Uncovering Hidden Tools

I occasionally have a gizmo or do-dad that I have stuffed away in a drawer somewhere, completely oblivious to its function.  The example that comes to mind was a jar opener in my kitchen.  When I finally asked and learned what it was, I had a small Aha moment, then was pleased to have a new tool (especially as I’m terrible at opening jars).

Roughly the same phenomenon occurs when I go to the gym and some kick-ass instructor has us doing something I’ve never done before.  Suddenly I’ve discovered muscles I didn’t even know I had.

Just imagine if we had access to all available kitchen or handyman tools and knew how to use them?  Or if every one of the muscles in our body was in top-notch condition when athletic ability is critical to our success?  Doesn’t it make sense to become aware of, and use, all the tools that we have to help us be successful and happy?  It’s kind of like trying to fix a car with only a hammer, wrench and a screwdriver.  You can probably get by for a long time with just those three tools, but at some point you’ll hit a brick wall.

Turns out, we have all kinds of tools that we rarely use.  As you probably know by now, StrengthsFinders is a self-assessment instrument that identifies the 34 common human strengths, such as Communication or Empathy, and ranks them for each person from strongest to weakest (yes, we all have all 34 to various degrees).  By focusing on our dominant strengths, we can maximize our effectiveness, engagement and happiness. Becoming aware of our strengths is the first step, as we frequently take them for granted.  I’ve written recently about some of my strengths that I want to embrace and develop.

But it doesn’t end there.  Apparently, our bodies and voices also give us access to a set of emotional tools.  Researcher Amy Cuddy describes how body language affects not only how others perceive us but also has real, physiologic effects on how we feel and even who we are.   Powerful poses make us feel more confident and less stressed, whereas defensive poses increase our stress hormones.  Actual changes in testosterone and cortisol (stress hormone) result based on our posture.  She recommends adopting a powerful pose (think:  Man of Steel poses) for at least two minutes to change your hormone levels and give you the confidence and courage to make a series of small changes that can change who you are.  Restricting yourself to defensive poses (slouching, keeping limbs close to body), therefore, can make it more difficult to be successful.  In other words, Fake It Until You Make It has an actual physiologic underpinning.  Cuddy advocates you Fake It Until You Become It.

Similarly, our voices have a range of five “elements”, according to Barbara McAfee, author of  Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence.  Each element corresponds with an emotional range.  For example, earth element is associated with authority and intuition, fire with passion and personal power, water with compassion and caring, metal with clarity and focus and air with spirituality and inspiration.  Relying too heavily on one or two voice elements may restrict our emotional range, both in terms how we might feel in a given moment but also eliciting and processing feelings from past experiences, according to McAfee.  The ability to access each element helps you put those emotions to work effectively in your life.  For example, I observed that while I was trying to embrace my Command strength, I intuitively went deeper into the Earth element, but too deep as I was stressing my voice.  I will need to work on finding the right mix of voice elements to improve my effectiveness. The down side of command is being perceived as bossy.  Perhaps intentionally eliciting the water elements of my voice could help provide balance.

If I can name three there are probably dozens more ways we can learn to more effectively use our hidden skills. Perhaps we are truly on the brink of being able to tap into the full human potential.  We already know so much about unlocking our potential, it’s now merely a matter of whether we choose to seal those kitchen drawers shut or dig through them periodically to find, and use, our hidden treasures.  I’m digging as I need something to prevent coffee grinds from going everywhere and to be viewed as less bossy.  What’s hidden in your toolkit?

A Few Good Tools



Here’s my week:

  • Friday – Finish StrengthsFinder coach training and fly home
  • Saturday – Sell my house of 16 years
  • Monday
    • Buy a new house;
    • Son starts college (living at home);
    • New assistant starts;
    • Begin implementation of a university-wide career development project we proposed this spring;
    • Begin planning to lead a task force across my professional organization
  • Tuesday
    • House un-sells and goes back on market
    • Sister comes to visit
  • Wednesday – son graduates high school
  • Thursday
    • We decide to go forward with new house despite the old one not being sold
    • Discover we need to replace son’s car (it breaks down again) as a derecho does a quick spin through town
    • Sister leaves
  • Friday
    • Assistant of many years (the only one I ever had)  retires
    • The day is still young

(How we doin’?)

It’s a crazy convergence, like my life stumbled into some kind of karmic mixing bowl.   If one of my friends with Connectedness strength could please tell me the meaning of all these transitions happening concurrently, I would greatly appreciate it.

And what am I doing about all this?  Well, I’m writing my blog, just like I do every other day for the last 200+ days.  Life goes on while life goes on.

I spent some time reflecting on why I actually feel quite OK with all this craziness.  I realized that I have drawn from my toolkit of super human (different from super-human) skills to manage the chaos.  First of all:  optimism.  When one phase ends, another begins.  I don’t really tend to mourn the old phase but rather look with anticipation to the new.   I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support system and resources to help get through all of these events, so I’m definitely not doing this alone.

