Play to Your Strengths: A Practical Guide to Personal Excellence

Charlie (my wife) are in the midst of watching Grey's Anatomy. It's not a production I would chose to watch on my own, but I've got to admit, the show has grown on me.

Even though the story-arc is at times, laughably predicable, the writer does a wonderful job of weaving in life lessons into the show.

The other day, one of those stories grabbed me by the throat and shook me around a little bit. In fact, I pulled my phone out to take note of the story so I could write about it.

Christina Yang is a resident surgeon at Seattle Grey's hospital. Dr. Hunt is a trauma surgeon (who also happens to be Christina's husband) at Seattle Grey's hospital. Moreover, he's in charge of promoting one resident to chief resident - a prized position that everyone was gunning for, including Dr. Yang.

Over the course of a few episodes, the tension of who would be granted chief resident was climaxing. Abnormal behavior from residents to earn points with Dr. Hunt was evident on a daily basis. It was something like a bunch of 4th graders trying to earn a gold star from their teacher.

And then, Dr. Yang and Dr. Hunt are in an office room alone.

Dr. Hunt looks at Dr. Yang with empathic eyes and says, "I'm not going to make you chief resident."

Caught off guard with a cocktail of emotions running through her heart and mind, Dr. Yang replies with, "What? Why not?"

"You are a surgeon. You're a very good surgeon. Be you. Be excellent at that. You are not built for chief resident. Dealing with paper work. Managing other doctors. All that stuff will only set you up for massive frustration and hold you back from being excellent at what you're great at," says Dr. Hunt. 

With a cold, piercing look, Dr. Yang looks him straight in the eye and says, "Are you done?"


Then, Dr. Yang storms out of the room pregnant with anger.

After a sprint of frustration, arm flailing and complaining, Dr. Yang realizes that even though the news that she wouldn't become chief stung, it was the right choice. Her greatest strength is being a surgeon. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less either.

This short story transcends a TV show. It penetrates into every spirit that is breathing right now. Your life. My life.

We are all trying to figure out what our strengths are.

Understanding ourselves - our tendencies, interests, skills, aptitude, and strengths - is profoundly important to leading a life filled with meaning and purpose.

But, like Dr. Yang, we often overlook what we are good at because it comes easy to us.

Dr. Yang was considered a prodigy as a surgeon. And yet, she wanted to venture out of her strength because the societal and cultural dogma that shooting for chief resident was not only the normative, but necessary.

This narrative is the through-line in real life too, not just in TV shows. We get pressed from every side to pursue things that we think we need to capture.

And in the midst, we get confused, frustrated and unfortunately spend a lot of time trying to get good at the wrong things.

So, what do we do?

Focus on making your strengths even stronger.


Why focusing on our strengths is important

If you have a Dr. Hunt in your life who can emphatically look you in the eyes and tell you exactly where you need to focus your energy in regards to what you're good at, consider yourself blessed.

Don't fight it. Use it to your advantage. It might hurt. It might sting. But, if there is bone-deep conviction in the advice you get from someone telling you where you should strive to be excellent, it's a priceless gift. Treasure it.

However, if you're wrestling to find what you should strive to be excellent at on your own, it's important to first understand why the pursuit is even necessary.

Let me ask you this question: "Would you rather do something because someone of authority tells you that you have to? Or would you rather do something because you're compelled and interested in the thing itself?

Of course, you'd rather choose your own decision.

The self-determination theory (SDT) fuels sustainable effort towards excellence. Meaning, if you feel pushed or compelled toward a behavior it significantly impacts your motivation to excel at whatever your pursuit is.

So, in the journey of building up your strengths, it's vitally important for you to assess yourself and reveal what intrinsically motivates you.

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from an internal drive from the individual rather than from any external or outside rewards, such as money, grades or an authority forcing you to do it. You could say that the practice of getting better is the reward itself.

External motivation on the other hand involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments. You could say that the reward or avoidance of punishment is the end itself.

