Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
December 16, 2011

Are You Playing To Your Strengths?

As a corporate software trainer, I’ve got to be ON each day I’m in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether I was up all night with a teething baby or if my best friend and I had a fight. Nobody cares about those things when they come in for a day of Word or Excel or leadership training. They’re focused on what they need to learn and it’s my job to deliver.

There are personality types who would hate my job. They’d get tired by all that “on” business. I see it a little differently. Every day that I walk into the classroom, I know:

  • All my problems get checked at the door.
  • I’m going to provide a service.
  • I’m going to have a fun day.
  • I’ll get to see people learn, and light up over what they learn.

Do you see a trend with perks I listed above? It’s me, me, I, I. Even though it doesn’t look like it. Training is a vacation from my own busy head where I get to focus on other people. It works for me because it plays on some of my innate strengths.

I went to a Training conference earlier this year that was geared toward the accounting industry. The keynote presentation was called, “Building a Strengths-Based Organization” and it shined the light on a disturbing trend:

Society, starting with our schools and continuing through our workplace management teams, sure does put a mighty amount of focus on improving our weaknesses.

After hearing some speakers at that conference, I started thinking crazy thoughts. What might happen if these organizations put this same amount of energy in developing peoples’ strengths?

What kind of mountains could we move as writers if we applied our efforts toward being stellar at the things we’re good at, rather than focusing all our energy on our “faults?”

I’m not talking about turning into a bunch of narcissists that can do no wrong. I’m talking about making it a primary goal to discover your innate strengths and spend more time playing to them. This conference spun my head around and, strangely enough, most of what I learned applied more to writing than it did to training.

Let me give you an example:

We did an exercise in the conference pre-session where we listed the things we were good at – we had 60 seconds to scribble them down off the top of our head. We were directed to find the skills we’d always been good at.

Hint: Most people don’t “see” these innate skills as anything nifty or unusual. In other words, they don’t see their own special talents. (Sound familiar anyone?)

The abilities people came up with were amazing – there was so much talent in that room and the majority of it was not being used the workplace (read: writing), where we spend at least 50% of our waking hours. How sad is that? These abilities were being relegated to the hobby side of the fence.

My innate strengths, in no particular order, were: writing, teaching, motivating others, doing hair and learning software.

I felt extremely lucky when I looked at my list. Life pushed me early into a job I am uniquely suited for. Except for the “doing hair” part, my innate strengths describe the perfect software trainer. No wonder training feels so easy…it draws on at least three areas of my innate strengths, so it doesn’t feel like work.

This brings me to another worrisome trend:

I’ve noticed a disturbing trait that’s common to creative people, in this case writers. Many writers seem to think that because they have weak areas that they are bad writers.

I have a question for you perfectionists: Why is it acceptable for multiple attempts when learning to ride a bike, or dance the tango, or knit but it’s an “epic fail” to write a few books before you get good at it?

Lots of first novels remain unpublished for a reason. They were practice for the other books. I don’t get why it’s expected to take years to learn the piano but it’s not acceptable sit down at the writing page and have less-than-perfect prose fall from your fingertips.

It doesn’t mean you’re a slacker just because you like to do the things that come naturally to you. In fact, I’m going to take this further and issue you a challenge:

Pay attention to the things that are easy for you and try to do them more often.

The easiest way to bring your “A” Game to your life is to play to your strengths. In American League Baseball, they can use pinch hitters or pinch runners. Why can’t we do a little of that in our own writing groups?

Here at Writers In The Storm we have:

  • Pinch World Builders (Fae Rowen)
  • Pinch Steamy Scene Pros (Sharla Rae)
  • Pinch Description Writers (Laura Drake)
  • Pinch Theme Builders (that would be me)

I can’t write a transition to save my life. I’ve had it take me an entire page to get my characters from an elevator to the front door of a building. (Yeah, that was embarrassing.) While we’re on my biggest “weaknesses”:

  • I feel like a voyeur when my characters’ clothes come off.
  • I can’t figure out how to build a space world.
  • The thought of writing a 400 page novel makes me sweat.

Does this make me a crappy writer? Nope. It just means that my strengths lie elsewhere. I have to go to my A-Team to get my “A” Game sometimes. And that’s OK. I want to know when the Writing Police decided that we have to be great at every single aspect of our writing.

Even though the 400 page novel makes me sweat, writing a single scene gets me all fired up. That’s the way I’m wired. Writing short is fun, and falls into the playtime category. Writing long (as in a novel) is extremely hard for me. Still, it’s a dream of mine to publish novels so I keep at it.

