I remember the day my son discovered tools. He was about 4 and it was a small hand fret saw. Yes, he was 4.
This is the same kid that worked out how to unlock the childproof clips on the kitchen cupboards with one hand (bottle in the other) at 18months. That time, I was in the kitchen making dinner and happened to notice him come, bottle in hand, unlock the latch and carefully pull something out of the drawer. He then explored it curiously for a few seconds, gently and carefully put it back in, and closed the drawer ensuring the latch was again secured. Gasp! How long had he been able to do this?
Ok, so at 4 he discovered the fret saw. We were living in Adelaide at the time and he was supposed to be taking a nap. So I thought. I could hear a faint and consistent ‘urrhr ruh urrhr ruh’ sound, but couldn’t work out if it was outside or inside the house. A few minutes later, there he was. Fretsaw in hand, having a go at the Jarrah dining table top.
Jarrah! I got to hand it to him, with the perfect combination of curiosity, gentleness, and cautious determination that continues to characterise him, he had managed to make a cut of about 3mm into the tabletop! It was a perfectly clean cut made with astonishing precision. No chips, no skips or failed attempt marks. Let me tell you, Jarrah is not an easy wood to cut. I’ve been admiring his remarkable abilities ever since.
So what is my point in telling you all this?
Sometimes our strengths and abilities can get us in trouble.
Our strengths and abilities come so natural to us, we may not even realise that we are using them. In fact, that is often one of the main reasons people don’t recognise, let alone value, their own strengths. But just because a saw can cut into wood, and we have the ability to do it, does not mean every wood we stumble upon needs cutting.
It is not uncommon for us to either overuse strengths at the expense of other more adequate ones, or use them when we shouldn’t. When this happens, amazing strengths such as persistence and determination can present as stubbornness, problem solving as nitpicking, and quality, order and systematic thinking as perfectionism or lack of creativity. Just to name a few.
In moments of peak stress and pressure, it’s no surprise our so-called ‘weaknesses’ begin to show.
One reason is because, during peak stress times we go on autopilot, reverting to what is more comfortable and comes natural to us. We keep doing what we do best. We may even notice its not working, but keep doing it ‘better’. We often don’t realise that the problem is not the tool, or the cutting technique, but the fact that we probably don’t need to be cutting into the tabletop.
Since we are not aware that our strength is on autopilot, we can’t see the actual problem. So, understanding it or finding a solution becomes harder. We lose sight of the end goal. No one understands or appreciates what we are trying to do and we don’t even know how we got there or how to get out. On account of ‘being’ who we are, suddenly, the world is against us, which is blow to the core of our identity.
So, how do we get out of this mess?
- Get to really know your strengths.
- Create some rules to guide when and how to use your strengths.
- Use unpleasant feelings as cue to shift focus, identify the end goal and adapt strengths.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself or others.
To keep your strengths and abilities in check, see if you can notice the effect they have on others.
What do my strengths look like when they present as ‘weaknesses’? What do people accuse me of when I’m on autopilot?
I’m analytical and a creative problem solver. They’re some of my strengths, which I revert to almost instantly without realising. I’m forever asking myself: What is really happening here? How can we make it better? What can we learn? How do we use what we already have? Which is a great asset to those around me, except when they just want to be comforted and heard. So,
Have some rules to help you work out when you need to use certain strengths and when to shift your focus.
To avoid imposing my strengths in unhelpful ways I have a rule: “Ask the question, don’t assume”. I could ask for example: “Do you want help to find a solution?” or “What do you think we should do?”. I also give those around me permission to say: “I just want to vent” (which prompts them to own what they are doing and me to switch to empathy mode). Which leads us to the next key strategy:
Learn to use criticism, resistance and unpleasant feelings as a cue to search for another more appropriate tool (strength or ability) to manage the present situation.
Do I make assumptions and forget to ask the question? Yes, often. Specially when stressed or under pressure (Autopilot. Remember?). Pretty soon though, the tension and unpleasant feelings are a sign I’m missing something. So I stop and try to look at it in a different way and often, go back to ask the question I should have asked in the first place. Finally,
Don’t be too hard on yourself, or others.
If you did not ask the question or follow the rule at the beginning, do it as soon as you come to your senses. Apologise if you have to and make agreements that will help you notice sooner the next time. Interestingly, as you become aware of how hard it is to keep the right balance you will be more understanding of other’s struggle to do the same. We are all in the same boat, you know.
Awareness is key
One of the most important things you can do is become aware of your strengths and of which strength is most useful in each situation (don’t use a hammer when you need a spanner and please, don’t take a fret saw to a Jarrah dining table top!).
So, at this point, you are probably wondering what happened with the table incident. All good (Though in shock I might have yelled… a little). The truth is there was no purpose nor malice in cutting the table, he was simply exploring the tool and the use of his strengths/abilities. See, my son was focused on and fascinated with using the tool and experiencing what it could do. That was his end goal, not cutting the table. Harmless, except for the unintended consequences.
Since I could see this was going to be a ‘for life’ thing with him, I set two rules. Things he should always ask adults before having a go: 1) how to use tools safely 2) what things he can use the tools on (especially with things that are shared or belong to others). To this day, he still seeks those who know more than him to teach him the skills he wants to explore and never experiments with things that don’t belong to him, without asking first.
Lucky for us, auntie Chalene did not want the table back. So, she never found out about the cut (…until today).