Martin Seligman, Ph.D., noted Optimism researcher, who’s now studying Authentic Happiness, has proposed that one of the surest paths to happiness is to know your signature strengths and build your life around them, particularly if it’s in a way that has meaning to you.

Management gurus, Buckingham and Clifton, in their book “Now Discover Your Strengths,” also propose this theory and it’s the basis of their StrengthsFinder ™ Profile assessment.

Taking the StrengthsFinder ™ Profile is one way to discover your innate talents. How else can you?


These “signature strengths,” as Seligman calls them, and “innate talents,” as Buckingham and Clifton call them, are with us from birth, show up early in childhood (to the observing eye), and continue with us throughout our life. They may be repressed, ignored, neglected, or even devalued, in this world where the press has been to be “well-rounded,” but they will always be there, popping up at happy moments, beckoning to be acknowledged, calling our name.

When we’re asked to do something we’ve never done before, and take to it like a duck to water, or when we do something so well we think everyone else can, they just aren’t, or when someone watches us do something and says not, “How did she learn to do that?” but rather, “Where did that come from?” we’re tapping into an innate strength. The way we feel when we watch Tiger Woods play golf, but these aren’t physical traits.


So what does this look like in real life?

No strength leads to any particular occupation, nor does any occupation necessarily require any certain strength, but I think I met a future manager, therapist, or HR professional this afternoon, if he stays with his strengths.

But, first let me elaborate on that statement. You don’t have to have Empathy to be a nurse, and all nurses don’t have Empathy. You can use Focus to be the director of a non-profit, as a client of mine does, or to be an engineer, as someone surely is. Your strengths can be applied quite successfully to a number of different occupations. So this gifted little boy could end up being happy doing any number of things.

Now back to this little boy I encountered today. I was keeping my 2-year-old grandson, James, for the afternoon. We wandered outside on this beautiful, sunny day and the boys playing down the street caught his attention. Allen, 18, and Kevin, 13, were shooting baskets. Around them was Alex, 8 years old, playing with his new mini-skateboard.

James tried to grab the skateboard, and yelled “ball” and they were good to him, tossing him the ball once or twice, and letting him have the skateboard for a few moments. Nobody was talking; they were all just playing. Alex was the quietest, just doing his thing over to the side with his mini-skateboard.

At one point James wandered over to dig in the neighbor’s garden, and Alex said, “Mary’s not going to like that,” Mary, being the neighbor woman’s name. “She turned my mother in for watering on the wrong day.”

Naptime beckoned, and as we were getting ready to head home, Alex came over to me and beamed. “That kid’s like a cat,” he said. “He likes round things that go around.”

It’s true that James loves wheels, but then I’ve known him for two years. In about 10 minutes, Alex had quietly ‘gotten’ James and taken it to the meta-level.

Alex has the strength called Strategic, which you either have or you don’t; it can’t be taught. He sees patterns where others simply see complexity. Strategics cut through the clutter. Alex then verbalized what he’d discovered. “This person [Strategic] is likely to have a strength for putting his ideas and thoughts into words,” say Buckingham and Clifton. “Position this person on the leading edge of your organization.”

Alex is also exhibiting strong right-brain traits, using a simile to describe picturesquely what he’s discovered, comparing two disparate things – a cat and a boy.

He’s also exhibiting Empathy. Understanding innately how James feels about things. James doesn’t just love things that go ‘round; he’s obsessed with them. Alex tapped into a feeling thing, and from feelings we know how to manage people, guide them and work with them. Once you know what James likes, you have the key to motivating him, something that managers, therapists, and coaches need to be able to do.

These two traits of Empathy and Strategist also show up in his comment about the neighbor. He’s made a big connection for a small boy – that a woman who reports her neighbor for watering on the wrong day is going to be furious at a toddler throwing dirt on her driveway, i.e., that she’s fastidious and rigid about things.


If you’ve been lucky, your parents keyed in on things like this, and your teachers, and your counselors, and your coaches, and your managers. If not, these natural propensities were ignored, or even considered weaknesses, and you’ve lost touch with them.

I have one client, for instance, who has Intellection, Learner and Ideation for 3 of her top themes. This means she’s intellectual, loves to learn and study, and loves ideas for their own sake. Her parents were farmers, and actually said to her, “Get your head out of that book and do something useful. That won’t be tolerated in this household.”

So you see how it goes.


If you were lucky in this respect, and have crafted your life around your strengths, congratulations. If you were not, you can do it for yourself. Take the time this year to delve into your innate talents and strengths and take the first step on one of the paths to happiness.

Self-awareness will lead to better understand of others and will help you see and understand the innate strengths in others as well.

Author's Bio: 

Susan Dunn is a personal and professional development coach who helps clients discover their strengths and build their lives around them.