All Over the Map | February 2016

Playing To Our Strengths

By Liz Massey, February 2016 Issue.

It’s the beginning of the year, and one sure-fire topic of conversation is what resolutions you’ve made for 2016, and/or whether you’ve broken any of them yet.

That pairing of hope with cynicism is not misplaced – surveys indicate that only a small fraction of resolutions (something on the order of 8 percent) are successfully accomplished.

Why do resolutions fail? Well, for one thing, it’s really difficult to step outside one’s comfort zone to establish a new habit or extinguish an old one. But the real reason we can’t seem to better our lives each time the calendar turns over isn’t that we’re weak-willed, or greedy or “bad.”

My life experience has led me to believe research findings indicating that when making change, it’s better to amplify our strengths than to set out to “fix” (or, worse yet, “battle”) our weaknesses.

This approach – championed by promoters of Appreciative Inquiry, Asset-Based Thinking, Positive Psychology and other strengths-oriented disciplines – is fairly new, and still sounds like a bunch of Kumbaya 1970s mumbo-jumbo if you haven’t been paying attention to research on motivation and change for the past 30 years. But it can work on the individual level just as well as the organizational level.

As a queer person, I find plenty to love in a strengths approach to resolution making. Because I’m a member of several groups (LGBTQ people, women) that are constantly being told that their bodies, or what is done with them, are “wrong,” it’s gratifying to learn about a pathway that skips the guilt and shame. It reminds us that we all have inherent value and the potential for positive contributions, just as we are. That line of thought can lead to seeing our peers in the LGBTQ equality movement as complementary partners who offer a variety of gifts to our advocacy attempts, instead of weird people we don’t understand and who get on our nerves.

So, if you want to make a change in your 2016, but don’t want to ride the same old roller coaster of high idealistic hopes that get dashed against the reality of how habits and entropy rule our lives, here are a few things to try.

Let go of activities, instead of taking more on. 

Entrepreneur Vanessa Loder, writing in Forbes, suggests taking a contrarian view to resolutions. She advises making a very short list (one to three items, tops) of actions you WILL NOT DO in the New Year. For example, you might say, “I will let go of setting unrealistic weight loss goals, and feeling disappointed when I don’t reach them.” This can help prevent us from setting ourselves up for failure, and allow better decisions to occupy that mental space.

Accelerate your current habits. 

Instead of making the mighty effort (and it is a huge effort, requiring lots of commitment, if you do actually succeed) to embed a new habit, find ways to do more of what you already love to do. Want to set an exercise goal? Find new fun places to go for that daily walk you enjoy so much, instead of pledging to take up CrossFit. Want to eat healthier? Sign up for a gourmet cooking class (because the really good stuff is often pretty good for you, and delicious, too) instead of eliminating all the “fun foods” from your diet.

Align your strengths, in order to make your weaknesses irrelevant. 

This tip is actually a paraphrase of a quote from the late business guru Peter Drucker. This pairs with the advice above, where you seek to make a change by engaging things that you’re good at, that excite and intrigue you and/or that you love to do.

Practice leading with your strengths. 

Positive psychology pioneers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman developed the Values in Action Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues (VIA for short), which offers an online questionnaire to help identify which of 24 strengths most closely align with who a person is. The idea is that once you know what you’re best at, you’ll be able to use your superpowers intentionally, instead of just having them burst forth randomly and intermittently.

The early part of the year often is infused with hope, especially when it comes to making things better in our life. However, as wonderful as self-improvement can be, there is more to our existence than perfecting ourselves.

As the British-American philosopher and author Alan Watts so aptly put it, “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them, we may forget altogether to live them.”


BIO_LizMassey_WEB