How to Put Your Strengths to Work

When was the last time you were doing something at work that was so engaging and thought provoking that you totally lost track of time? If the answer is never, there’s a good chance you’re one of the 70 per cent of people that Gallup claim are working in jobs that don’t utilise their talents. And there’s also a good chance that most of the time, work is something that feels unintuitive and frustrating. So why do we do it? Mostly, it’s because we don’t pay enough attention to our strengths at work.

By the time we’re adults there is usually a long list of things in our personal lives that we know we’re just not that great at. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I can’t catch, I draw like a second grader and my cooking is generally on the wrong side of passable.

Instead of spending countless hours practicing and working at correcting these weaknesses, I’ve adapted my life to make them matter less. My friends and family know that throwing me the car keys is a bad idea, I write rather than draw and I have a long history of deals with housemates and partners that involve swapping cooking for cleaning. Because you know what? I’m awesome at cleaning.

/*daves*/ photostream / Flickr Creative Commons

We all do this at home, but for some reason when it comes to our professional lives we’re reluctant to put the emphasis on building our natural talents, and we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to compensate for our weaknesses.

One of the unfortunate side effects of performance-based professional culture is that we’re usually told what we need to work on, rather than what we’re good at. And then we’re shipped off to a course or a seminar or a conference to address our shortcomings and bring our new-found skill-set back to work.

But in reality, this rarely works. The fact is that working outside your natural preferences is draining, and nothing saps your enthusiasm for work more than doing something you’re not good at, or something you hate. As Peter Drucker argued in his excellent essay Managing Oneself, “It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence”.

MarkKoeber’s Photostream / Flickr Creative Commons

So, instead of trying to compensate for our weaknesses, how can we invest more in our natural talents?

1.     Take a deeper look

There are a number of self-assessment tests you can take to get a better idea of where your strengths are, like StrengthsFinder, Strengthscope and Action for Happiness. But an equally effective method for finding your strengths is simply to pay close attention to how you work. What do you look forward to doing most every day? Which tasks or situations keep you fully engaged and are enjoyable enough that you lose track of time? Chances are that’s where your strengths are.

2.     Accept yourself

When I did the StrengthsFinder assessment (twice, just to make sure), my number one strength was competition. After spending most of my life seeing my competitiveness as a weakness that needed to be toned down at work, it was hard to start accepting it as a strength. But the fact is that I work better when I’m competing, and I’ve learnt to compete with the clock, my to do list and my own personal goals, rather than competing with other people. Accepting your talents puts you in a position where you can leverage them.

 3.     Put your strengths to work

Once you know what your strengths are, you can start thinking about how to apply them at work. Make your manager aware of what you enjoy working on – deliberately taking on jobs and projects that are a good fit for your talents will mean better results for you and your workplace. For me, putting my strengths to work meant asking my manager to judge me on my outcomes rather than my process. My process isn’t always pretty, but it gets results.

4.     Notice strengths in others

Help others see where their strengths are, and better still, partner with people who have talents that complement yours. If fostering empathy, fairness and harmony are some of your strengths, partner with an activator or an achiever who enjoys keeping things moving.  Accept that other people are just as individual as you are, and collaborate your way into greatness.

It’s a pretty simple idea when you break it down – work out what you do best and do more of it.  If you do something that you’re good at, not only will you enjoy it, but there’s a good chance you’ll also do it exceptionally well.

How Outcome Based Decision Making Can Get You Through a Crisis

One of the unfortunate facts of life is that, more often than not, we’re forced to make some of our most important decisions under pressure. Whether that pressure comes from time constraints, high emotion or some kind of crisis, it’s just not a good time to successfully arrive at good decisions. But whether you like it or not, there’s a good chance that at some point in either your personal or professional life, you will be confronted with tough choices under less than ideal circumstances.

So how can we try to make sure that the decisions we’re making in a crisis are the right ones? The answer is to focus on the outcome.

Our brains are hard-wired to only consider immediate survival goals when we’re under pressure. This is great when you’re being chased by a grizzly, but not as useful when you’ve got two hours to think through the implications of a hostile takeover bid for your company.

Here’s a few steps that you can take to shift your brain away from the grizzly and back to the boardroom.

1. Be Ready

The best way to ensure a good decision is to plan for it. Every organization should have a crisis management plan, and every individual should have an emergency plan. But often, both organizations and individuals make the mistake of hypothesizing the crisis rather than envisaging a way out of it. It’s important to remember that the type of crisis doesn’t matter, so long as you know the outcome needed for success. Once you know the outcome you need, taking the steps backwards to your decision will be a lot clearer.

