Why It’s Important to Know (and Use) Your “Signature Strengths”

That’s out of tune! Now it feels rushed. Hmm…the sound is a bit forced; doesn’t ring enough. 

Whether it’s the voice in our head, or a trusted teacher, conductor, or colleague, we spend a lot of time focusing on all the imperfections in our playing. And not just with regards to all the little details in every piece we play, but with every facet of our instrumental skills and musicianship too. From finger tension, to breath control, rhythm, concept of sound, intonation, or our musical instincts, it’s easy to obsess about all the areas in which we struggle.

Pinpointing and working on our weaknesses isn’t all bad of course, and there are indications that the best athletes and performers spend a greater percentage of their time targeting their weakest areas than do intermediate-level athletes.

But there are some who have concerns about the “deficit-based” approach, and argue that we should spend at least as much time cultivating our strongest attributes too. Because it’s our strengths which allow us to stand out and make the greatest contribution to our community and the world at large.

So which is it? Should we focus on remediating our weaknesses? Or enhancing our strengths?

What is a strength?

Let’s say you’re good with numbers. But you enjoy math about as much as you enjoy cleaning the leaves and gunk out your gutters. Would math be considered one of your strengths? Well, maybe not…but it’s not exactly a weakness either, right?

Indeed, a strength is not just something that you do well; that’s just one part of the equation. For something to be a strength, it must also be an activity or skill that you find energizing to engage in. Something you enjoy doing not for fame or fortune, but for its own sake.

Or, more precisely:

“a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”1

The Realise2 Model

And when you put these two criteria together, you end up with four categories of activities we could be engaged in (the Realise2 Model, developed by the Center for Applied Positive Psychology).

Our realized strengths are things that we are pretty awesome at, and get energy from doing.

Unrealized strengths on the other hand, are things that we don’t get to do so much, but represent the areas in which we have the greatest “upside” or potential for future awesomeness. We find these pretty energizing as well, even if we’re not as strong in these areas quite yet.

Our learned behaviors are those things we are good at, but find draining. Doing too much of these things can lead to disengagement and feeling burned out, so ideally, we wouldn’t have to engage in these activities too much.

Our weaknesses, are the things we do least well, and perhaps more importantly, also seem to suck the energy and life out of us. In theory, it’d be nice to minimize the time we spend in this area too.

The idea being, if we spend too much of our time engaged in learned behaviors and weaknesses, we will find ourselves underperforming because our greatest strengths aren’t being leveraged. And maybe worse, we’ll be prone to feeling emotionally out of sorts as well, from spending so much of our time engaged in activities that we find draining and unengaging.

So does this mean that it’s better to focus on enhancing our strengths?

Signature strengths and goals

A team of researchers in the UK recruited 240 college sophomores to take place in a goal-setting study.

They started out by taking a strengths-identification assessment to identify their top five “signature strengths.”

Then, they wrote out their top 3 goals for the semester – things like “Attend most of my lectures” or “Make the university football team” or “Stop drinking alcohol during the week.”

Next, they were asked about the degree to which they have used their signature strengths so far during the semester, with regards to their life in general (not their goals, per se).

And then they were asked to what degree they have used their signature strengths in working towards their first, second, and third goals.

Six weeks later…

At the six-week mark of the study, the researchers checked in to see how things were going. Participants were asked the same questions about their usage of signature strengths and also reported on the progress they were making towards their three goals for the semester.

Ten weeks later…

And then at the ten-week mark, the researchers checked in again to see if anything had changed.

Lo and behold, using signature strengths was associated with greater progress towards their goals. Furthermore, using signature strengths seemed to be connected with greater feelings of well-being too.

So it’s not just about gritting our teeth and white-knuckling our way to big goals at the expense of our well-being and emotional health. It’s about realizing these goals, but feeling engaged and energized along the way too, which in turn makes us more likely to achieve our goals, which improves our sense of well-being and life satisfaction, which helps us persevere and achieve our goals, in an “upward spiral of success.”

Take action

So how can you utilize a strengths-based approach to achieving your musical goals?

Well, the first step is to identify your strengths. Because while you can probably rattle off a list of at least a few of your “areas for growth” without a moment’s hesitation (and no, the ability to instantly generate a list of your weaknesses probably doesn’t count as a strength…), try to name 2 or 3 of your biggest strengths. Not so easy, eh?

Step 1: ID your strengths

Here are a couple examples of questions you can ask yourself from a study which looked at developing mental toughness in cricket from a strengths-based perspective (and in the off chance you are a cricket fan, cricket-centric answers from the study are included):

Question: My strengths are…I feel strong when I am… (doing this)

Answer: “My strengths are my hands, slip catching or catching in general”

Question: What is your best delivery? How do you get most of your wickets? (Or in more musician-friendly terms, What is your best attribute? What is the most compelling aspect of your playing? What kind of music do you care about the most/feels like it was written just for you?)

Answer: “By building pressure on batsmen and executing my bowling plan. Reading batsmen and their game plans. Breaking partnerships.”

Step 2: Figure out how to use these strengths more often

Question: Things I can do to build on my strengths, put myself into situations where I am in my element are…

Answer: “Ritualize my pre- and post-delivery routines through simulated pressure practice at the nets.”


