· Illustrations by Dante Terzigni
Focusing on your finest traits rather than your flaws may boost your quality of life. A popular survey tool can help you get started.
In grade school, Scott Bautch often found himself in trouble with his teachers. “I had this incredible energy that made me hard to handle,” he recalls.
Bautch, 58, a chiropractor in Wausau, Wis., still exudes enthusiasm and creative energy; he remains almost childlike in his appreciation of the world around him. “I’m still the guy who looks at butterflies and rainbows and gets super excited,” he says.
These are admirable traits — though they were seldom welcomed in a classroom or during family dinners. For years Bautch struggled with his natural inclinations, but today he no longer apologizes for his gusto.
“Now I know that zest and love of learning are some of my character strengths.”
An admitted “self-help nut,” Bautch had long scoured personal-improvement literature before coming across a book by the founders of the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. (VIA was originally an acronym for “values in action”; it’s now the name of the institute that administers the survey.) The VIA Survey helps people identify their best character traits, like hum0r, gratitude, or an appreciation of beauty and excellence.
After taking the test, Bautch had an epiphany: The qualities that had defined him negatively during his childhood were his strongest assets. Finally comfortable with himself, he was able to help others become more at ease with him. “I tell patients, ‘Hey, I’m an energetic guy — if I’m coming at you too strong, let me know.’”
Like Bautch, many of us are constantly searching for ways to better ourselves. The VIA Survey turns that corrective impulse on its head, helping us recognize where we’re already strong so we can play to our strengths. This not only feels better than trying to fix ourselves, but also works better. And at New Year’s resolution time, this can be a welcome change from the status quo.
A Shift in Focus
When the late Christopher Peterson, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology professor, and Martin Seligman, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, began developing the modern science of character strengths, they wanted to reshape psychology. Rather than focusing on what makes us suffer, they began asking a different question: What makes us strong?
“Why are some people more resilient than others? Why do some marriages last longer? Why do some people thrive given bad situations? These are questions positive psychologists ask,” explains Sandra Scheinbaum, PhD, founder of the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy in Highland Park, Ill. A practicing psychologist for more than 30 years, Scheinbaum used the VIA Survey with her clients and now teaches others how to use it.
“Where my colleagues were focused on diagnosis and what’s wrong with someone, I tried to see what worked,” she says. “Maybe, for instance, you were depressed, but you were also resilient. I tried to get clients to notice that.”
What Scheinbaum was doing is now called “strength spotting,” and it’s what the VIA Survey has been offering since Peterson and Seligman launched it in 2004. (The test is free and available online at www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey.)
The process identifies 24 universal character strengths. They include such common traits as humor, bravery, curiosity, and kindness, as well as subtler ones. If you love to watch professional athletes at the top of their game, for instance, you may have an appreciation of beauty and excellence. If you’re a career student or always have your nose buried in a book, you may have a love of learning — a positive trait, even though people with different strengths might sometimes call you geeky.
The survey helps people discover their top strengths, which lie within six core virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. (See “Virtues and Strengths,” below.) When we live, play, and work in ways that cater to our top character strengths, we are much more likely to thrive.
Unlike other personality tests or indexes, the VIA Survey ranks a person’s 24 strengths in order from strongest to weakest. (We all possess each of them, in varying degrees.) The Myers-Briggs test, by contrast, focuses on traits such as introversion and extroversion, telling you what you’re not. VIA reveals what strengths you display most often and most easily.
“Identifying character strengths is not a treatment,” Scheinbaum notes. “It’s a way of thinking, and a way of seeing the world and how someone can thrive.”
Still, it can be healing to identify our strengths, because it helps us live in a way that’s most supportive of who we are naturally. “What gets us to well-being is our character strengths,” she says.
Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, admits that playing to our strengths rather than fixing our weaknesses can seem counterintuitive from an evolutionary standpoint.
“When you’re facing a tiger and you can’t outrun him, it makes sense to focus on weakness instead of stopping to consider your strengths,” he explains. “But rarely do we need that focus on weakness in our modern lives.”
“Think of sports or play,” he adds. “I’m 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds. I couldn’t walk into college and begin playing football; I knew that wasn’t my strength. So I played squash.”
Focusing on your strongest traits not only liberates you from having to change who you are; it also saves time and effort. “If you think about it, you get more bang for the buck for the effort you put into something if you play to a strength rather than try to fix a weakness,” he says.
It’s also a more energizing way to think about change.
“The idea that there’s something wrong with you starts from a place of despair and demoralization,” says Robert McGrath, PhD, a psychologist and lead researcher at the VIA Institute in Cincinnati. “But when you ask what your strengths are and how to use them, you have a better framework for thinking about yourself.”
Strength Spotting in Action
When you get the VIA Survey results, you might be tempted to focus on the strengths at the bottom of your list. These are your least-developed ones, and many of us try to improve them first, says Scheinbaum. But this is a hangover from a habitual self-improvement mindset, which is always looking for something to fix.
She recommends you stay focused on the top five traits — your “signature strengths” — and let those shape how you develop your weaker ones. “I remind people, ‘You own all 24 strengths,’” she says. The top five just reveal where you’ll excel naturally.
Scheinbaum, for example, learned her top strengths are zest and creati-vity, traits that make her a good coach but less deft at detailed work, like figuring taxes. “Preparing my taxes is something that’s the opposite of playing to my strengths,” she admits, so she looks for beneficial ways to use her zest and creativity. “I imagine the excitement I’ll feel when it’s over, or I pick out music to listen to during the task.”
You might discover that your own strongest traits are more reflective and detail oriented, like prudence and perseverance, so tasks like tax preparation are a breeze. Or you might find humor and perspective in your top five, which could explain why people often come to you when they’re feeling down. This could also guide you to seek work in an area where others will benefit from your wisdom and levity.
If leadership, social intelligence, and kindness rise to the top, it could explain your comfort with being in charge — and why other people seem willing to follow you.
The VIA Survey can be a helpful tool for organizations, too, by making it easier for managers to organize workflow around their employees’ top strengths, allowing coworkers to shine instead of struggle. Jessica Amortegui, senior director of global talent development at Logitech in Newark, Calif., has used the VIA Survey in trainings since 2013. It allows employees “to see what’s best in others,” she says. “We are so used to evaluating and critiquing others, but when we focus on their strengths, we celebrate and appreciate them instead.”
By spotting strengths, managers can assign the right projects to the right people. As a result, employees are more likely to believe their managers get them and are setting them up for success.
“We’ve seen that employees who use more than four strengths at work are more engaged and have better days,” Amortegui adds.
Learning your strengths doesn’t just benefit you — or your workplace. You become more aware that others have their own gifts, and you start spotting them naturally. Scott Bautch has become so adept at identifying other people’s signature strengths that clients have marveled at his sixth sense.
“People think I’m a mind reader when I see they need humor to help them in a situation, or when I comment that they seem very brave,” he says. “But I’m just talking about their strengths.”