I'm not ashamed to say that I love a good self-help book. Among my favorites is Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. Based on decades of research and millions of Gallup surveys, the authors argue that the most productive and fulfilled people are those who play to their own unique constellations of strengths. Our energy, say Buckingham and Clifton, is better spent on enhancing and showcasing our strengths than on trying to eradicate our weaknesses. The authors urge us to develop strategies for managing around our weaknesses, and then focus most of our time and energy on honing our strengths to perfection.
Buckingham and Clifton define a strength as "consistent near-perfect performance in an activity" (25). A strength is comprised of three elements: innate talent, knowledge, and skills. A person's various strengths can be described by any combination of 34 Themes that the authors identify in the book. Among those Themes are Achiever, Belief, Communication, Competition, Discipline, Empathy, Ideation, Intellection, Relator, Restorative, Self-assurance, and Significance. (The authors have constructed a StrengthsFinder profile to help readers determine which of the 34 Themes are most dominant in their own constellations of strengths.)
Here's an example: A friend of mine, Jane Scholar, has a strength in oral story-telling. Both in formal academic presentations and at cocktail parties, she has a way of turning her abstract subject matter into vivid and compelling stories that engage her audience and make them want to know more. This strength comprises talents (innate confidence and an ear for a good story), as well as knowledge of her subject and carefully cultivated speaking skills (pacing, enunciation, and effective use of gestures). Jane's strength in story-telling evinces three of her dominant Themes: Communication, Ideation, and Self-assurance. For Jane, conversation, conceptualization, and confidence all come easily. In her work, therefore, Jane would be wise to approach her research as a sort of story she is discovering. She should seek out both professional and social settings in which to tell the story of her research. She might even find appropriate ways to make the writing itself a subtle act of story-telling. By using strategies such as these, she will capitalize on her strengths and ultimately be able to produce her best, most satisfying work.
I mention Jane and her story-telling strength for a very practical reason: you, too, can produce your best work by intentionally developing writing practices that capitalize on your particular strengths. You might need to read Buckingham and Clifton's book in order to identify your strengths and your dominant Themes; but in the meantime, here's a sampling of Themes that the authors identify, along with my suggestions for how a person with that Theme might adapt his or her writing strategy to capitalize on that strength Theme.
- Achiever - You like to be busy, engaged, and productive. Measurable progress is important to you, so take time to remind yourself of what you've accomplished at the end of each day, and keep track of your cumulative production. When you reach one goal or milestone, push yourself to pursue an even more challenging one next time.
- Belief - Your life is grounded in a powerful passion for a cherished set of values, perhaps involving religion or family. Find connections between your work and your cherished values. Even though you will probably never explicitly mention your values in your work, keeping them in mind while you work will help you stay focused and motivated.
- Communication - You engage people in your ideas by drawing them into lively and vivid discussions; conversation comes naturally to you. Take breaks from your writing in order to have actual conversations about your project with anyone who will engage with you. Try both formal and informal settings, and both specialists and non-specialists.
- Competition - You thrive on pursuing "the win." Push yourself to finish your project more quickly and to a higher standard than any of your colleagues. Find competitive colleagues who are comparable to you in skill or talent level, and have "contests" that will spur you both on to excellence. When or if you lose a contest, mourn quickly and then move on to the next one.
- Discipline - You're a natural at prioritizing, scheduling, and completing your work in advance of deadlines. If possible, choose an advisor or mentor who will not suddenly change deadlines or expectations. Work in a neat, uncluttered environment. Develop a strict routine and minimize the possibility that it will be disrupted.
- Empathy - Because you're sensitive to others' emotions, spend your time with people who are feeling positive about their own work and/or life in general. If you spend too much time with negative people, you'll be inclined to absorb their discouragement or apathy.
- Ideation - You feed on new ideas, and you naturally find connections among ideas and fit information into overarching concepts. As you work, think about how your project fits into a Big Idea, and give your mind time to range over a wealth of ideas that are connected to your project.
- Intellection - You're energized by periods devoted to unstructured thinking. Allow yourself time for this pensive activity, but also find a writing partner who is prone to action and willing to push you to clarify and act on your ideas.
- Relator - Your close relationships are at the center of your life. Find ways to connect your project with the people to whom you are closest, either by discussing your work with them directly or by focusing on the ways in which your research benefits them, however obliquely.
- Restorative - You're perceptive at identifying problems, and you're gifted at finding solutions. As you work, remember that your research is in fact one big problem that you have identified and are now working to solve. This can be easy to forget in the daily grind of sorting through sources and drafting chapters, but you must remind yourself often that you are working steadily toward a solution.
- Self-assurance - You're confident, persistent, and steady. As you work, remind yourself that this project is up to you; only you can do this particular project in the way that you know it needs to be done. Remind yourself that your project will bring about a needed change. Listen when others give feedback about your limitations, recognizing that your tendency to self-assurance can blind you to potential weaknesses that you need to manage.
- Significance - You need independence, meaningful recognition for what you achieve or contribute, and opportunities to stand out. Reach out to top scholars in your field, perhaps by proposing a panel discussion at a conference or simply by exchanging emails about your shared research interests. Affirm other scholars' excellence when you see it. Think hard about the actual skills you need to develop and the knowledge you need to gain in order to realize your grand visions.
I hope these suggestions have gotten you thinking about how you might adapt your writing strategies and practices to better suit your unique set of strengths. I'd love to hear about how you've already personalized your writing process and about what you might try next!