2. Trust Your Crystal Ball

Once you’ve worked out your outcomes, you’ll need to do a bit of informed fortune telling to predict the consequences of your decision. The best way to do this is by thinking through where each of your options put you (or your organization) in the future. Try to predict the consequences in a day, a week, a year from now. It’s easy to get sidetracked by thinking about the short-term consequences when you’re under pressure, but the impact of your decision in the long term is where your perspective should lie.

3. Commit

The thing about making decisions under pressure isn’t just that they’re hard to make in the first place, it’s that they’re hard to commit to. I think everyone knows the feeling of decision remorse, where the words ‘did I do the right thing’ seem to be permanently attached to your consciousness. The best way to overcome these feelings is to start implementing your decision as soon as possible.

You can never totally remove the emotional responses that come from being under pressure, but you can minimize the impact that they have on your decisions. So next time you’re faced with a big decision, instead of focusing on madly putting out the fire, try to focus on building a long term solution. It might sound like semantics, but you’ll be surprised by the shake-up it gives your mind.

Header courtesy of JasonLangheine

Learning to Love the Library

When I was a kid, I used to love going to the library. There was something amazing about going down to the local library with an empty book bag, and coming home with a bag full of borrowed magic that I could pore over for hours. Then I started earning money, and my visits to the library became less frequent as my bookshelves at home filled up with purchased books. This continued until I bought a kindle about four years ago, at which point I stopped reading physical books altogether and promptly forgot about libraries entirely.

But two things have happened recently that have rekindled my love for libraries. The first one is that my wonderful Grandpa (who, incidentally, is 93 years old and a regular reader of this blog) bought me a membership for the Athenaeum Library in Melbourne. The Ath is Melbourne’s oldest library, starting its life in 1839 just four years after Melbourne became a colony, and is filled with all the magic and history that you’d expect from a library of that vintage.

Over the past two months since I started my membership I’ve borrowed and read a new book every week, and I approach my visits to the library with all the excitement and anticipation that I did when I was a kid. I still feel like there’s something vaguely mischievous about the whole thing – walking to down to the library in my lunch break and coming back with a bag full of books that I didn’t pay for, and that they trust me to return when I’m finished. Amazing.

The second thing that has renewed my love of libraries is that I came across the Little Free Library movement. Basically, Little Free Libraries are tiny book boxes in front yards, bus stops, gardens and bike paths across the world where you can ‘leave a book, take a book’. The movement started about three years ago, when Todd Bol from Wisconsin came up with an idea to remember his mother – a teacher who had a passion for reading and literacy. Todd crafted a box that looked like an old school house, waterproofed it, filled it with books and put it in his yard with a sign that said ‘free book exchange’.

The idea took off, and all of a sudden, neighbours who Todd had never spoken to were dropping in to chat and look through the books. Three years later, there are Little Free Libraries everywhere from Africa to Australia, and Todd has a website ( where you can buy kits to create your own library. Little Free Library’s mission is simple – “to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide, and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity, and wisdom across generations”. Double amazing.

Why not check out the Little Free Library World Map to find out if there’s one near you, or even better, how about starting one in your neighbourhood and sharing some library love!

Australia’s Strange Sporting Obsession

Last Saturday night, with a level of hype and expectation akin to the lunar landing, a seriously large number of Australians stayed up late to watch the country’s most successful racehorse, Black Caviar, race at Royal Ascot in England. You read right – people lost sleep in order to watch a racehorse compete in a race thousands of kilometres away, in a country that everyone in Australia loves to hate. The reason why of course is that as a community, we are absolutely obsessed with sport. Any sport.

Babies born in Melbourne routinely have an Australian Rules football team before they have a name, and once that minor detail has been finalised, the next step is getting them straight on to the waiting list for membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The current waiting list for MCC membership, which entitles the holder to entry to all football and cricket games held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is somewhere in the vicinity of seventeen years.

So what is it that makes Australians such sporting tragics? One school of thought is that as a young nation with comparatively few competing narratives, most of our national heroes have ended up coming from sport, and sporting success has come to be a key indicator of our success as a nation. We’ve got a small number of war heroes and a couple of cultural icons, but the vast majority of our identity comes from sport, and we measure our place in the world through it.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Australia slipped to number six on the medal tally, after finishing fourth in 2000 and 2004. We still won half the amount of medals that the USA won (not bad for a country with one fourteenth the population) but the media response in Australia was uncompromisingly hostile. If you were visiting Australia at this time and happened to pick up a newspaper, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we’d come out at the bottom of the medal table, or that our entire Olympic team had been outed as drug cheats.