Lets look at Dr. Yang as an example.

It can take up to 16 years of specialized residency training for her to step into the ranks as a professional surgeon. Med school and the path to become a surgeon is hard - very hard. It's all consuming. And yet, there are little rewards in the form of monetary gain or even recognition along the way.

Dr. Yang was compelled - or intrinsically motivated - to become excellent at her strength. If her motive was fueled by external reward, it's far more likely that she would have given up well before she put in the required effort and time to give herself a chance to become a surgeon.

For Dr. Yang, and real-life med students, there are two components to their success. One, they must choose the pursuit on their own (self determination theory). Two, they must be compelled to become excellent at their craft even without immediate external reward (intrinsically motivated).

These two components - self determination theory and intrinsic motivation - are the keys to playing to your strengths and becoming excellent at what you do.

The next obvious question is, how do you know what to get good at?


A practical way to figure out how to know what you want to get good at

There's a song I like by James Bay, called "Let it go."

The chorus hums like this: "C'mon let it go. Just let it be. Why don't you be you. And I'll be me.

For some, that will sink in. For many others, it feels like bumper sticker advice.

Fair enough.

Look, this question of "What should I get good at with this life?" is a big one. 

It's one that I've battled with more times than I'd like to admit. What follows are my ideas on how to figure it out. Treat it like a buffet. Scan what is offered and grab what looks delicious and leave the rest.


Try things

Break things. Get fired. Work at a fish market for $13 an hour. Sling cell phones. Get lured into an MLM company. Write terrible blog posts. Take your hand at selling real estate even though you have no idea how to do it. Serve tables at Olive Garden. Glide red-bull Vodka's across the bar until 3 A.M.

Try things - especially when you have the flexibility to do it.

I mean, is there a better way to really figure out what interests you?

Sure, there are the kids who are linear and know exactly what they're going to do for the rest of their lives. I can't relate to that. And if you feel the same way, then you need to try things.

Eventually, something will land - like an arrow into the heart.

You'll know when it happens.


Back the interest up with practice

When something catches and you can't think about anything else, it's time to be really curious about your new found interest.

At this point you're not good at your interest. But, your compelled to get good at it.

This is intrinsic motivation.

It's the young lad who gets his hands on a camera from a friend. And then spends every waking hour and ounce of effort outside of his day job, studying how to be a great photographer. Shooting everyday.

It's the person who has a message in their heart, and can't keep it compressed. Then they discover this thing called blogging. Now, they are an instant author. The taste of hitting "publish" is exhilarating. Then, it becomes consuming and nobody else gets it - the life of a writer. Writing everyday.

It's the ex-athlete, who discovers that he can turn exercising into a career. He fuels that relentless work ethic into getting good at the sport. He constantly evaluates his recovery methods to seek an advantage. He recruits and invests into experts to help him improve the efficacy of his approach. This isn't exercising, he's got an aim to become excellent. Training everyday.

Whatever your interest may be, for it to become a strength, deliberate practice must be engaged consistently.

Meaning, you have to become good at your thing in order for it to be a strength. It simply just doesn't happen.

You've got to understand that an interest does not mean it's a strength. The gap between an interest and a strength is repetition. 


Wrapping Up

The anatomy of a personal strength is broken down in a few parts. 

First, it's grounded by the self determination theory. If you choose the pursuit yourself - instead of being forced to do it - you'll more likely to sustain the motivation to get good at it.

Second, the activity itself must be the reward for you. It's doesn't mean the external rewards or attention is evil, but to become excellent at anything, you understand that the act of practicing is the reward and any outcomes in the form of external reward is a by-product of the practice. 

Then, it's the applied aspects of finding your strengths. I believe it's important to try a lot of things to see what catches your attention. When you find something that tickles you, devote a lot of practice towards it. 

And lastly, when you dial in your personal strength, own it. Be excellent at that. Be you. 


End notes:

Thanks to Geoff Colvin and Michelle Segar for helping prompt this piece. 

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