All my working life I have defaulted to office work, which I am good at. Unfortunately, I do not like it. But in any case, I will be retiring in a couple of years and would like to do what I would enjoy. I know what I do not want or like but haven't quite caught on to what my strengths are. I catch glimpses of what I think I would like and then dismiss them. Can't quite get the whole picture in my mind to work towards.
Our advice for you as you look forward to your retirement is to look backward. Reflect again on those “glimpses” you refer to and don’t dismiss them this time. Instead, reflect as deeply as you possibly can on whatever those subjects or activities were, and try to remember any relevant details about what really sparked your passion for them. It’s true that you won’t be able to get the whole picture of what you’re working toward in your mind right away, but that picture will never present itself to you fully formed. You have to paint it yourself, brushstroke by brushstroke.
Retirement will obviously give you more time to paint that picture for yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you retire. Every area of your past and present is fair game for exploring what makes you feel strong. You may remember a childhood interest that has remained dormant but still excites you, or you may find that paying close attention to what you’re doing every day—even when you don’t love your job as a whole—provides key clues about what your strengths are. If you find even one aspect of your current job that fulfills or invigorates you, consider whether there are endeavors that call upon that strength more significantly. Wherever you find the clues to what your strengths are, the important thing is not to stop at recognizing potential. Once you’ve identified a promising area for exploration, you actually have to explore. Research the field or subject that sparks your interest; find out if there are ways you can volunteer in that field; write down and organize your thoughts about the subject. Passion isn’t something that lives way up in the sky, in abstract dreams and hopes. It lives at ground level, in the specific details of what you’re actually doing every day.
I wonder if I am happy. I didn't even give it a serious thought until recently. Now, writing this, I'm close to tears. What is keeping me from happiness? I'm a married mother of four. I love my kids so very much, but cannot give them most of the things I know they need. Is that the problem? My marriage is so terrible and yet I know I love my husband. Could that be the problem? I wish I had finished college. Is that it? My friends love me and I them, I enjoy people's company, but I feel a sadness very deep inside and I know that nobody knows about it. In my mind I feel something great is in my future, not sure what it is, but I feel it. So what is holding me back?
It seems that what’s holding you back may be a simple three-letter word: “but.” If you count its sneaky double “and yet,” that word appears four times in your short paragraph. It seems to attach itself to every positive thought you have. The problem with “but” is that it’s an obstacle.
What would happen if you replaced all the “buts” in your thoughts with “ands”? Where “but” is an impediment, an invitation to stop acting on your own behalf, “and” is “what else am I going to do?” What would happen if you could shift your focus so that you can say, “I love my kids AND… I want to spend more time with them”; “I love my husband AND… we are going to work on reminding each other why we fell in love in the first place”; “I enjoy people’s company AND… I am going to find a way to truly relax with my friends this summer”? You might be surprised at the results you can get from a simple shift in perspective.
This is not to imply that you can solve all your problems by ignoring them. But (that pesky word again) remember that change follows the direction of your focus. If you keep focusing on the negatives and asking what’s wrong, you will get more of what’s wrong. Instead, difficult though it may be at times, try to concentrate and focus on what “right” looks like, because that is a far more effective way to solve problems. Focus on what’s right, and ask yourself how you can get more of it into your life.
Got a question for TMBC's strengths experts? Ask your question in the comments and it may be answered in a future column.