focusing on strengths

Earlier this week we had one of the best lectures I’ve ever attended in my life. Dr. Keith E. Hall spoke to us about how identifying and focusing on our strengths (rather than our weaknesses) can help us with improving our lives both in general and as medical students. He started the lecture with the following quote:

“What would happen if we studied what is right with people?”
– Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. 

And just five minutes before this lecture began we had been learning about various strains of streptococcus. He was asking this question to a group of students who have dedicated their lives to studying pathology and learning how to ‘fix’ it. But when I read this question, it really got me thinking. What would happen if instead of complaining about patients being non-compliant, I tried to understand their strengths and created a plan accordingly? What would happen if I suggested lifestyle modifications in a way that resonated with the specific patient I was talking to? What would happen if I stopped comparing myself to my classmates?

Strength Finder, an online assessment used to identify your strengths, was created using the research done by the father of Strengths Psychology, Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. with Tom Rath (grandfather and grandson!) and a group of scientists at Gallup. The name of the assessment was formally changed to “Clifton StrengthsFinder” after the passing of Dr. Clifton.

The theory behind all this is that everyone has different strengths and if we focus on these instead of on our weaknesses, we will lead much more productive and satisfying lives. The research Dr. Hall presented said that ‘high achievers’ had the following qualities:

  • spend the majority of their time in areas of strength (not being preoccupied with weaknesses)
  • learned to delegate and partner
  • applied their strengths to overcome obstacles
  • invented ways to capitalize strengths in new situations

While it’s obviously important to be aware of what our weaknesses are, I think that Dr. Hall is completely right in pointing out that we often get so bogged down by what we aren’t good at, we forget to take advantage of the things that we do excel in. The strength theory states that if we live our lives from the vantage point of our strengths, we will benefit by being engaged, energized and effective in all our endeavors.

I think this is all so especially important while in medical school. Being in such a high stress environment and constantly surrounded by people who worked so incredibly hard to get to where they are can be daunting. There are so many days when I feel like the admission committee made some kind of mistake letting me into the program and that I’m going to be ‘found out’ as some kind of fraud. Even a year into this, it still seems like everyone has figured it out and I’m still just flailing around Especially early in medical school, when you’re still trying to figure out your own study method and rhythm, it’s so easy to constantly second guess yourself and get tripped up when you see other people studying differently and they seem to have it all figured out. But if you take the time to actually have conversations with people around you, you’ll realize that we’re all feeling this way. That we’re all still trying to figure out what our strengths are and how we can be most efficient. That we’re all intimidated by each other. That we all have days when we wished we could be happy doing anything else with our lives.

Dr. Hall also pointed out the importance of ‘others awareness’ in addition to self-awareness, especially in the context of patient care. Recently, there’s been a great emphasis placed in forming meaningful relationships with patients so that we can provide competent care as health care providers. In addition to getting to know our patients generally, I think it’s important for us to understand the strengths of our patients so that we can motivate them to make changes in ways that are meaningful to them. Dr. Hall pointed out three ways to effectively engage patients and others with differing strengths:

  • clarity: develop a clear sense of how the person thinks
  • communication: speak the strengths language that resonates with how the person thinks
  • collaboration: couple your strengths with the person’s strengths to achieve optimal outcomes

Of these, I think the last is the most relevant to future health care professionals. At the end of the day, you have to realize that you can only do so much and that the patient is the one who actually has to make better diet choices, take medications, check their blood glucose levels, exercise regularly, etc. You can’t follow them home and constantly be there to make sure they make the ‘right’ decisions so it’s important to include them in the figuring out treatment plans and taking advantage of both your strengths will lead to even better health outcomes.

Dr. Hall ended his presentation with a quote that I think would probably resonate with anyone in a service field:

“The future of work lies in redefining it as doing something that makes a difference each day. Work is a purpose, not a place. Work is about productively applying your talent and strengths. Work is about making your life, and the lives of other people, stronger as a product of your efforts.”
– Tom Rath, Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life

The past couple weeks I’ve been having trouble holding onto why I wanted to enter this field in the first place. And I think that’s had a lot to do with how uncertain I feel at times about whether I’m capable of succeeding or even deserving of this opportunity, especially when it looks like everyone has it together but me. But I realize how untrue that is after countless conversations with my amazing classmates. We’re all confused and afraid but we’re in this together. After attending this lecture, I confirmed my earlier suspicions that I simply need to stop comparing myself to others and do what works for me. I need to assess my own strengths and find spaces where I can be energized and remain motivated in this wonderfully frustrating and breathtakingly rewarding career.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for self-improvement and making sure we never become complacent about bettering ourselves. But I do think that people can have a tendency to go to the other extreme and just never really appreciate themselves. Life is hard enough and I don’t think we should make it a mission to make it harder for ourselves.

I’m going to be taking the assessment myself in the next couple days and am going to make a real commitment to stay positive and focus on my strengths and stop getting so down on myself about my weaknesses. I hope that anyone reading this may also have hope in finding the peace and happiness that comes with loving and accepting who you are. 

Currently listening: Boardwalks by Little May

One thought on “focusing on strengths

  1. Salam aleykoum,
    I never post or comment things but after reading your post I had to. I discovered you on instagram few days ago and since then I’ve been reading your post and captions because you are REALLY INTERESTING to me.
    I am not in medical school but every time you’re talking about it I feel like I can relate to it cause I am a pharmacy student.
    After reading your post I always feel better, motivated, and thankful.
    So I just wanted to tell you to keep going and keep spreading motivation …
    I hope you succeed all your exams insh’Allah


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