What are your innate strengths? I’m not talking about the things you’ve learned to be good at. What were you always good at? Share your uniqueness in the comments section – we want to hear about it.

Happy Writing!

About Jenny Hansen
Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.
When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

0 comments on “Are You Playing To Your Strengths?”

  1. Oh Jenny, you're SO far ahead of the game to know your strengths so well!
    I wish I'd have known mine, back in high school - I could have chosen just the right career first, instead of wandering aimlessly in the weeds for years.
    We can all list our weaknesses -- how incredibly inspiring to look at the other side!

    Thanks for the reminder - going to make my list now!

    1. Seeing as how I didn't sit down and think about this till I was over 40, I don't know that I'm SO far ahead, but that conference was life changing for me. I can't wait to see your list!!

  2. I love this post because I think writers do a lot of self-flagellating about weak areas. I laughed at the "good at hair". Not that it's a bad thing. I need to be better with my hair (a weak area confession comes out). I do know that I have strengths and I think people should write to those --no pun intended.

    1. The great at hair is all about my childhood summers at camp. What else do little girls do at night around the campfire besides sing and chat and learn 15 different ways to braid. 🙂

      We want to see your "strong" list...break it out, girlfriend!

  3. Hey Jenny/ What a WONDERFUL post. I have never, ever seen anyone write about writing in this way. And I never thought about my writing from the positive angle. I'm always comparing myself to writers I admire and thinking how I could never write "like that", as if I have no capabilities whatsoever in the writing realm. Well, after I read your post, it made me think about just what I AM good at. I'm good at developing characters and dialogue. I'm not too wonderful at description of scenery and sometimes repeat myself, but what you wrote really turned my head around. I'm going to concentrate on what I'm good at and expound on that aspect of my writing and get better at it.
    THANK YOU so much for this.

    1. Patti,

      You are very welcome! I'm glad my rant did the trick. 🙂

      And I know writers who would DIE to be great at developing characters and dialogue. Dialogue makes your book move while description and scenery can slow it down. I'd pick your strengths and "weaknesses" any day of the week! You go, girl! Get that writing on the page.

  4. Great post, Jenny! I heard someone talk about this a few years ago and I've tried to focus on my strengths since then rather than putting so much energy into improving my weaknesses. My strengths include friendliness and encouraging people, seeing the bright side of things, crunching numbers, putting ideas and concepts into words, planning projects, and baking. (I hate cooking and clean up, though! LOL!) In writing, my strengths are dialogue, humor, nice characters, and novel-length storytelling. (I have to write two short stories before mid-Janaury and I haven't even begun because I don't know how to think of a story in such a small space! LOL!) Thanks for the encouragement to think from this perspective. 🙂

    1. Kitty, I say you leave the novel-length storytelling off the list the day you write your stories because the other strenths work great for writing short. Do we get to hear about how the process went in a late-January blog??

  5. Yes Jenny, I think transitions make us all sweat. The idea of moving to another place, the time between one important time in our life to another. Transitions are the pits. I will ditto Laura and Patti. I'd rather instead comment on your fear of the 400 pages. You can't alway look that far down the road. There are crossroads, stop signs and winding curves. You can stop at the crossroad and decide on the "road not taken," you can stop for a moment and rest, and as you go around those curves, you can enjoy the sights all around you. Just do it like any other neurotic obsessed compulsive ... one day at a time, one chapter at a time. Today you can write one chapter, so do it and enjoy 🙂

    1. Flo,

      I've learned to just take it one scene at a time. If I look too much further ahead, it paralyzes me, so i don't. I fool my wiggy self by writing happy short scenes and it's working out well. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment! You're so awesome...

  6. Jen, love the post. I always think friends know our hidden talents best so I'm going to add one for you. You're great at critiquing on the fly and seeing more than one side of an issue.

    1. Awwwww...thanks Sharla! (What she means to say people is that sometime I don't get my critiquing done BEFORE we meet so I do it as we go along and it trips my gals out!!!) On the seeing every side of the issue, I swear I'm a Libra, even though my birthday says Scorpio. 🙂

  7. I am with Patricia, I love the way you write about writing. It's just so down to earth and clear.
    I love this post because it's so true. Why are we so quick to judge ourselves so harshly, to be so critical and to only see the weak? Why don't we celebrate and rejoice in what we do well and are strong at and allow that to be enough?
    I think my strenghts are my enthusiasm (which can be contagious), interpersonal skills, writing, quick learner, adept and flexible, team/client focused, and optimistic. Although I haven't much experience in novel writing and therefore can't speak to my strengths in that realm, I do know one is my ability to garner emotions from others through the written word. I am anticipating a number of other strengths will emerge so stay tuned...LOL!
    Love the post - great reminder!

