The title is guaranteed to attract interest, but possibly also a degree of cynicism. Is this really going to be the magic bullet that solves all my problems?
A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar organised by the MRS and presented by Amanda Anderton. The aim of the talk was to “provide a more fulfilling and productive work/life blend”, by identifying innate strengths and values and emphasizing a positive approach. It explored some interesting ideas and research. Amanda drew on the ideas of 'Positive Psychology' developed by Martin Seligman, among others.
Key points included identifying your strengths, exploring your values, and identifying your aims. The definition of strengths was quite specific and for me one of the most interesting ideas that the webinar introduced. In this context strengths are innate not learned, and as well as being good at them you really enjoy them. Amanda contrasted these with skills which you have learned. You may be good at learned skills, but you may nonetheless find them tiring or de-energising, while activities that utilize your strengths are enjoyable and energising.
This idea of playing to our strengths was really at the heart of the Webinar’s philosophy. While identifying our weaknesses was acknowledged to be worthwhile, we were advised to (where possible) avoid work/life situations that exposed our weaknesses rather than to try and fix them. Better to concentrate on doing what we enjoy and are good at.
Understanding our aims and values and establishing whether we are being true to them in our current work/life situation is also seen as being fundamental to our wellbeing and success. As with strengths, the general idea is to establish whether you are content with the way you are living and working. However, there is an acceptance that we can’t be happy all the time. Amanda referenced studies suggesting that a 3 to 1 ratio of good-to-bad experiences tend to make for a good quality of life. We need to have some bad to appreciate the good.
So, to summarise, the message seems quite simple: find out what you enjoy and then just do that. Your “superpowers” are, in fact, the things that you are good at and those tend to be the things you enjoy doing. I must admit, I was initially a bit disappointed by this, it did seem to be stating the obvious. However, being asked to write this piece gave me the impetus to look in more detail at the content of the webinar and think about how it might be applicable to my own circumstances.
Firstly, which aspects of life can these ideas be applied to, what aspects of work and life can you realistically change? For many, the advice will be more applicable to the work side of the equation. It is true that these techniques can be applied to other areas of life, but there may be less scope to change those areas. Perhaps if it is done at a young enough age, the same principles can be applied more holistically across all aspects of life. However, for many people circumstances and responsibilities will have arisen that are not the best fit with their “strengths”, but which nonetheless have to be accepted. For most people work is a self-contained part of their lives that can often be changed without necessarily impacting on other commitments.
Having established which aspects of life can be changed and which need to be accepted, the other important factor is the relative importance to you of work and personal life. Everyone’s balance is different and to a large extent, the weight that work has for you determines how satisfying it needs to be. At one extreme, a career that you really don’t like obviously calls for a major rethink, but for most people work is, at least to some degree, a means to an end. Even if it is unsatisfying at times, it may underpin a life that delivers the balance of the 3:1 good to bad relationship that Amanda referenced.
Rather than expecting these ideas to instantly transform our lives, perhaps we should use the techniques where we can. Firstly, establishing what can be changed, then identifying those aspects that are most stressful or unsatisfying. Hopefully we can then find ways of dealing with or minimizing those aspects and tipping the balance in a positive direction.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the MRS Conference, Impact 2021. As a first-time attendee of Impact, I had no previous experience of physically participating in the conference, but throughout the three days, it never felt like I was missing out on anything by not being there in person.Read more