🚀 A Personal Growth Hack for 2021 — Double Down on Your Strengths

Shelly Eisen Livneh
10 min readDec 30, 2020

The last #GROWTHsnack of 2020 is all about personal growth — just in time for some new year’s resolutions.

For many of us, 2020 has been a year full of forced, unexpected changes and pivots. Many of my highly experienced, talented, capable friends and colleagues found themselves looking for their next adventure. Many of them are still not sure about what they want to do next or how to fill out their Ikigai chart.

The Generalist — A Blessing and a Curse

While talking with them about the next step in their journey, it has become apparent that many of them identify themselves as “Generalists’’. Generalists are people, or in this case, employees, who thrive while doing many different things simultaneously, covering a wide variety of functions and roles within an organization, and enjoy learning and trying new things all the time.

In many cases, this means that they gather a lot of multidisciplinary experience throughout their careers but lack a certain level of depth and expertise in specific fields. When I ask them what they would like to specialize in, they say that they are not sure — everything is interesting, and they love doing a little bit of everything.

I know that feeling; up until recently, I thought of myself the same way. Maybe it’s because I grew up professionally (and personally) in a startup environment, where everyone needed to fill different gaps or explore uncharted territories on a regular basis. Perhaps it is because I have tasted from the nectar of entrepreneurship and can’t imagine myself doing just one narrow thing.

In the first startup I worked for, I assumed many different roles over the years — from customer support and customer success to marketing and product - and I have really enjoyed all of them. When I was the co-founder of my own startup, I assumed the lead of product, marketing, growth, and business development while serving as CEO, without missing a beat.

Did I mention that at the same time, I have also completed a BA and an MA degree in TAU, picked up Mandarin and Japanese while considering a career in academia?

Seriously, what’s wrong with me?

🤹 🤹 🤹 (this is a juggling emoji btw)

In the past, whenever I talked with people who were not sure about what they wanted to do next — I would often refer them to this short video where Randy Komisar (of KP, author of The Monk and Riddle, Getting to Plan B, among others) tells Standford University students about his take on finding one’s passion.

He talks about understanding that you probably have a portfolio of passions (rather than just one), and this is why questions like “How do I find my passion?” will paralyze you. He then suggests that by marrying your set of values/things you care about to the opportunities you have— you can set yourself on a journey realize many of your passions. He articulates that way better than I did — here.

More recently, I have re-engaged with a concept I encountered about half a lifetime ago (and forgot all about it :|

if you ever find my original test — please post it here :), started practicing it, and was overwhelmed by how right everything felt.

It helped me articulate the personal and professional traits that made me think of myself as a generalist — in a new way. It revealed the hidden patterns in all the different things I like to do or do well and underlined certain talents which I have never referred to by name — because I didn’t speak the Strengths language.

The Strengths Revolution

In their book “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton discuss the systematic 30-year long Gallup research, in which researchers have interviewed more than 2 million top professional performers. Their goal was to hear these excellent performers describe, in their own words — what exactly they were doing and how.

Here are some of their findings:

  • In their latest meta-analysis (at the time the book was published) Gallup asked 198,000 employees from 36 companies: “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”
    When employees answered “Strongly Agree” to this question, they were 50% more likely to work in business units with lower employee turnover, 38% more likely to work in more productive business units, and 44% more likely to work in business units with higher customer satisfaction scores.
  • When they asked the broader global Gallup database of 1.7 million managers and employees “the opportunity to do what I do best” question, how many of them strongly agreed? Drumroll.. 20%.
  • Moreover, the longer the employee stays with an organization, and the higher he climbs the traditional career ladder, the less likely he/she is to strongly agree with this statement.

Meh.
Right?

The authors stressed that at the time the book was published (roughly 20 years ago), most organizations were built on two flawed assumptions about people:

  1. Each person can learn to be competent in almost anything.
  2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatness weakness.

In many cases, even today, these lead to organizations spending most of their training time and money trying to plug the gaps in employees’ skills or competencies. They often refer to these gaps as “Areas of Opportunity” and usually build individual development plans around weaknesses.

After interviewing some of the world’s top managers, the authors learned that these managers held rather different assumptions that guided their strategy and tactics for hiring and developing employees:

  1. Each person’s talents are enduring and unique.
  2. Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.

Over time, by collecting more and more data (about both managers and employees), patterns began to emerge. The authors refer to these patterns or themes as human talents. During their research, they identified 34 talents that can exist in many combinations in different people.

Talents and Synaptic Connections

A synapse is a connection between two brain cells (neurons) that enable them to communicate with one another. 42 days after you are conceived, your brain experiences a 4-month growth spurt, or actually more of a “Big Bang” — and you create your first neuron. 120 days later, you have 100 billion of them. That’s new 9,500 neurons every second. Once this explosion dies down, most of the drama is over. You have about 100 billion neurons when you are born until late middle age.

Elsewhere in your brain, the real synapses drama is just beginning. 64 days before you are born, your neurons start trying to communicate with one another. Whenever a successful connection is made, a synapse is formed.

During the first three years of your life, your neurons prove phenomenally successful at making these connections. My daughter Maya, who has recently turned 3 — has just completed forming 15,000 connections for each of her 100 billion neurons. Her pattern of threads, extensive, intricate, and unique — is now woven.

