Clifton StrengthsFinder

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al... In December, following up on an offer by coach Dave Kaiser, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test. Dave recommended the $9.99 version that gives you your top 5 strengths out of a menu of 34.

The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.

The test items are not questions, really; they're  choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be "I have a commitment to growth" and "I have a commitment to values." You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.

(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I'm not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)

Knowing one's strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You're better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.

There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn't there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn't a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, "all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)". I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.

My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:

  1. Restorative: I like to fix things, solve problems, and create order out of chaos. This is pretty true, as far as it goes. I could not fix the big communications problems that hit a board I served on, but I could set up a network of volunteers who could efficiently deliver flyers to most houses in the neighborhood. This is probably the most action-oriented, outward-pointing strength I have.
  2. Intellection: Intellectually active and introspective. Very true.
  3. Empathy: Sense other people's feelings. Also true, to the point, however, of stifling my own opinion so I don't upset others.
  4. Input: "Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information." Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
  5. Learner: Desire to learn and continuously improve (yes). Here's the interesting quote: "The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them." This actually helped explain to me why I continue taking banjo lessons even though I have no real desire to perform. I do find the learning process itself fascinating.

So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life's little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)

Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I've had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn't like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?

Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I've learned.

Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can't stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it's misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.

The strengths would not help me if I'm in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I'm a student, not a scholar.

I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths...)

I'd say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don't do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.

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In life, as in technical writing: you have to choose

A heap of scrap metal. One of the chief rules of tech writing -- or at least one of my chief rules -- is to not dump into the manual every scrap of information I have on hand.

The tech writer's job is to present, to select, to shape. As with art, it's not just about what you put in, it's about what you leave out.

One of my freelance jobs was to create a help file for a program on crop genetics, a knowledge domain that was literally beyond my ken. I could not hope to understand the ins and outs of how to use that program in the six short weeks I worked on the project because I couldn't understand what it output and what you could use the output for.

In that case, I opted for my standard fallback plan: make the help file procedural (describe the mechanics of using the program) rather than conceptual (the big ideas and concepts on crop genetics that inform the program's design). If you don't know where to start, go with procedural first: most users are simply bewildered by a new application's user interface and appreciate any sort of road map that helps orient them to basic operations.

Then, after you've played with the application for a while, you can begin to divine a little more of its purpose, what it could be used for, and perhaps how to write topics that make more specialized operations easier for the user.

I'm not a scientist, but I am an avid user of applications. I can play with an app, push buttons, look at file extensions, note the preferences options, and pretty much plot the entire outline of a procedural help file in my head. I was lucky enough to have the developer and some expert users at hand, so I could quiz them on common workflows or on what a beginner would need to know vs. an expert user. Through playing around, reading old documentation, and interviewing experienced users, I created a help file/user guide that I think got most users 80 percent of the way there. For a product that had no help file before I got there, I think it was a good start.

What would have sunk the project was to pretend to know more than I did. Had I simply dumped my notes onto the screen, in the hopes of conveying the false impression that I knew what I was writing about, then I would have done the user a disservice. If an application's interface is inscrutable and upside-down, then a help file that is equally obtuse or eccentric is simply another insult thrown in the user's face. It means I have not served as their stand-in and advocate. Instead of me making sense of the application so that they could use it to meet their needs, I have instead forced them to do the sense-making.

The old saying goes "if everything is important, then nothing is important." It's up to me to select what's important for the user to know, what is less important, what is not important. I put those choices into the document, release the document into the world, and wait for the feedback that tells me whether I got it mostly right. If I'm lucky, I get another chance to make the next version a little better.

It has been only very recently that I've thought about how this lesson applies to life. Or my life, in particular.

The way I've typically spent my time and filled my head is to stuff myself full of projects, both urgent and non-urgent, real and imagined: acting, arts classes, writing groups, neighborhood board, yoga class, reading, writing, brainstorming a new side business idea, watching every episode of "Parks and Recreation" or "Clatterford," moving every icon on my MacBook desktop 10 pixels to the left, opening every PDF downloaded in 2013 to judge it worth keeping -- in short, an insane amount of activity.

As I've pared away my responsibilities outside the home, and in general slowed down my analytical thinking, I've noticed how I've splattered my energy and attention all over the place. I enjoyed myself, no doubt about it, but I was always a little frantic too.