But while we’re totally obsessed with sport, I like to think we’ve also got pretty decent manners too. Every Friday night for most of the year, up to 90,000 people cram into a stadium to watch an Aussie Rules game. Fans from both teams travel to the game together, they sit together at the ground, and at the end of the night they pile sardine-like into a packed train together to go home. There’s no team-based segregation, no fights and no need for masses of police. Why? Because it’s community at its finest – Australians don’t care what sport you love, as long as you love sport. And they don’t care which team you support, as long as you support someone. It’s obsessive, but it’s kind of nice too.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Laneway Learning: crowdsourcing education

Ever wondered who invented the roller coaster, or more importantly, why on earth they thought it would be a good idea? Or maybe you’re living with a secret longing to learn the ukulele, but you’ve never had the time to learn how to play anything but a slightly Hawaiian version of Smoke on the Water. Or perhaps, like me, you really love to learn stuff, but the thought of attending (and paying for) a 10 week course in meditation is a little too high on the commitment scale.

If any of the above resonate, you’ll love the new Laneway Learning program that’s cropped up out of one of Melbourne’s mega-awesome laneways. The concept is simple – cheap, informal, relaxed classes that are aimed at letting working people learn new things in a totally non-committal way. The aim isn’t to make experts of learners, but rather, give them a taste of a cool new skill that they can go home and practice.

The classes for June range from the foody (Homebrewing on May 30), to the academic (Law, huh. What is it good for? on June 20), to the delightfully bizarre (Every stupid trick I know on June 12). What they have in common is that they’re all one night only, they all go for a maximum of 75 minutes, and most awesomely, they’re all only $12.

What I love most about these classes though is that both the topics and the teaching is 100% community crowdsourced. Anyone can suggest a class they think would be cool, and anyone can sign-up to teach a class based on their area of expertise, however niche. You don’t need to be a professional educator to teach, all you need is a bit of passion and the ability to get other people excited about the things that you’re excited about.

These classes would have to be pretty close to my idea of the perfect night out. A couple of friends, a couple of beers and learning about something great in a totally non-committal way. If you don’t live in Melbourne, start packing. This is worth moving for.

Don’t Feed the Trolls: dealing with negativity in social media communities

When I started a new job recently, I was stoked when I found out that my first project would be creating and managing a Facebook page for the organization. I’ve helped develop and administrate a social media presence for a few organizations over the past couple of years and I’ve always loved watching online communities develop and grow.

Trouble is, I’ve realized over the past few weeks that although I’ve administrated social media pages for varied organizations, they’ve all been organizations that have solid community support. And now, for the first time, I’m administrating a page that attracts a pretty decent amount of distrust, with a bit of full-blown hate and a couple of crazies thrown in for good measure.

There’s nothing quite like arriving at work on a Monday morning and combing through a weekend’s worth of wall posts and comments that, for the most part, are pretty negative about the organization I’ve chosen to work for. I knew when I took the job that it wasn’t going to be a picnic, but I may have underestimated the complexity of dealing with negative community sentiment. As a result I’ve done a lot of reading lately on this topic, and I thought I’d share what I think are the three best take home messages for keeping things positive and dealing with negativity in an online community.

1. Step away from the delete button. It’s easy for organizations and companies to head straight for the delete button when negative posts start to appear, but it’s not a sustainable or practical way of dealing with the issue. Being unresponsive is the same. It’s not a good look when organisations only respond to the people who say nice things about them, and if you’re not responding to any posts, negative or nice, then you need to seriously reconsider whether your organization belongs in social media. Instead of deleting negative posts, thank the community member for their feedback, respond to any specific questions and move on.

2. Let your community respond. If you’ve worked hard to develop an engaged and thriving social media community, then there’s a good chance that your community will respond to questions and comments before you even have a chance to. Let them go – a lot of the time your community are a better endorsement of the organization than you are.

3. Don’t take it personally. If you’re passionate about your job, it can be difficult not to jump on your high horse when people start to diss what you’re doing. Like I mentioned above, there’s something slightly demoralizing about receiving a barrage of negative feedback from your community, but you can’t take it personally. Stop, step back and have a cup of tea before your respond to anything negative. I guarantee it works.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream and this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

The Lost Art of Conversation

When was the last time you had a proper conversation? I’m talking a real-life, animated conversation with eye-contact and gestures and the occasional accidental hurling of spit at your fellow conversationalist? And don’t even try to say it was in a meeting, because both of us know that absolutely doesn’t count. If you’re like a lot of people today, particularly young people, there’s a good chance that it’s been a while between chats.