Second of all:  gratitude.  It hasn’t been perfect, it won’t be perfect, things will go wrong.  That’s all part and parcel of our messy, chaotic life and I’m so grateful to have so many wonderful things going on, even if it’s all simultaneous.  Notice that all these transitions are positive events by and large, though it has not always been that way for me.  Oh yeah, did I mention my support system?

Finally:  being present.  I am not worrying about the future (once the decisions are made, anyway) nor am I regretting the past.  Not worrying about the future means I am not trying to control it either.  As I attach the hyperlink to this skill, I realize that this also helped me in the past when I hit rock bottom.  This is a good one, y’all.

So here I am, enjoying my coffee as I write my blog, just like I do, every other day of my life.  Cheers!

The Karmic Parenting of Humanity

The unseen but tangible relationships between gratitude, positivity, forgiveness, optimism and productivity, creativity and even good luck have been shown in scientific research.   The more you embody positive emotions, the happier and more successful you are likely to be.  The phenomenon has much to do with creating your own reality:  the more that you expect good things to occur, the more they are likely to happen.    The better you feel (grateful, optimistic, forgiving), the happier you will be.  It’s a positive, upward spiral.  In other words, the happy get happier.

The reverse is also true:  the more negative, pessimistic and cynical you are, the more likely you will be to create that reality.  A negative, downward spiral.  The miserable get more miserable.

Some feel that they are victims in their own world.  For sure, there is much suffering and pain among people who have done nothing to deserve it.  But there are also victims and martyrs among the most affluent and successful regions of the world, and peaceful, contented, grateful people among the poorest.  Given that our economic or social circumstance may not be entirely within our control, and that neither of them guarantees happiness (or misery) anyway, then apparently our happiness starts with us.  It’s not the other way around. We are happy because we choose to be happy.  Our circumstances do not make us happy.

This upward spiral is described in many resources including Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage. From my personal experience, this phenomenon is so very true.  The more I maintain a positive, optimistic, grateful attitude, the more smoothly my life seems to go, things fall into place, and I can get into flow (I’m in my groove, my sweet spot!).

It’s almost as if there is some karmic parent out there doling out rewards and punishments:  Suzie didn’t say thank you, so she gets no more gifts; Suzie has a bad attitude and is going into time out; Suzie did something she knew was wrong and is going to get spanked; Suzie didn’t do her homework and has to stay after school. Suzie made A’s in school and will get to stay up late and watch Homeland.  Suzie wrote a nice thank you note and so will get a mani-pedi for her next gift.  Suzie ate all her dinner and will get chocolate cake for dessert.

That being said, a great attitude won’t prevent anyone from getting cancer, getting hit by a car, or losing their job.  It only means that you are more likely to turn a setback into an opportunity and weather the crisis gracefully.  In other words, positive, optimistic people are resilient. 

I don’t really know, in the end, about the karmic parent or the neurobiology behind the upward spiral.   I just know that it’s there and whether we’re riding up or down is our choice.  What are you choosing?

Connectedness As A Strength

Those of you who have been reading my blog this week know I’m obsessed with StrengthsFinders at the moment. Yes, it’s true.  My Intellection strength makes me want to delve deeply into a fascinating topic until I understand it.

Right now the strength that is fascinating me is Connectedness. I have never really been very spiritual or religious, until recently when I started on a personal journey spelunking into my spiritual side.  After my divorce, I felt completely open to exploring anything and everything about myself and my world as I was no longer sure how I fit into either of them.  I’ve read mostly Tolle as my guide and subsequently have been contemplating our unseen connections.

I haven’t been completely convinced about these connections.  I sense them and I believe in them, but there’s a limited certainty to those beliefs.  After all, I’ve been trained as a scientist, and we scientists are skeptical and want evidence.  Feeling is just insufficient.

Yet Connectedness is a bona fide strength in StrengthsFinders.  What that means is certain people are inherently talented in this theme, and can use this strength to have more fun, feel more engaged and be more effective, productive and creative at what they do in both their personal and professional lives.  Connectedness people understand the unseen threads between people, events, and all things, and believe that everything happens for a reason.  Or perhaps more accurately, as Tolle says, everything that has happened was supposed to happen because it did happen.  Make sense?

I guess one could dive deeply into the validity of the StrengthsFinders assessment:  are these real strengths?  How reproducible and reliable is the assessment? The strengths were identified after years of research and interviewing people as to what qualities they felt helped them to be successful.  And guess what.  Connectedness came out as one of the 34 strength themes since a significant percentage of people felt that this theme had tangible benefits to their success and well-being.

