To leverage your strengths, embrace your challenges

When I talk to educators about making positive change in their classrooms and lives, this is what I usually hear:

I need to stop being so negative all the time.

I’m just so lazy!

I’ve got to stop being so disorganized or I’ll never accomplish anything.

These people have screwed up their courage and are doing their best to face their problem head-on.  I get it!

But, in their effort to “be real” and “not let themselves off the hook,” they are unintentionally slamming the brakes on their effort to change.

Here’s why:  It is hope, not shame, that will drive you towards change.  

Shame will make you feel misunderstood and preoccupied trying to figure out why (Why? WHY!?) you are so fundamentally unsatisfactory. This will distract you from the real work of doing something differently.  Hope, on the other hand, gives you a spark, energizes you, and focuses all that analytical fervor (previously directed at yourself) onto how you can realize your dreams.  Hope, my friends, is change fuel.

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Think about your students and you’ll realize how true this is- when you give them feedback who is able to work with it? It’s not the kid being really hard on himself or beating himself up, is it? No, it’s the student who is clear about his strengths and hopeful about his progress who takes your feedback in stride. Right?

“But,” you say, “don’t I need to really grapple with my issues if I’m going to make lasting change?”  Sure… but the issue you need to grapple with is not the one you think.  The issue you need to grapple with is that you aren’t seeing yourself clearly; my guess is that you are missing fully half of the picture.

Which half are you missing?  

  • The good half.
  • The strong half.
  • The powerful half.

Every challenge you have comes prepackaged with an equally powerful strength. For example: I subject my family to very high expectations (weakness?)… because I am very driven (strength).   I’m often get anxious when new things are unfolding (weakness)… largely because I am deeply committed to doing the right thing (strength).  I call these pairings my yin-yangs.

I’ve found that the intensity of the challenge is matched by the intensity of the related strength. For example, one of my strengths is that I am very, very (hugely) introspective.  This is great because I can process complex ideas and emerge with clarity that helps myself and others.  For this I am hugely grateful and I rely on it every single day… but it does come with some intense downsides.  Here’s a short list:

  • I am forgetful about really regular things. My head is in the clouds and I can’t tell you for the life of me where I put that check. I forget to go to my daughter’s school for lunch making both of us sad. I can’t tell you who called, even when it really matters. I’ll buy bread two days in a row.  “Why do we have all this bread?” my forgiving husband asks.
  • I am oblivious to things happening around me. Once my very good friend was walking down the sidewalk towards me.  She started waving from about a block and a half away.  She waved for the 3-5 minutes it took for us to arrive at each other and then she had to poke me in the arm.  “Amanda!” she said.  “Oh!  Hey! I didn’t see you!” There was no one between us, and I was looking right at her… but my eyeballs were given just enough brain space to be sure I didn’t fall.
  • I am painfully, ferociously irritable when I haven’t had enough time with my thoughts. There are times in life when I really have to be present and available- I need to be paying attention to my kids for a whole vacation week or my students are freaking out about the test next week and need me to help them prepare.  When these things happen and I don’t balance it with time to write, read, think and reflect, I become so, so irritable. When it gets very bad, I’ve been known to holler and cry, confusing and confounding my family and friends.
  • It’s not normal, but it is ME being ME.

This isn’t me doing that weird job interview thing where you offer weaknesses that are actually just plain strengths.  Rather, I’m truthfully acknowledging that my absolute favorite strength is part and parcel of my truest, deepest human weaknesses.  The same is true for you.

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Here are some other yin-yangs I’ve observed in other educators I know and love:

  • The very empathetic person who is almost magically able to help people work through their issues… who can’t keep her own life sorted out because she’s so busy helping others.
  • The discerning person who is able to cut through all the crap and get straight to the heart of any matter… who angers everyone else because he doesn’t leave space for other people’s thoughts and feelings.
  • The person who is completely able to go with the flow- she seems able to take the world in stride and is full of fun surprises…  who is always late and regularly changes plans causing people to feel slighted or disregarded.

Do any of these sound familiar? I see these people ALL OVER K-12 and Higher Ed!  We spend a lot of time talking about the downside (Why can’t I stop being so bossy? Why am I always late?) without acknowledging that if we suddenly lost that trait, our strength would go with it. It’s very important that we take a kind look at our weaknesses and recognize the strength being fed by the same source.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t work to improve your life! You should!  In fact, at the core of personal improvement involves managing your yin-yangs to maximize the strengths and minimize the challenge.  As you contemplate the changes you want to make in your life, stop shaming yourself!  It’s completely inefficient and undermines your greatest assets: your own powerful strengths.

You’ll find hope waiting on the other side if you do, and the power to fuel your change.

 

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