This question came to me while I was sitting at dinner last Saturday night, and led me to start wondering when we, as a community, had all lost the art of conversation. One of my dining friends spent most of the meal glued to his iphone checking the football scores with an OCD-like determination, which tended to inhibit the communication flow just slightly. Then, when a discussion came up about whether a broken nose is counted as a head injury, there was no spirited debate where each person knows there’s a good chance they’re wrong but argues the point with steely determination regardless. Instead, someone just Googled the answer.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying – ‘great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people.’  Well, I’d like to make an addition please: ‘even smaller minds don’t discuss anything at all because they’re too busy playing Draw Something on their iphone’.

Now I love technology, and I only wish I could get as excited when I create something at work as I do when I create a great illustration of Lady Gaga in Draw Something and send it to my boyfriend (who may or may not be sitting right next to me). But I also love conversation, and I’d give up all my technology if it meant getting to have real talks with real people on a more regular basis. I was a tad frightened when I was doing some reading for this blog post and I found a study suggesting that 53 per cent of 16-30 year olds would rather give up their sense of smell than their technology. That doesn’t bode well for the future of great and lively conversation (or our ability to tell when our toast is burning).

But fear not, because there’s a couple of Australians who have made it their life’s quest to keep the art of conversation alive, through a very cool ‘game’ called TAOC (The Art of Conversation). TAOC is a card-based game (which incidentally, is also available as an app), where participants select a card and ask their fellow players to answer the question on the card. Instead of trivia or maths or quotes, the questions on the card are along the lines of “What was the first song you learnt” and “Happiness. What comes to mind?”.  So really, the game has absolutely no point other than sparking conversations and discussions, which I totally love.

The wonderful and talented Editor-in-Chief of this blog Mr John Horn and I used to have some amazing cubicle conversations, most of which started with truly ridiculous questions like “what are your three favorite things about my short sleeved shirt and tie combination today, Jilly?”.

So how ‘bout it? When you’ve finished reading this, I dare you to start a proper conversation with someone – co-worker, boss, partner, child, checkout guy, whoever. And see how awesome you feel afterwards. I guarantee that you’ll feel something, learn something, and hey, maybe you’ll even smell something with the sense you didn’t have to trade to make it happen.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Fight Arrives in Oz

Australians have known for a long time that we have a bit of a problem with food. As a population we’re not the healthiest eaters, which our national dish of meat pies with chips and beer is a pretty good indication of. But over the past five years, our little problem with food has grown into a big national issue.

A bit over 17 million Australians are overweight or obese, a figure that has more than doubled in the past ten years. If we continue to gain weight at the current levels, by 2020 we’re going to be a country where 80 per cent of adults and one third of all children are overweight or obese.

Obviously, this is going to lead to some epic issues if something isn’t done about it soon. Financially, there will be the enormous increase in healthcare costs as the Australian population succumbs to the inevitable health problems that come with being overweight. Then there’s the fact that on the basis of present trends we can predict that by the time they reach the age of 20, our kids will be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than earlier generations, simply because of obesity.

So how is the government dealing with this problem? Well, judging by today’s announcement, by bringing in the culinary big gun himself – Jamie Oliver.

Jamie Oliver and Victorian Health Minister David Davis (who incidentally, has not let a ridiculous name stand in the way of his political career) announced today that Jamie’s Ministry of Food would be implemented to Victoria in an attempt to solve the state’s substantial obesity problem.

Jamie’s Ministry of Food is a community-focused program that teaches basic cooking skills and good nutrition to non-cooks, regardless of age, demographic or ethnicity, to improve their quality of life and health. It’s very much a grass-roots program that’s based on empowering people to think differently about food by equipping them with simple cooking skills and knowledge.

In the food guru’s own words: “The Ministry of Food is so simple in what it does: it’s about celebrating great food with guidance, love, care and attention. It’s for anyone over the age of 12, from any background and it really does change lives.”

Judging by the comments on today’s Ministry of Food announcement, opinion is split fifty-fifty amongst Victorians about whether this program is the right way to tackle the obesity problem. About half of the comments were applauding both Jamie and the government for attempting to provide a solution to this issue, and the other half were lambasting the government for getting a ‘foreign celebrity chef’ involved in our domestic health issues.