So, to improve the effectiveness and utility of the Connectedness strength means to pay attention to these insights and gut feelings, to be aware of coincidences, and respect those connections.  Improving also means learning, whether it’s from books or videos by thought leaders, but also by following the guidance and wisdom of those with more developed strengths in the area.

I don’t really have a conclusion or any insight to offer here.  I’m really the rookie in the house.  Rather I’m just reflecting on something that I’ve completely taken for granted most of my life and am starting to be more open to what else is out there –  not only from a curiosity perspective, but also from a what-a-great-and-useful-skill perspective.   So Connectedness people:  I seek to learn from you.  I can only begin to imagine and would love to hear from you on this topic….

Self-Awareness and Consciousness

Infinite loop

Infinite loop

I have become more self-aware of my…. self-awareness.

I know, it’s like some kind of weird infinite loop paradox, like when you’re looking in the mirror at yourself looking in the mirror.  The mirror in my bathroom is actually set up that way and it appears as if you’re gazing into infinity.

I don’t think that’s a bad analogy, that surreal, out-of-body perspective on oneself.  (You know I’ve been crazy about) Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, describes that self-awareness as our Being.  That is who we are, contends Tolle, not the actual things we think or do.   We are that sentient being who observes ourselves as if we are an outsider. It is our consciousness.

Consciousness also bring to mind another type of self-awareness, and that is our hidden scripts and beliefs.   I’ve written more than once about how those emotional assumptions and habits we have color how we view the world – and not often in a very positive way.  Becoming aware of those assumptions and habits allow us to question and understand them, so they no longer hold power over us…should we be brave enough to go there.

Going there is something that I have spent most of my life trying to avoid.  Hitting rock bottom has been my modus operandii to open the door to my subconscious.  It sort of implies my subconscious is at the bottom of something.  Of what?  It’s at the bottom of my egoic mind.  My Ego obscures my wisdom and insight.

That power of self-awareness was once again brought home to me  by my StrengthsFinders training this week.  In StrengthsFinders, we’re focusing on our strengths, so bringing our hidden strengths to our awareness is therefore doubly exciting.  Not only are we focusing on what we’re already good at (bam!) we are also learning more about ourselves (bam! bam!).   I’m still experiencing the euphoria of embracing a strength I’ve previously rejected and repressed.  I completely have my classmates and instructors to thank for that.

Today, I’m wondering  if self-awareness is like a muscle – the more self-aware we are, the better we get at becoming more self-aware.  If we dive down deep to learn more about how our strengths manifest in us, will we also be more receptive to learning how we derail ourselves too?

I’m not at all implying that attending to our subconscious derailers means we are now focusing on negatives.  Quite the opposite.  I think those derailers are just blocks to our self-actualization and authenticity.  Removing the blocks requires we approach them with courage and forgiveness.  It is refusing to blindly accept, believe, and hold as irrefutable our most judgmental and cruelest beliefs about ourselves and the world.  No.  Those derailers are toxic to our soul, spirit and happiness.

Tolle also advocates using self-awareness when encountering these derailers.  Observe the observer.  Watch the derailers derail.  Be aware.  Just the act of self-awareness demystifies what has previously seemed unknowable.

I personally am a fan of also exercising the peace/calm/perspective muscle, and that is our right brain.  For those of you who hate to meditate or do meditative things, you can go with Tolle’s plan and stick with observation.  Fair enough?  If so, then make yourself observe yourself, especially as you are about to react to something.  Stop.  Watch.  Learn.  Grow.

Managing and Understanding Shyness



Most people who know me are surprised to find that I’m shy.  I’m always proud when I hear that because I feel it means that I have learned to successfully manage my shyness.

What I have finally learned is why I am shy.  I’ve learned from StrengthsFinders is that I am a Relator, and that Relators tend to be shy.   Relators enjoy, and are good at, diving deep and forming intimate relationships with others.  What we are not good at, necessarily, is meeting and getting to know (initially) people.  That’s the domain of the Woo, which I am definitely not.

Shyness is often confused with extroversion.  Extroversion merely describes where you get your energy.  For example, I am an extrovert so I am energized by being with people.  A great party and I can be buzzing with energy into the wee hours, even if I went there exhausted.  So it is not uncommon for me to dread a  party due to my shyness/Relator, but then to have a blast because I’m energized by being with others.  An understandable paradox in the end, yes?  Introverts, on the other hand, gain energy by being alone.  I don’t have any statistics, though while Woos are probably less likely to be introverted, the pairing probably does occur.  Those folks will be talented at meeting people but it will tire them to do so.  They will have to recharge their batteries after a social event by having some alone time.