Because, I think, I had not done my job and selected what was important, what was less important, what was not important. I did not choose. Choosing was actually quite terrifying because I have always had a case of FOMO ("Fear Of Missing Out") (Wikipedia, Article). The series of posts I did on being an information packrat echo this theme: the present-day discomfort of hoarding anything -- information, experiences, books, salt-and-pepper shakers -- is easier to bear emotionally than any supposed pain of missing out on something in the future. The chaos in my head of trying to DO IT ALL, of making sense of all this stuff, of attempting to manage it, was stressing me out.

Recently, on re-reading and re-listening to the works of Michael NeillGeorge Pransky, and Sydney Banks, I decided to reduce my multiple input streams and multitasking and multiple-priorities. As best I could, I chose to sit quietly a little more often than I do. And have a little less on my mind. My mind is forever a-buzzing with ideas and projects and strategies, and I was exhausted. It was time to choose and edit which thoughts to listen to, which ones to let go, and which ones could wait for a while.

Letting my thinking settle down has, to a degree, also slowed down my manic need to fill my day with activity. I don't know why that is, but it is. I'm not initiating many projects or meetings nowadays. I'm not furiously brainstorming my next side-business idea and trying to figure it all out. I'm re-reading a book instead of rushing to the next one. I try not to chase the next thing I simply must do before doing the next thing. Everyone has preferences and I'm able to hear them a little better now that the noise in my head has subsided.

As for distinguishing between mindful activity and mindless web surfing, well, I'm still working on that. It's like distinguishing between craving and hunger; I know what will make me feel more satisfied later so I know what choice makes sense now. Sometimes I do binge, and that's OK.

Another saying in the self-help world: "how you do anything is how you do everything." I hope I can learn how to do in my life what I'm able to do pretty successfully in my work. It takes time and practice. There are false starts and do-overs. I'm on the lookout for feedback that tells me whether I'm getting it mostly right. I hope to make the next version a little better.

 

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Let the calendar decide

Bacon Cheeseburger and Teriyaki Burger - The H... Oliver Burkeman writes the weekly This Column Will Change Your Life for the UK Guardian. The column is a brief, cheeky, well-researched survey of self-help topics of all sorts, from philosophy to life hacks. Burkeman is himself an author of a self-help book that is on my personal wishlist.

He had an interesting confluence of topics recently: one on “triple constraints” and one on adopting a 12-week, rather than 12-month, perspective on goal-setting.

The “iron triangle” is that eternal triad of choices from which only two can be selected. The classic triple constraint is “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” Burkeman lists constraints for other domains, such as home cooking (“tasty, nutritious, or easy to make”) and vacations (“exotic, cheap, or relaxing”). Resources are limited and choices have to be made. As Burkeman says,

…[H]istory is littered with the corpses of businesspeople and politicians who foolishly thought they could ignore [the triple constraint]. Respect it, on the other hand, and even the sky may be no limit. When JFK promised to get a man on the moon within a decade, he wisely didn’t also promise to get it done cheap.

But the triple constraint isn’t the only model for this kind of choice theory. David Sedaris writes about meeting a woman who went to a management seminar where she was told that everyone has four burners in life: family, friends, work, and health. Turn off one of those burners, and you’re a success. Turn off two of those burners, and you’re a big success. The woman Sedaris described had chosen to focus on work and friends — and she was a big success.

James Patterson wrote about juggling five balls: family, friends, health, spirit, and work. The work ball is made of rubber while the others are made of glass. If you drop the work ball, it’ll bounce right back. But if you drop any of the other balls, they’ll scuff or scratch or shatter permanently.

As Burkeman says, the idea is to realize that you can’t have it all, that life is about trade-offs and you have to make choices. But some people, when faced with this menu of choices, paralyze themselves and decide not to choose. And because they refuse to choose, they may endure suffering worse than the momentary pain of having to give something up. Even if the giving up is only for a little while. And so instead of moving forward even a little bit, mindful of constraints, they choose to stay in place.

Is there a way to make that choosing easier? In an earlier column, Burkeman described the psychology of the “goal-looms-larger effect”: that burst of extra energy you get finishing all that work just before leaving on vacation. By the same token, the further away a goal is, the less urgent it appears and so the less hard you work towards it. This inclines us to slack off and think, “Oh well, that’s months in the future — I’ll start tomorrow. Or next week.”

The 12-Week Year argues that a year is simply too long of a timeframe to work with. The goal is so far away that one never feels the emotional juice to run toward it. And too many unpredictable events — health crises, home emergencies, sick family members — over the course of a year that you can’t predict or plan around.

So the authors instead suggest breaking the calendar year into smaller 12-week “years.” Scale your goals and tasks to fit inside that smaller box, create a list of weekly tasks that you can check off, and you stand a greater chance of meeting your scaled-down “annual” goals. By the end of the calendar year, you’ll have likely accomplished far more than if you’d spread the work out over the standard 12 months.