It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how it all pans out, and if a community-based program really can change the way all Australians think about food.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Emergency Warnings: how much warning is too much warning?

A bit over a year ago, Daily Gumboot correspondent Katie Burns wrote a great post about the rise of resilience planning in emergency management, focussing on some great work being done in Australian cities. I remember reading it and feeling pretty stoked to be part of such a forward thinking and innovative bunch of people.

For a good ten years in Victoria, Australia, there was a significant movement towards developing resilient and responsible communities that understood the dangers of where they lived, knew how to respond to an emergency and could look after one another in a crisis.

Then, exactly three years ago today, everything changed when 173 people died and 2029 homes were destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires. A Royal Commission was launched into how and why so many people lost their lives, and the final report included 67 recommendations for how emergency preparedness, education and response could be better managed.

One of the biggest changes for Victorians was the implementation of the Emergency Alert Warning System – a phone based warning system that sends a recorded message to landline phones and a text to cell phones advising people of impending emergencies. Over the past two years, the system has been used extensively to spread messages about floods, fires, chemical spills and cyclones, and I’m fairly certain that a message for the zombie apocalypse is ready to go, and just waiting for someone to push the button.

The system is a great tool, and is undoubtedly an important part of the overall emergency warning process, but sadly, it seems to be slowly removing the resilience and sense of responsibility that used to be a characteristic of Victorian communities during emergencies.

Anecdotal evidence is starting to show that instead of using intuition and local knowledge, people are now waiting for official warnings before they decide how they will respond to an emergency situation. One quote from a Melbourne newspaper has stayed with me since the floods in Victoria early last year, when a long-term local in a flood-prone area was quoted as saying “we could see the river rising behind the house, but we never got a warning”.

Don’t get me wrong, Emergency Alert is a great system, but like all great systems, it replies on a person to operate it, and sometimes that person has far less idea of what is actually happening than the people on the ground that are living the emergency.

It’s a simple fact of emergency management that sometimes, communities know better than official sources, and if you can see, hear, smell or feel an emergency happening around you, waiting for an official warning might not be the safest thing to do.

What do you think? Is there such thing as over-warning a community of an impending emergency situation? Or is it the role and responsibility of emergency agencies to ensure that as far as possible, everyone receives a warning whenever and wherever they need it?

What’s in the Head of Young Australians?

Each year, youth charity organization Mission Australia conducts Australia’s largest formal survey of young people.

Over three months each year the survey asks Australians aged 11 to 24 what they value, where they turn for advice and support, what issues concern them, how they are involved with their community and their feelings about their future. The results are not only a valuable insight into the minds of young people, but also help social policy makers to produce information and develop services relevant to the needs of young Australians.

This year, just under 46,000 young people were surveyed, and the results were a mix of inspiring, concerning and thought-provoking.

Inspiring: In this year’s survey, young people were asked for the first time how they felt about the future. The answer was resoundingly optimistic, with over two-thirds responding that they felt positive about the future. It seems young Australians are a very grounded bunch, who, when asked what they value most highly, listed family and friendships well above financial security and personal independence.

Given the pasting that Gen-Y’s get from the media as self-obsessed and lazy, it’s pretty awesome to remember that young people are actually a lot more switched-on when it comes to values and ideals than we given them credit for.

Concerning: When asked where they would go for help on their main issues of concern, over 20 per cent of young Australians said they did not have anywhere to go for assistance and advice. For me, this was one of the saddest findings of the survey, and seems to explain, in a basic way, why suicide is the main cause of death for young Australians aged between 15 and 24.

Despite all the Facebooking, texting, Skyping, instant messaging and Google chatting, young Australians feel like they have no one to talk to. It’s obvious that traditional methods of support for young people are failing, and that more time and money needs to be invested in reaching out to young people through the channels that they are familiar with. For a generation that has grown up with the internet, accessing online support and communities feels safe, comfortable and easy, in a way that speaking to someone face to face just doesn’t.

Thought-provoking: A vast majority of the young people surveyed showed a strong awareness of the issues important to the wider community. When asked for unprompted views on the biggest issues facing Australian society, 45.7 per cent of young people listed the environment as a top concern.

It’s both comforting and inspiring to know that the future of the planet rests in the hands of people who value environmental issues. Young Australians have demonstrated that they want strong government leadership as well as a broad community response to environmental issues, and they are prepared to take personal responsibility for their environmental behavior in a way that previous generations have not.

For a deeper look into the minds of young Australians (and some pretty amazing web design) check out the You’re Probably Wrong Test

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.