    1. Thanks, Natalie!! I see people drag themselves through the mud ALL THE TIME instead of just admitting, "I'm really not all that hot at X. Maybe I'll do Y instead." I place a lot of blame on the school system but it's really society as a whole.

      I love your strengths! You're going to have so many emerging as you write this book that your head is going to spin around!

  8. How glad am I that I discovered this site and saw Jenny's blog today?!?! I agree with everything written by others posting to this site: every word Jenny wrote is true! I found it so revelatory, yet so elemental, that people do not list those innate abilities amongst the things that they are good at. Talk about selling oneself short! To the question posed at the end of the blog: I have always been good at singing and writing, both things that are tough to do for a living (read: I have to keep my day job as a legal professional, leaving me all kinds of excuses NOT to write for pleasure, or because it's what I like to do, not to go and make a demo and get my voice heard by many people) and so I doni't pursue them with the passion I truly feel for them...weird, I realize, but discovering "Writers in the Storm" and happening upon this blog today, I am re-inspired--again--to keep picking up that journal (if that is the only writing I do in a day) and to keep singing to the radio to keep "my pipes" in tune; come to think of it, I could pick up my guitar a little more often, too. Funny how the things I am good at are the things I most neglect to do.

    1. Barbara,

      I am soooo glad you happened upon us today!! Obviously you need to dust off your journal and buy yourself Guitar Hero for Christmas/Hannukah!! You have excellent talents...I'm happy to remind you to celebrate them. Who gives a rip if you're making a living off them right now, as long as they are bringing you joy. 🙂

  9. Really late reading this, but I loved the post. I know I am good with setting and description, I'm not good at getting motivation clear and well stated. I'm good with dialogue and humor, and not good with transitions usually. Wow. Loved thinking about writing this way.

    1. Awesome, Evelyn! So, your first draft will be all about setting the scene and getting your people talking. Your editing process will smooth your transitions and clear up any gaffes in motivation. Sounds fantastic to me!!! 🙂

  10. Great post! I have a friend who does seminars based on Strengths Training with this concept that we should play up our talents and live them out.

    As for my own innate talents, I've always been imaginative. My problem is not coming up with plot ideas; it's narrowing down to which plot idea I will pursue and stick with until I have a full book. I'm naturally good at spelling and grammar (plus I've studied it a lot), so that's never a big issue for me. I love researching (which is more fun if you call it "looking things up"), synthesizing ideas, conveying what I've learned, studying people, and - of course - writing. My needs-help areas include prioritizing my goals (I'm a rabbit trail chaser), keeping a reasonable schedule, marketing myself, and much more.

    By the way, I sucked at singing when I was a kid. I was mocked for it. But I blossomed in junior high and high school, so sometimes talents arrive a little later.

    1. I'm in the same boat as far as spelling and grammar...after I got my Bachelors in English with a Writing concentration (too many years ago), most assumed that I wanted to teach (since I am from a very small town near a "teacher's college" and many did just that), but honestly? I just love writing! I am with you on the research stuff, too! That's in part how I got sucked into my day job in legal...I love "looking stuff up". My challenge in writing, or rather in getting going on a project, is deciding what I want to write about. I need to prioritize in that regard. The saying goes "just write something" but I have hundreds of post-it notes and sheets of paper that prove that I do that, but I just need to direct some ideas toward a goal. While I love to read novels, I think I am more given to "episodic writing", this and that, here and there...again, need to direct my energies!

      1. *shaking head* You researchers all amaze me. I'm not saying I don't like to find things out but research is one of my least favorite parts about writing.

        Sharla Rae has me in awe with her research prowess...it's stunning. I mean, did you SEE her post on Researching the Historical Novel? I'd have run and hidden away from writing if I had to worry about whether I was accurate about the heroine's underwear (or whatever).

        1. Hard to explain, I guess. I think that the fact that I like to "look things up" was more born out of my college program and having a paper due nearly every week. Whether it was lit or creative, it generally involved looking something up, and, for me, at least, looking one thing up generally led to "Hmmm, what's that?" and thus, another thing to look. That was further fostered when I was taking my Paralegal program and we had to perform MANUAL legal research (oh, the horror, at least to some bibliophobes in the program) as the computers were on the fritz during that segment of my program. One case led to another and the finishing point was put on my "I am good at research" conclusion about myself. For me, though, it's hard to say whether I loved it first and thus became good at it, or whether the honing of my skills was the result of my liking to research. It's a giant circle at this point, in any case. All of the above is to say that I am less about saying "I think I'll write a book/piece on Mary Queen of Scotts" sending me to the shelves (or as is more often the case, to google or another internet search engine), than it is I think about some point, big or small, I search on it and then I know it,for whatever good that does me at that point 🙂 Again, so glad to have discovered this site and these posts!!

