Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Liberating Tantalus

Greek mythology brings us the unfortunate character of Tantalus, whose name serves as the foundation for our modern use of the word “tantalize.” Punished for an egregious misdeed, Tantalus was forced by the gods to stand in a pool of water that disappeared whenever he was tempted to stoop down for a drink. Furthermore, branches of fruit grew just above his head; but whenever he reached up to grab hold of something to eat, the wind would sweep the fruit away from him.

The eternal frustration felt by Tantalus of seeing something so close but beyond out his grasp has been felt—albeit, to a far less extreme level—by anyone who has allowed themselves to remain stuck in the wrong fit when it comes to their vocation. Far too many persons settle for less than what their hard-wired talents call them toward, never allowing this latent potential to develop into strengths. Stuck in a tepid pool of mediocrity, these individuals catch glimpses of passion and excellence but can never quite get their arms around the opportunities to unleash them.

Strengths movement luminary Marcus Buckingham, co-author of Now Discover Your Strengths, offers some wise counsel and strategy in his latest book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work. Buckingham encourages each of us to take a week’s worth of work-related activities and put them through the “love” and “loathe” tests. Essentially, go back through your week and jot down the activities that you loved and then the ones that you loathed. Take the ones that you loved and pick your top three, and then specifically translate each of those top three into a statement of personal strength that you can begin to more intentionally apply every single week.

Here’s an example. I perused back through last week’s calendar and noted that one of the activities I had loved doing was facilitating a very productive brainstorming session with a group of managers gathered around a conference room table. A key aspect of the group was their engagement to their work and their desire to raise the bar toward excellence. The experience energized me, and as I used Buckingham’s method I refined the activity into an ongoing, specific strength that would be applicable for numerous future circumstances:

I feel strong when I facilitate a brainstorming session among engaged leaders who are striving toward excellence.

Again, the specificity is important. I facilitate the session; I’m not just a spectator or another participant. It is not a gripe session, but a time to explore and synergize ideas. The participants are leaders, whether formally or informally; they don’t have worker-bee mentalities. They are engaged; that is, they have psychological ownership concerning their work. They are striving toward excellence, toward going from good to great. They aren’t settled into mediocrity, like too much of the workforce seems to be. They are raising the bar, and I am helping them get there.

And I love it when I get to do that.

Check out Buckingham’s books, and put yourself through the rigorous examination of understanding your key talents and how to leverage them into strengths. Be willing to take the sometimes painful but extremely liberating step of repositioning your present career, so that it flows from your strengths rather than feeling hijacked by the frustration of never getting your hands on what you would love to do the most.

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