Now that we understand what causes/does not cause shyness, the question becomes how to manage it.  In the end, shyness is managed simply by making yourself, in incremental steps, do the thing that makes you uncomfortable.  Those things might be raising your hand in class, making eye contact with strangers or even people you know, meeting new people at a party or event, or even talking to people you don’t know well.   You can start small and work your way up.  Just say hi when passing strangers.  Once you’re comfortable with that, add a benign comment, “Nice day isn’t it?”  Then graduate to, “You’d think they’d open another cash register line, wouldn’t you?”  Pretty soon you’ll be making new friends all over town!

I was so shy that I did not even realize you’re supposed to make eye contact with people as you pass them.  Those of you who did not know that either:  now you know and now you have to think about making a change.  Evil, aren’t I?

You can also be strategic about how you approach your incremental assault on your shyness.  I’ve always found parties and events to be intimidating and would make a beeline toward people I know.  Now, I approach such events with an interest in getting to know new people.  It’s actually easier than it sounds.  My secret is to find the person in the room who looks like he wishes the earth would swallow him whole.  In other words: find the shyest person in the room and go “rescue” them from having to introduce themselves to strangers.  Not only will they be willing to talk to you, but they’ll be forever grateful you saved them.  If that’s not a great way to start to get to know someone, I don’t know what is.

I won’t pretend that the latter always works.  Some people are alone at a party because they want to be alone.  I don’t take that personally.  After all, not everyone will be drawn to my charming, engaging self!  I just move on to the next wallflower.  We’re really kindred spirits, after all.   And my Relator self will kick in if there’s any chemistry and I will have a new buddy who can rescue me at the next party that lacks wallflowers.  How awesome is that?

Another Blind Spot Bites the Dust

We are strong!

We are strong!

This week I’m in training to learn how to become a Strengthsfinders coach, where it all began here at the Gallup Institute in beautiful Omaha NE.  I truly love this assessment.  The premise is that we all have an array of 34 talents that we can develop into strengths, or skills that we can use productively.  For each test-taker, the 34 talents are provided in order, from strongest to least strong (we try not to say “weak”), so we can see where our talents lie.  In order to be successful and engaged, we should focus on using our top strengths to their maximum potential.

I truly believe in this premise.  The groups that I have led through Strengthsfinders in the past have been similarly inspired to quit focusing on their weaknesses.  For some, it has been transformative as focus on those weaknesses can be  heavy burdens to bear.  For others, Strengthsfinders is merely an incredibly helpful framework to become more effective, either as individuals or as teams.

We did a little exercise yesterday where we talked about the strength we love and the one that drives us crazy.   Just FYI, the one that I love is called Relator.  As a Relator, I love to build and deepen relationships. I’m good at it, it’s important to me, it makes me happy and is also useful at work for building networks.

The one that can be hard for me is Input.  As Input, I love to collect information and data, and be in the Know (PS that does not mean that I gossip).  Input sometimes means that I easily venture into nosy-ness and I make people uncomfortable.  But I’m a relator!  I want your 411 (for the Millennials, there used to be this number you’d call to….never mind)!  I learned another downside to Input:  I get frustrated when I feel like I should have access to information and it’s withheld from me.  This, I had not considered.  The other day I practically had a tantrum because Chris hinted at something, but then refused to tell me. Drives. Me.  CRAZY!

What I never stopped to examine is how the strength I love can also have downsides.  My Relator strength also, turns out, means that I need to spend time with those that I love.  While that’s good, I make time specifically for my friends and loved ones, sometimes my loved ones need space.  I tend to try to just find others who want to get together when a loved one needs downtime, but when that fails, I find myself following people around like a puppy dog:  playwithmeplaywithme!  That’s not so endearing after the 100th or 2nd time.

I have another strength which I realized I try to downplay almost completely, is Command.  Command means I can take charge in a heartbeat, and people often look to me for direction and leadership.  My students usually will stop and listen to me when I stand in the front of the room, when other faculty sometimes have trouble commanding their attention.  I have to be careful not to walk to the podium before I’m ready to start, because they will also quiet down too early (then it’s hard to get their attention later).   I downplay it because I have a tendency to be bossy, and I usually don’t want to lead, though I usually will when asked.

So I found this lesson to be a great reminder to view all qualities, regardless of whether I view them as assets or liabilities, as part of a spectrum.  Failing to recognize either end of that spectrum leaves me with blind spots where I’m hurting myself (puppy dog) or missing opportunities.  Recognizing that I have not been using my Command strength to full advantage, part of my goal this week is to discover how to take better advantage of Command, without feeling like I have to accept all the responsibility all of the time.

This work, both as it applies to me personally as well as professionally, has me jumping out of bed each day saying, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”  I can’t wait to go back out and do more effective Strengthsfinders training and coaching, and to see how I can make better use of my strengths.  And though I’ve always considered myself good at viewing the entire spectra of my qualities, I don’t tend to spend enough consideration of the downsiden of my relatively positive strengths…it’s gonna be GREAT!