Recently, I was reminded of my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Cameron, and the events that led her to realize that I needed glasses. It’s a fairly common story but one that I want to share because it reminds me of a more recent event that has also allowed me to see the world more clearly.
If you didn’t need glasses as a child, I feel sure you have heard a story like this before from a friend. In 2nd grade it became clear that I could not see the black board at school. Of course, I thought I could see it just fine! I needed to squint my eyes a bit more than everyone else and sit in the front row but I was sure that my vision was the same as my classmates. Mrs. Cameron soon realized that I was getting many math problems wrong – not because I couldn’t do the problems – but because I had copied them down incorrectly from the blackboard.
At the “Back to School” night that fall, Mrs. Cameron told my parents that I needed to have my vision checked. They chuckled knowingly. Why did they laugh? Because they knew upon marriage that the chances of any of their children having good vision were slim to none. Both of them had terrible eyesight. They even joked that they were blind as bats. My father wore thick glasses and my mother lived in her hard contact lenses (even though they frequently made her eyes water profusely). In fact, my two older sisters had already been fitted for glasses. In my parents’ minds I was just joining the family’s tradition of needing corrected vision. I, on the other hand, was shocked. I wholeheartedly believed that I could see perfectly well!
That misguided thought all changed once I got my glasses. The leaves on the trees from my bedroom window were amazingly crisp and clear! I felt like I could reach out of the window and pluck each leaf off individually. No longer did the tops of the trees look like green balls of fur that covered brown tree trunks. I drew pictures like that in art class but now I realized how inaccurate I had been. I took my new glasses on and off repeatedly to see the new and the old versions of world – back and forth I went. Getting eyeglasses was truly a life-changing experience.
There were things I hated about wearing glasses. I hated having them steam up when I got too hot playing at recess. It was annoying how they slid down my nose and I had to constantly push them back into place. Of course, I did not really like the way they made me look. I was not overly vain in 2nd grade but I had some sense that I was not quite as cute with my glasses on as off. My parents confirmed this by saying they “could not see my face as well” with my glasses on and encouraged me to take them off for pictures. Despite these downsides, the glasses were a new part of me and I was glad I had them. I could see the world as it really was and that was a real pleasure.
As I noted at the start of this posting, I had a similar experience recently. I was able to seeing myself and the world anew. This time the life-changing experience wasn’t due to an improvement in my eyesight – though the experience has changed how I see the world.
About a year ago I decided to take the StrengthsFinder assessment. I had modest expectation about gaining any new insights about myself upon learning my results. I have taken all kinds of personality profiles over the years and felt well-acquainted with how such tools could sum me up. But all I can say is that there is an uncanny parallel between getting my first pair of glasses and finding out my StrengthsFinder results.
After I completed the 177-item StrengthsFinder assessment I immediately learned my “Top 5 Signature Themes”: Competition, Maximizer, Achiever, Activator, and Significance. These terms may have little meaning to those of you who are unfamiliar with the assessment but after reading the descriptions that came with my personalized on-line results, I must admit that I was blown away. And not happily blown away. I was upset. Just like in 2nd grade, when I was sure I could see perfectly well, I was sure I knew my strengths perfectly well and this assessment was wrong.
My greatest concern was that anyone reading my results would assume that I was highly competitive. I was most certainly not competitive! I was kind and caring. I wanted to be liked. I was the youngest of three girls who wanted to please everyone. For example, as a child I was known to give my sisters my desserts so they would like me more. I had outgrown this trait as an adult woman, but the natural tendencies were still there. Furthermore, in my mind, it was obvious that competitive women had no friends since they are only out for themselves. Lean In had yet to be published, but I knew the score: people don’t like competitive women. Since I had plenty of friends, I reasoned that the folks at StrengthsFinder had made a big mistake.
But I couldn’t really shake the unsettled feeling that learning these findings had set in motion. I told a few people about my StrengthsFinder results. The worst – or possibly most accurate – feedback I received was from my sister, Amy, who replied “Well, duh,” when I revealed I was high in competition. Hmm, I thought, maybe there’s something to this StrengthsFinder thing.
I decided I needed to learn more about each of my “Top 5 Signature Themes” – especially the theme of Competition. When I stopped being so defensive about the term “competition,” I realized that being high in competition meant I need measurement in my life and that I like to win. Over the next few days and weeks I started trying on the idea of being highly competitive using this new definition. In many ways, it was like taking on and off my first pair of glasses.
I soon realized that the accomplishments about which I was most proud – whether those be winning a state fair competition for my homemade banana bread or an award for my undergraduate thesis – were related to competition. I started warming to the idea that competition brought out something good in me. I was forced to admit that I felt best about myself when I was striving very hard and pushing myself to slightly uncomfortable limits. Moreover, I came to understand that if I could see even small improvements in my abilities over time and had ways of tracking my progress, I was buoyant with hope and felt a growing sense of satisfaction.
Are there any downsides to knowing my strengths? It’s hard to admit to myself that I lack certain skills. I have a hard time doing the same routine over and over and I have difficulty treating everyone the same way. I wish I was better at those things. But understanding my strengths – and deficiencies – has helped me appreciate other people’s talents more.
Learning about my strengths has changed the way I see myself and the world just as getting my first pair of glasses did. Today, I recognize that there are certain talents and abilities that make me uniquely me and I should spend my days concentrating on those talents and surround myself with people who can complement me. In fact, people who bring skills like harmony and consistency have talents I greatly need and thoroughly appreciate. Remarkably, my closest friends have these themes and I cherish them for shoring me up in these ways.
Are you inspired to learn more about yourself? Fully accepting my strengths has been a journey for me. But much like getting my first pair of glasses it has led to many “ah-ha” moments that make me grateful to see the world and myself more clearly.
Go to www.gallupstrengthscenter.com to take the assessment for yourself.