At the end of the day, I don’t think the question of strengths vs. weaknesses is an either/or proposition. It’s one of those both/ands. And a matter of finding the right balance.

The idea isn’t to ignore and neglect the things we struggle with, but to get them to a level at which they are no longer liabilities. Given that we only have so much time in each day, trying to be awesome at everything is going to leave us feeling exhausted, burned out, and lacking in many areas. It sounds like the more optimal path is to target our weaknesses, and showcase our strengths. Investing our limited energy in those areas that are going to give us the most return on investment – both in terms of the level of our playing, and in how engaged and energized we feel by working on aspects of our craft that we find inherently meaningful and which are truly and authentically us.

Want to find out your signature strengths?

You can take the same survey that the participants in this study took. It takes about 15 minutes, and it’s free (there’s even a different version for ages 10-17).

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths

Any surprises among your top strengths?


  1. Average to A+: Realizing Strengths in Yourself and Others

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


2 Responses

  1. There are three quotes :
    The power is with the silent ones, who only live and love and then withdraw their personality. They never say “me” and “mine”; they are only blessed in being instruments. – Swami Vivekananda
    “We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.” -Swami VIvekananda
    The great secret of true success, of true happiness, is this: the man or woman who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish person, is the most successful.
    “I find that whenever I have made a mistake in my life, it has always been because of self entered into the calculation” -Swami Vivekananda.

  2. The entire text by Swami Vivekananda

    WEDNESDAY, June 26, 1895.

    Our best work is done, our greatest influence is exerted, when we are without thought of self. All great geniuses know this. Let us open ourselves to the one Divine Actor, and let Him act, and do nothing ourselves. “O Arjuna! I have no duty in the whole world”, says Krishna. Be perfectly resigned, perfectly unconcerned; then alone can you do any true work. No eyes can see the real forces, we can only see the results. Put out self, lose it, forget it; just let God work, it is His business. We have nothing to do but stand aside and let God work. The more we go away, the more God comes in. Get rid of the little “I”, and let only the great “I” live.

    We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care of what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live, they travel far. Each thought we think is tinged with our own character, so that for the pure and holy man, even his jests or abuse will have the twist of his own love and purity and do good.

    Desire nothing; think of God and look for no return. It is the desireless who bring results. The begging monks carry religion to every man’s door; but they think that they do nothing, they claim nothing, their work is unconsciously done. If they should eat of the tree of knowledge, they would become egoists, and all the good they do would fly away. As soon as we say “I”, we are humbugged all the time; and we call it “knowable”, but it is only going round and round like a bullock tied to a tree. The Lord has hidden Himself best, and His work is best; so he who hides himself best, accomplishes most. Conquer yourself, and the whole universe is yours.

    In the state of Sattva we see the very nature of things, we go beyond the senses and beyond reason. The adamantine wall that shuts us in is egoism; we refer everything to ourselves, thinking. “I do this, that, and the other.” Get rid of this puny “I”; kill this diabolism in us; “Not I, but Thou” — say it, feel it, live it. Until we give up the world manufactured by the ego, never can we enter the kingdom of heaven. None ever did, none ever will. To give up the world is to forget the ego, to know it not at all — living in the body, but not of it. This rascal ego must be obliterated. Bless men when they revile you. Think how much good they are doing you; they can only hurt themselves. Go where people hate you, let them thrash the ego out of you, and you will get nearer to the Lord. Like the mother-monkey, we hug our “baby”, the world, as long as we can, but at last when we are driven to put it under our feet and step on it1 then we are ready to come to God. Blessed it is to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Blessed are we if we cannot read, we have less to take us away from God.

    Enjoyment is the million-headed serpent that we must tread under foot. We renounce and go on, then find nothing and despair; but hold on, hold on. The world is a demon. It is a kingdom of which the puny ego is king. Put it away and stand firm. Give up lust and gold and fame and hold fast to the Lord, and at last we shall reach a state of perfect indifference. The idea that the gratification of the senses constitutes enjoyment is purely materialistic. There is not one spark of real enjoyment there; all the joy there is, is a mere reflection of the true bliss.

    Those who give themselves up to the Lord do more for the world than all the so-called workers. One man who has purified himself thoroughly accomplishes more than a regiment of preachers. Out of purity and silence comes the word of power.

    “Be like a lily — stay in one place and expand your petals; and the bees will come of themselves.” There was a great contrast between Keshab Chandra Sen and Shri Ramakrishna. The second never recognised any sin or misery in the world, no evil to fight against. The first was a great ethical reformer, leader, and founder of the Brahmo-Samaj. After twelve years the quiet prophet of Dakshineswar had worked a revolution not only in India, but in the world. The power is with the silent ones, who only live and love and then withdraw their personality. They never say “me” and “mine”; they are only blessed in being instruments. Such men are the makers of Christs and Buddhas, ever living fully identified with God, ideal existences, asking nothing, and not consciously doing anything. They are the real movers, the Jivanmuktas, (Literally, free even while living.) absolutely selfless, the little personality entirely blown away, ambition non-existent. They are all principle, no personality.

    ^The mother-monkey is very fond of her young, but if an iron plate is heated under her feet and it becomes unbearable, she throws down the baby and stands on it to save herself.

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