Sunday, December 24, 2006

Overcoming self-defeating thoughts, developing one's talents

As I counsel my own kids, and as I work with other young (and not-so-young!) people who are struggling toward initial success--the experience that tells them, "This is where your talent lies! Walk in this path"--I have found many of us engage in a lot of self-defeating thought, the old "tapes" I have heard people say we play to ourselves: "You'll never amount to anything." "You can't do anything right." "Don't get too big for your britches." "Who do you think you are, [some successful celebrity in the field in which you are striving to excel]?"

Defeatism, defeatism, defeatism!

Buckingham and Clifton suggest we tend to focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths because of fear: fear of failure and
  • the internal anguish we feel when, or if, we fail at a task in which we think we are strong;
  • the distress of being ridiculed in society at large--the ridicule that is reserved most caustically for those who claim strengths and then fail. (See Now, Discover Your Strengths pp. 125-126.)
They list these two issues in the order I have presented them here.

But I would think the majority of us fight, far more, the latter than the former fear because we never get to the point where we recognize--or are willing to recognize--our unique strengths.

Buckingham and Clifton don't quite come out and say this is a reason we tend to focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths, but they strongly imply one additional reason for such behavior. They say that many of us are concerned about coming across egotistical.

However, they note, "Egotism is when you make claims to excellence, but your claims aren't tied to anything substantive" (p. 126).

"Yes," I would say. "But isn't that the rub? Most of us never get to the point--or are never permitted to get to the point or encouraged to get to the point or allow ourselves to get to the point--where we can know for sure whether there could be any substance behind claims to excellence in any field of endeavor."

But, say Buckingham and Clifton, "patching up your weaknesses will never lead you to excellence."

So what should we do?

One thing: recognize that

building on your strengths isn't necessarily about ego. It is about responsibility. . . . Your natural talents are gifts from God . . . [Y]ou had nothing to do with [acquiring] them. However, you have a great deal to do with fashioning them into strengths. It is your opportunity to take your natural talents and transform them, through focus and practice and learning, into consistent, near-perfect performances.

From this point of view, to avoid your strengths and to focus on your weaknesses isn't a sign of diligent humility. It is almost irresponsible. By contrast, the most responsible, the most challenging, and, in the sense of being true to yourself, the most honorable thing to do is face up to the strength potential inherent in your talents and then find ways to realize it. (pp. 126-127)

This is where I think Sarita has proven exceptionally wise while our kids were younger--in elementary and high school. She never permitted them to "sit around" and "do nothing" besides school work. She made sure they were involved in competitive sports, music, drama, art, chess, magic, something that required effort, practice, persistence for the child to sense s/he had succeeded.

And in so doing--by requiring these activities on the part of our children--Sarita and our kids discovered their areas of strength and weakness, areas of interest, . . . potential talents that they could develop.

I feel sad for those who have never been encouraged to persist the way our children have been encouraged to persist--to persist until they realized, "Hey! I'm good at this!" or, "Y'know, I'm never going to be good at this." --One can't make such discoveries in the space of moments, hours, or even a few days. It takes significant time and effort--in general, I'd say, at least one full season, three months or more. At full exertion. Then say whether you have "no talent" or "some talent" or, even, potentially, "a lot of talent"--even if that talent is yet to be developed.
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