My coworker is a freak. This coworker, let’s call her Bourtney, has an uncanny memory for ‘80s hair metal song titles, the Flowers in the Attic series (even the ones post-V.C. Andrews’ passing) and obscure sub-plotlines from Full House. I’m telling you, you’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Reeling in in her awe-inspiring ability to recall subtle nuances in D.J. Tanner’s pantsuit-laden wardrobe, I got to thinking about real life super prowess. Less X-Men, more Molly Ringwald in the Breakfast Club applying lipstick with no hands. Those special talents—a beautiful singing voice or a goofy party trick—that help make you who you are, or shed light on that sliver of your personality that may not get much exposure. I wondered if everyone’s got a superpower and how to harness those skills for good—or just for fun.
A Value-Added Proposition
Being great at math, having a scary-good memory or running a four-minute mile are all useful skills in their own rights, but they’re also worth more than face value. “Having something that sets you apart can really benefit your self-concept,” says YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D. “It helps to define who you are and may also define you in other people’s minds.”
Many struggle at one time or another with who they are, says Markman, and taking some time to think about the things you can do help you get a better grasp on your own potential.
And that, in turn, plays an important part in fostering self-esteem.
In her book “Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., writes that self-esteem is “a positive way of experiencing yourself when you are fully engaged and are using your abilities to the utmost in pursuit of something you value.”
That positive perception can spill into other parts of your life. If you’ve got one thing you know you can succeed at, then you know you’re capable of succeeding. So it follows that now you have the confidence to go out into the world and…succeed.
Plus, Markman adds, it always feels good to look around a room and think, “no matter what, I’m better at [insert superpower here] than these people.”
Seeing Your Strengths
If you haven’t identified your superpower yet, keep your eyes open to what other people don’t excel at. “The more time you spend hanging out with other people, the more you realize there are things that come easily to you and not to others. Comparison is fine as long as you’re doing it to understand yourself,” Markman says.
Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist and the education director at the VIA Institute on Character, which developed the VIA Inventory of Strengths, a free online survey to help people identify their character strengths. VIA lists 24 character strengths, culled from research that shows that certain virtues are shared by all cultures worldwide. The list includes honesty, creativity, judgment, bravery, curiosity, humility, social intelligence, forgiveness, humor and love.
“Character strengths are the core capacities within us for how we think, feel and behave. It’s who we are when we’re at our best,” Niemiec explains. “I think of character strengths as superpowers. But most people aren’t aware of their strengths. We’re wired to know what’s wrong. We focus on the bad over the good.”
He calls this unawareness “strength blindness.” You might have an exceptional capacity for kindness, gratitude or perseverance and not realize it. Perhaps you’re too consumed with traits you want to change to see the ones that make you great. Or maybe you assume that everyone is just as kind, grateful or perseverant as you are. (Newsflash: They’re not.)
For example, Markman points out, “we all know people who are good at being good, encouraging friends. Not everyone can do that.”
Researchers in the field of positive psychology have shown that using one of your core strengths in a new way every day can lead to months of greater happiness and less depression.
Assemble The Superfriends
Now how do you harness something you don’t realize you’ve got? Ask for help.
Niemiec (naturally) recommends taking the 240-question VIA survey online. You can get a basic ranking for free. (Apparently I’m heavy on curiosity; “zest”, however, is not my strong suit.) A more detailed accounting costs 20 bucks. The results may tell you a lot of things you already know, but it may also spit out attributes in an order you wouldn’t have anticipated.
Step up the self-exploration by bringing in some outside perspective. Print out VIA’s descriptions of the 24 strengths from your report and give it to ten friends, family members and coworkers. Ask them to go through and pick out the ones they see in you. You might be surprised: Those who know you best may define you very differently than you define yourself and may cherish you for qualities you rarely think about.
Engaging others can also be a potent antidote to self-doubt, says Markman. People who are prone to feel down on themselves tend to not be very accepting of their strengths. Having someone else validate their successes can be a valuable check on that emotional Kryptonite.
Enter “The Power Zone”
Both Markman and Niemiec underscore the important differences between skill, talent and character strengths. “A talent is something innate that you’re born with. A skill is something you develop over the course of your life,” Markman explains. “People tend to believe that talent is the more important factor. The danger, if you believe that, is that you won’t try anything you believe you don’t have the talent for, and something you think is a talent you won’t work to develop. The superheroes in the comic books didn’t develop their skills, they were given to them.”
The key for us regular humans is to meld our strengths, skills, talents, interests, inclinations and resources into our own real-life versions of x-ray vision or shape shifting. Take stock of your arsenal: Note proficiencies like a keen sense of direction, typing fast or perfect pitch; hobbies and interests, from needlepoint to pop culture; and resources, like friends in show business or the pool at your local YMCA. Then tap into your core strengths to put all this great stuff to use. As the VIA folks like to say, talents help you compete, character strengths help you complete.
Maybe you’ll set out on a new career path. Maybe you’ll be a hit a dinner parties. Maybe you’ll finally appreciate what a patient, caring friend you’ve been.
And who knows, maybe you’ll channel all those hours absorbing MTV, TGIF and smutty pre-teen fiction to become the Bourtney of your own office.
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