This isn’t a new idea to me. JD Meier, in his book Getting Results the Agile Way, and on his Sources of Insight blog, has long recommended adopting three major accomplishments for the year, each quarter, each month, each week, and each day. It’s not hard to see how one can take a large goal, such as losing weight or finding a new job, and then break those big amorphous goals down into smaller, more concrete quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. The 12-Week Year authors have taken that chunking-down idea and packaged it in a smarter way. (I’ve not read their book, so I’m sure they’ve added their own flourishes and enhancements to the process, too.)

So maybe one way to reconcile oneself to tough choices — whether triple constraints, four burners, or five juggling balls — is simply to timebox. Pick a period of time — whether it be 12 weeks, from now till July 4th, from March 15 to April 15 — make the hard choice and try it out. Play with it. Leave one of the burners off, drop one of the balls. You can do it knowing that it’s possible to pick them up again in the next time period. This way, you can rotate through each area of focus throughout the year, knowing that your choice is both firm and not forever.

This reminds me also of Steve Pavlina’s “one week on, one week off” idea, which he attributes to Napoleon Hill. Go full out for an entire week — writing, programming, cooking — and then take the next week off.

These issues are alive to me at the moment because, of course, I have choices to make and focus is sometimes hard for me to achieve. Too many wonderful things to do, not enough time for everything I’d like to do, and no optimal blend that will balance everything on a daily basis. So the solution that bubbles up for now is to not try to balance things. Pick an area or project, focus on it during my evening project-time, and let go of those things that don’t fit in the timebox. When the project is done or at a place where it can be maintained with minimal effort, then see what else in my life needs that attention. Look for balance in the long-term.

That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.

 

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Christine Kane, Upleveling, and an updated seminar

In July 2010, I’d made the big decision to leave the PhD program. I was back working part-time at my old job, turning over the strange things I’d experienced. And feeling a bit adrift. The PhD promised a roadmap of sorts, after all, and I’d just balled up that map and thrown it out the window. As i wondered what my next step would be, Christine Kane offered her Uplevel Your Life seminar (affiliate link). I can’t remember how I ran across her web site, but I had added her to my short list of RSS feeds and then signed up for her newsletter. I liked her story – she’d made herself into a singer/songwriter, then entrepreneur, then coach – and her blog posts struck me as sensible and sane bits of self-management advice.

I signed up for the course, enjoyed it, and still use some of her materials today. Christine is now launching an updated version of that seminar and as one of her alums, I'm happy to write about what I got out of her program and offer links to her new program.

Here are some of the things I remember about Christine’s course:

  • I liked receiving an email every day for the 49 days of the course. I always looked forward to what would come next. The daily anticipation definitely added to the positive excitement surrounding the workshop.
  • I liked the self-examination aspects. I’d lost touch with some basics about myself and while I can’t say I’m absolutely clear yet, this was the perfect time to ask those deeper questions.
  • She provides a bewildering number of exercises, questionnaires, and tools – including the Essential Leak Repair List and the Gratitudes, Gifts, and Gains practice – that if you make them a part of your daily/weekly/monthly habits, will certainly change how you think about your patterns and make you more mindful of what you’re creating or inviting in to your life.
  • Christine is great about giving you permission to do the workshop imperfectly. Many people called in worried that they were behind, how do they catch up, etc. And Christine was great about (repeatedly) telling us to breathe and relax. (The workshop’s emails were sent again after the 49 days were up, so you could re-experience and review what may have gone by too quickly the first time.)
  • Christine is always forward looking about the technology and she and her staff were quite well-organized. She provided the daily messages as emails, PDFs, and MP3 recordings for loading on an iPod. Her weekly calls were also recorded and downloadable. She had set up a Ning group for the participants (I expect it's Facebook now). She was also among the first gurus who started using video essays and instructionals extensively and they’re now an essential part of her marketing.
  • A bonus: the stuff I paid for I can still get access to, unlike some other programs where your access ends after the program is over.
  • The program had its analog aspects too. A couple of binders where you could print out and store emails, forms, and journal. There really is something different about writing your thoughts out by hand. I created my own index to the materials so I could find specific topics or exercises more quickly.
  • The workshop is a 7-stage “program” with each step forming the focus of a week’s readings. She says this is the process she used to heal herself from bulimia, and that it provides a foundation for the work she does today.
  • Christine packs a lot of wisdom in her readings for the course. I recognized some of her anecdotes and messages from other of her blog posts, but there was plenty of fresh material. Like many another guru, she has her own vocabulary for some concepts I recognized from other gurus’ material. But her spin was feminine, gentle, humorous, yet still challenging.
  • And memorable. I’m sure my mastermind partners are tired of my piping up, “Well, Christine Kane says this about that…”
  • I think I was one of the few males in her audience. As you can tell from her web site, women make up her target audience.
  • Because it’s a big group seminar, and there was only one group phone call a week, no one gets one-on-one time with Christine Kane. She’s running a business now, so if you want F2F time with her, you buy into one of her bigger programs where you pay for the chance to maybe interact with her in a smaller group or, for more money, more exclusive access. I wasn’t too bothered by this – a gal must eat and her business’s dollar targets must be reached. I got excellent value from the readings and the weekly calls (even talked to her on-air a few times), and it was worth what I paid.
  • She responded to emailed questions in separate recordings and took the time she needed to give very thoughtful answers. There were some weeks where she’d record an extra 2 or more hours of Q&A and that’s where many of my questions were addressed. I still enjoy relistening to those recordings on my iPod; she’s an empathetic listener and sympathetic advice-giver. I love studying how she responds to a question, breaks down its components, and responds with spot-on advice.
  • Yeah, she may be a bit woo-woo now and then (what’s your enneagram?), but she’s also pretty hard-headed. As she likes to point out, she’s now running a million-dollar business. So take what works for you and keep an open mind about the rest.