      2. I'm cracking up about this because I was a legal assistant in my former life. 😉 Hmmm - researching, writing, . . . My favorite part of the job, strangely enough, was deposition summaries. Am I weird or what?

        1. No, you are so not weird! When I say I love research and writing (though I am not as big on depo summaries than I am on briefs/memos/case law stut), other paras look at me as if I have three heads! I just do like it, though...one case leads to another, and another, and another...then I have to stop myself. Luckily (?) I stay away from depo summaries, at least now that I am working "corporate" legal; now I just mostly do contracts. Can't say that there's a whole lot to love about THAT, but it has its moments (like when no one wants to change everything I've written that they told me they wanted written in the first darn place... 🙁

    2. The RWA chapter that several of us here belong to is hosting an online class on goal setting and time management in January. I happen to be leading it. 🙂 I'd love to try and help you with your prioritizing! http://www.occrwa.org/onlineclassJan12.html I know that whatever you decide to do to help yourself, a class or something else, you'll succeed. It may not be at someone else's pace, but it will be the way that works best for you! Good luck in 2012! 🙂

        1. LOL!!! Jenny, I sooo get that!! I did that several years in a row until last year I finally got myself a "writing journal" and that's where I keep my writing goals and my "done" list. The "done" list helps me feel better about what I'm accomplishing because my To Do list makes me feel like a loser - it's always getting longer, not shorter! LOL! I have to go read that post of yours...

  11. Fantastic post, Jenny! I think it's really easy to fall into the trap of focusing on weaknesses and things that need to be fixed. Trying to pinpoint strengths is a little bit more difficult!

    I'm definitely good at research and digging things up, which comes in handy for fiction-writing and my academic work (my advisor recently asked me to help her with research for a new project of hers, and actually said, "You're really good at finding things on the internet."). With people, I'm good at listening and offering advice. I'm good at starting projects, too, but not so great at finishing them. That'll be one of my goals in the new year. 😉

    1. You and I are a lot alike, Lena! Still, look at how far the two of us have come this year...we're gonna set 2012 on FIRE. That's all I'm saying.... 🙂

  12. This post is super fabulous. Well, you're super fabulous, Jenny! I'll have to make out a list of my strengths and put in on my desk. It's way too easy to think of all my failures and weaknesses. I don't like that and am going to refocus how I perceive myself and others. It's all in how we word it and then believe it.

    Love, love, love your list. Especially the great hair part! Summer camp braiding. That's hilarious.

    1. Thanks, Tameri! I think you're super-fabulous too. 🙂

      I do want to hear about your strengths - I think having to put them out there makes us really think about them. And yep, I was a girl scout and went to many rounds of summer camp. I am a CHAMPION braid-er (and camp song singer)!

      1. Okay girl, I have a little more time so here you go:

        In no particular order, my strengths are ~ writing, being a mom, learning, my optimism, enthusiasm, willingness to help others, ability to get stuff done with very little (call me a MacGyver Mom), glitter.

        Before you argue that glitter is not a strength, I will defend it ~ glitter is sparkly and makes people happy and shiny. It's a strength in my book and stays. ; )

        1. Oooooh, glitter is DEFINITELY a strength! I think I have a crafty mom inside me too, but Baby Girl is still too young for me to find out - she's just eat the glitter at this point. You have tremendous strengths, Tameri. I think if you bring the optimism, enthusiasm and willingness to help your characters to the page, you're gonna be sending me that beta of your book in a few months. 🙂

  13. Awesome, awesome, awesome post, as always. I can't say that enough, Jenny! Your posts are such an eye-opener plus you deliver fabulous ideas and solutions to various problems.

    I rely heavily on my wonderful critique group. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses so well that catching something in a scene that "doesn't belong" or is not up to that writer's best abilities is really easy. I don't know what I would ever do without those fabulous five people.

    I read a lot of books and articles on the writing craft and that is a must for me. It helps me improve my writing in so many ways. And reading tons of books in my genre is also a must.

    1. Awwwwwwwwww, Angela...you're making me blush. Thanks! I agree with the benefits of reading - in your genre, out of your genre AND Craft books - and also with how much a critique group helps. Are you going to come back and list your strengths, hmmmmmm?

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