From now on, something strange happens. For some reason, nature now prompts her to ignore a lot of her carefully woven threads. Across her network, connections start to break, and threads that are neglected for a long time will fall into despair. By the time she will wake up on her 16th birthday, half of her network will be gone.

The bad news is that she will not be able to rebuild what will be lost. The good news is that nature forces her to shut down connections so that she can be freed up to exploit those remaining.

Your genetic inheritance and childhood experiences help you find some connections smoother and easier to use than others. You are drawn to these connections, time and time again, until they become tighter. To learn more about this process — read chapter 2 — “Strengths Building.”

Maya — losing some synapses and tightening others while entertaining Ruby, our friend’s kitten.

Buckingham and Clifton differentiate between skill, knowledge, and talent. They define the latter as something you can do consistently and nearly perfectly — time and time again.

“Your talents are your strongest synaptic connections and are the foundation of your strengths.”

In a typical workday, you make hundreds if not thousands of tiny decisions. Unable to intellectualize every decision — you are compelled to react instinctively. Your brain does what nature always does in situations such as this — it finds and follows the paths of least resistance, your talents. A choice appears, you are immediately whisked away down one of your synaptic connections, and the decision is made.

The sum of all these tiny decisions is your performance for the day, multiply this number by 5, and you get the performance of a week. Multiply by 240 working days, and you get the performance of a year. Roughly 240,000 decisions and your talents, or strongest synaptic connections, made almost every one of them.

That explains why it is virtually impossible to create a near-perfect performance by simply teaching someone a new skill. When you learn a new skill, you learn the steps of an activity. You may weave a few new connections, but you do not learn how to reweave your entire network. This new skill will intervene and redirect a few decisions — but only a few of them. Skills determine if you can do something, talents will reveal how well and how often you do it.

“Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning and satisfaction will all help you detect the traces of your talents. As you rush through your busy life, try to step back, quiet the wind whipping past your ears and listen for these values. They will help you zero in on your talents.”

The authors advise pausing after reading the first 3 chapters and taking the online StrenghtFinder assessment (a coupon code is included in most editions). Once you get your results, you are invited to continue reading and explore how you can further develop and leverage your top 5 strengths.

My top 5 strengths

I went down this rabbit hole thinking I’d discover dominant strengths like “Creativity,” “Resourcefulness,” or “A Self-Starter,” words or phrases we often use when asked about our professional traits.

Instead, I learned a new language to help me articulate my top strengths more accurately and was surprised by how everything made so much more sense all of a sudden. Here is what my assessment showed:

Achiever — Work hard and possess a great deal of stamina. They take immense satisfaction in being busy and productive.

Learner — Have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

Strategic — Create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.

Individualization — Have a gift for figuring out how different people can work together productively.

Input — Have a need to collect and archive. They may accumulate information, ideas, artifacts or even relationships.

I was truly amazed by how my current role (PMM) allows me to further develop and capitalize on my “Learner” and “Input” strengths (when performing market research for example), utilize my “Strategic” and “Individualization” strengths (when working on competitive intelligence or launches), and double-down on my “Achiever” strengths — by checking many boxes quickly each day.

Other very experienced and successful PMMs, will have a different combination of strengths; some might share a few with me, while others will share none. Each one of them can contribute their own unique strengths to different teams, projects, or roles and compliment their peers’ strengths harmoniously.

This is an interesting concept to think about when looking for your next role. If you start assessing each role by how much it will allow you to tap into your strengths and do what you do best on a daily basis, you might find some new sustainable career paths you weren’t aware of before.

It is also interesting to think about when looking to join an existing team of people with different strengths, or hire a new member to complement your own team.

The Strengths Development Canvas

To help me practice this personal growth framework, I created the following canvas. It shows my top 5 strengths, including tips and instructions on developing each strength and leaving room for quarterly plans/actions and reflection. I have a total of 5 slides to cover all of them, and I filled out the relevant Q1 actions in each one (not shown here).

Clifton Strengths Canvas — Available Here

So… am I still a Generalist?

I now think that the dominance of my “Learner” and “Input” strengths is another way to explain why I like learning and trying new or different things all the time.

I understand how and why these would be handy as an entrepreneur, a product marketer, a product manager, or other cross-functional and dynamic roles.

I also think that this means I will be a good fit and thrive in organizations, teams and roles that enable me to utilize these and the others on a regular basis. As my resume shows, the products, the solutions, industries or organizations may vary over time — but these strengths can be applied and have served me well in many different contexts.

As you are looking for your next adventure or reflecting on the passing year and planning the one ahead — I hope that this short review of the Strengths concept has sparked some light and warmth in you today. I hope it provided some clarity, or simply made you feel more compassionate towards your “Generalism”. If so, please share it with others who could benefit from it.

I have shared my top 5 strengths with you and would be happy to learn about yours and any thoughts or comments you have on the subject. Please feel free to engage in the comments section below or DM me on Linkedin.

Here’s to 2021,

See you on the other side,

S. 🌸

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Shelly Eisen Livneh

👩‍💻 A Tech Lover👷 Product Builder 📈 Growth & Product Marketing Specialist ‍🎓 An Infinite Learner