One of my mentors in a leadership program I’m participating in this year said to me this week that other than going to Happy Hour with his wife, a certain aspect of his job was his “most favorite thing in the world.” In his case it’s work he has been doing for over thirty years – and he is excellent at it. We talked about how challenging it can be to back off enough to let others excel at – and learn – in an area that we’re good at and love to do.

It made me reflect about the aspects of my work that I love the most. I love to start new relationships and partnerships – meeting and then getting to know new individuals and organizations – talking about ideas and possible ways to work together – launching a new project and then working together to help it succeed. I’m much more energized by the start of something new – the as-yet-unrealized potential – than in all the details that come afterwards—the negotiations, the implementation and the evaluation. I work hard to manage details because that’s part of every job – but I know it will never be my strength.

Often in our work, we focus on the areas that we need to improve rather than our natural strengths. The Strengths approach says that if we try to be too well-rounded, we’ll never be truly great at anything. If you haven’t dug into the Gallup Strengthsfinder work yet, take a look to see if it’s something that can benefit you in your work – or if it gives you a new way to talk with young people about their strengths.

After all, a strengths-based focus is exactly what we’ve been doing in youth work for years – it’s just another way to talk about positive youth development—looking at young people as assets to be developed rather than problems to be solved. I’d argue that it can be pretty tough to take this approach with teens unless we appreciate it in ourselves as well.

I’m a natural geek for personality tests – especially online ones (i.e. What Downton Abbey character are you and so on) and taking the Strengthsfinder assessment was such a different way for me to look at my work. It affirmed the aspects of my work that I enjoyed and have found success in – and also helped me think about what it looked like to “overuse” some of these strengths.

A fascinating article in Library Journal back in 2010 supports a theory I’ve been developing at the library about common types and how that both helps and hurts our work in libraries.

There are a lot of tools out there to support young people in identifying their strengths. In one of our programs working with truant youth, we’ve used the Youth StrengthsExplorer – designed for middle school students – and found it not quite perfect – the language of the questions was not as approachable for our youth as we would have liked, but give it a try with your teens — perhaps it’s something you could with a group of youth that you meet regularly with—an Advisory Board or book club.

Another tool my brilliant colleagues have found is part of the Igniting Sparks curriculum that the Search Institute has put together – in particular their new Spark a vision. We’re thinking of trying it as a entry-level way for youth in our Teen Tech Center to engage with media, peers and mentors– and helping them find a voice to talk about that through media.

What other ways have you dug into your own strengths – or those of the teens you’re working with?

About Maureen Hartman

I am the Division Manager for Strategic Services at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota and a former Board member for YALSA.

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