognizes that stress is neither inherently good nor bad - it is simply anything that requires effort. In this regard, even the act of dancing or being surprised with a gift causes stress on the body. We generally relate to the negative side of stress and, unfortunately, have extended the same to work.
Human beings are made to work. Through our work, we express our unique beings. We tell our own stories through the work we create. Each of us is uniquely positioned to create work that only he or she is able to create, based on the myriad of experience, abilities, ambitions, and creative thoughts each one of us is made of. We engage with the world through the work we create, the work we love.
Work is love made visible - Khalil Jibran, eloquently in The Prophet
By no means am I discounting the amount and experience of "negative stress" certain roles and places of work can create. However, this negative feeling is a result of the people or environment with whom and in which we conduct that work, as well as our perception of that experience. If my perception of work is negative, then I will see more negative than positive. Seek, and you shall find.
On the other hand, if my perception of work is that it is a gift, an opportunity for growth, and a place of creativity, then I will be able to see more positives despite any possible challenges ahead. That's what psychologists refer to as alchemizing your job into a career into a calling.
A job is something you do for the paycheck, a fragile relationship that can be quickly eliminated and offers no significant meaning. A career is a job you do consistently in pursuit of longer-term security and growth - this can offer a sense of meaning, albeit still extrinsic. A calling, on the other hand, is work you do for the sake of doing it, regardless of the monetary value it offers. We mistakenly tend to reserve this slot for artists.
Generally speaking, a calling is done for something bigger than just yourself, thereby offering the highest level of meaning (self-actualizing and transcending).4 5 It is intrinsically motivated, i.e. stemming from deep values; doing something we love that gives us purpose. That's where we ultimately would like to be.
If you haven't seen Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement address, I suggest this is the first thing you watch after finishing this letter. Among other great reflections, he shares:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”
That sounds great, but sometimes it also sounds much easier said than done.
Before moving forward, I want to bring to your attention the fact that money is a tool not a goal. Like oxygen, once we are “saturated” then “more” doesn’t create incremental value. I will come back to this topic in more detail some other time but will leave you with this for now.
To break the pursuit for purpose into more actionable terms, I'm going to offer you a starting point; the easiest and quickest way to have a calling orientation is to bring your strengths to work. As we covered, strengths stem from deep values, the act of living these values is purposeful living.
This is why I have chosen to specialize in strength-based coaching. What I like about this approach is that it requires no change of environment, which we usually have no control over, and moves all of the work within our control - in our ability to bring our own strengths to our work.
Try this out, for the upcoming week at work, bring your number one strength to the task or challenge you're faced with. Use the strength as a lens through which you see and make sense of that work, whether mundane or challenging. If, for example, love for learning is your strength, you can deliberately try to notice the opportunity for learning in whatever you're dealing with. Being your number one strength, this is expected to come easy.
By focusing on what we can control and our strengths, we support ourselves with a sense of autonomy and competence - which science tells us are two of the main pillars of motivation, alongside relatedness. More on this in future conversations.
You can slowly build up to bring your five signature strengths to the work you engage with, which will feel more meaningful to you and inevitably result in unique and outstanding work. Needless to say, this directly impacts your performance, relationships, growth, and, of course, your quality of life.
The other aspect of the calling orientation I like you to consider is sitting quite obviously in the word itself. By definition, a calling relates to something that generates an intrinsic pull towards itself; it has the ability to call you to its path, to draw you to its presence. Therefore, I'd like to think that instead of going out actively looking for it (after all, how can I find what I don't know yet?), a more actionable and simpler approach is to trust that the calling will find me instead, as long as I am showing up at my best every day such that I set the conditions for it to find me.
If I’m working on ensuring that I show up at my best in my fundamentals of eating, sleeping, moving, and focusing, then I am primed enough to allow that calling to find me and be able to recognize it when I see it.
Looking at it this way simplifies it (can you recall the 3-elements we talked?) and offers a lot more autonomy by putting us in the driver's seat. We control the narrative rather than the other way around. It helps us stop the striving that may result in a level of anxiety and incompleteness around our current life.
So, over to you, how are your every day fundamentals?
💤 Are you getting your 8 hours of sleep every day?
🥗 How healthy is the food you consume every day?
👟 How much do you move and generate energy every day?
💭 And what's the clarity of your thinking (what food is your brain consuming) every day?
Consistency on our fundamentals is the foundation of all work towards a fuller life. I cannot stress the importance of this requirement ahead of any other pursuit towards meaning and achievement.
Your physiology drives your psychology. You will find me referring back to the fundamentals as we go on in the upcoming editions.
Finally, I want to thank you for taking the time to read through and I hope you can find ways to integrate the above in your everyday life.
Let’s go! 💪
P.S. Let me know in the comments below of any specific topics you are interested in navigating and I will add those to future considerations.
P.S.2 if you’re feeling it - liking, commenting, and sharing are all tokens of support that help spread this work.
Deiner and Biswas-Deiner, 2008