I enjoyed Christine’s program and I do recommend it for anyone who has questions about themselves and their lives and doesn’t know what to do first, wants to sort things out in a self-study format, at their own speed, and wants a sensible plan with an excellent guide. You’ll definitely finish the program with certain ideas and phrases floating in your mind that I guarantee you’ll access when you least expect them and most need them. Again, examine the Uplevel Your Life seminar material for yourself, if you’re interested.

I have continued to follow Christine’s rise and rise, and here a few things I’ve noticed. I don’t think these observations should stop anyone from signing up for her workshop. This is me reading between the lines:

  • The Uplevel Your Life program is the gateway drug for CK’s Uplevel Your Business program, where she teaches entrepreneurs systems and techniques for growing their businesses.
  • It’s pretty clear that Christine’s creativity is now finding its fruition in growing her business (as I said earlier, she frequently touts that she runs a million-dollar enterprise) and working with her students rather than expressing herself through music and art. (I haven’t heard of her producing any new songs or performing, anyway.)
  • Her miles-long marketing copy on the final landing pages for her programs look like all the other miles-long marketing landing pages I’ve seen for other programs: a blend of anecdote, marketing, testimonials, bonus offers (a $x value for only $y!), and calls to action. Christine is big on being authentic in your marketing, and I’m sure she is using authentic language to clothe her points, while using time-tested marketing and direct sale/copywriting techniques. Still – I instinctively resist being sold to and I have to kind of hold my nose as I read those pages. While her vocation is teaching and coaching, her business is getting new customers. And to stay on top of that million-dollar summit requires more assertive techniques. Hence, the landing pages, the free telecalls, etc.
  • She holds similar free phone calls for her business programs, and the information she gives away on those free calls is always top-notch and sensible. But starting a business has not been a priority for me, so I listened to the first one and then passed. If you don’t already have a business, then I don’t know how much value you’d find climbing CK’s ladder of commitments. I certainly felt left out of the excitement, but then, that seminar isn’t for middle-aged men who don’t have entrepreneurial ideas.
  • That said, if I had a business (and full disclosure: CK told me in one of the UYL calls that I should think about it), I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel at her business workshops, which include several in-person conference meetings. As I said, her focus is on women-owned businesses – I don’t know how many men attend or even if that’s an important aspect to consider. Or why that should hold me back, if I really wanted to go.
  • Although I don’t know who else is teaching the stuff that Christine is teaching, I know that she had to learn it from somewhere. She talks a lot about the coaching she has paid for over the course of her career, and I’m sure much of what she learned is probably well-known the higher up you go in those circles. Just as the information she shares in UYL is pretty well-known and traded if you read a lot of other gurus’ material and self-help content.

I think only a few rare people can improve themselves all on their own. I, for one, am someone who benefits from the coaching model: someone who will give me assignments, hold me accountable, and kick my ass when it needs kicking. Even in this self-directed, self-paced format, I think Christine Kane proves herself to be an excellent coach, and I find myself coming back to her materials often.

Click the banner below for more information on Christine's program. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links so if you sign up for Christine's program via the links on this page, then Christine's business sends a few bucks my way as a thank-you.

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