Recently I took the StrengthsFinder self-assessment – compelled by that phenomenon whereby your attention gets directed to something seemingly random, by two or more people who have nothing to do with each other, in a reasonably close time proximity, i.e. a “sign” that you should check it out.  The basic premise behind this “best seller” set of books is that we maximize our potential not by spending an equal amount of time and energy converting our weaknesses into slightly improved competencies as we do nurturing our strengths, but rather by primarily playing to our strengths.  I’d already come to this conclusion years ago through personal experience, not just vis-à-vis my own life, but by being in positions through which I’ve interviewed, hired, (fired some), and managed lots of folks. 

And not in just any sector - in nonprofit human services.  A sector in which people are driven largely by values and passion to make a difference in the world.  In which the vast majority of jobs require people to work with other people not for the sake of developing innovative new products, or the means of selling products and services, but for the purpose of positively impacting others’ lives.  And because of the tall order that nonprofit human services/education organizations are given – when you work in them, you are literally expected to radically change other peoples’ lives, despite the formidable nexus of societal forces working against these same people you serve.  I learned many years ago that while job descriptions and org charts are necessary, they should not drive how you staff your organization.  Finding, and figuring out how to work with and around the best people possible, is what drives the most effective work in this sector.  And the most important criteria for staff charged with working with our most marginalized, under-valued, and prematurely disenfranchised, young people, is creativity.  Not at the expense of other critical skills and strengths (professionalism, intellectual rigor, organization, critical analysis…), but nevertheless central to their ability to succeed. 

When I completed the StrengthsFinder assessment, it pulled up my five top strengths, and the first one on the list was “individualization.”  In a section of the report it generates based on your results, it gives some “ideas for action” connected to each of your strengths.  With respect to my top strength, it suggests:

  • · Help others understand that true diversity can be found in the subtle differences between each individual — regardless of race, sex, or nationality.
  • · Explain that it is appropriate, just, and effective to treat each person differently.

I had an instantaneous resistance to the directives associated with what this tool identified as my top strength, particularly the second bullet.  I’m supposed to teach others that it’s “just and effective to treat each person differently?”  On the surface this contradicts a (my) mission of working for greater justice, for helping to shift our world that thrives on segregation and subjugation of some by others based precisely on the values assigned to difference, to be one that is even ever so slightly driven by equity.  It forces me to strip myself down to my most core values as an individual.  And what’s there is not necessarily contradiction, but the nuanced intersection of sometimes opposing, but not inherently exclusive values.  In other words, working for justice and the exaltation of collective good, does not mean that I’m a Maoist, or any other brand of iconoclastic symbols of failed attempts to institutionalize equality. 

It’s no accident that I’m gravitationally pulled towards highly creative people.  While I have no specific “art” of my own (yet) expressed through any of the traditional genres, I have experienced how necessary and effective creativity is to inspire young people; to ignite their intrinsic motivation to pursue – as ridiculously corny as it sounds – their most authentic selves. 

Creativity requires individualization.  It requires not only that the “artist” sees herself as a distinct and different person from everyone else, with her own ideas and visions, but that others also recognize and encourage her uniqueness.  exalt’s staff has almost always been exclusively comprised of artists:  dj’s, painters, published novelists, poets, singers, actors, musicians…  They are what enable us to reach young people who’ve acquired cynicism and hopelessness well beyond their years, and activate their laughter, vision, hope, determination, ideas, goals.

I have learned that we all do better by playing to people’s strengths rather than forcing everyone to acquire and master the same skill set.  The person most effective at engaging young people is probably not a great administrator.  But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t elevate his position and role in the organization.  Rather, we all do better by creating perhaps a nontraditional leadership role that enables him to lead culture (but not necessarily data management.) 

There always has been, and always will be an inherent, and ideally healthy tension between the elevation of the individual vs. the collective. I remember realizing how American I was, despite all my early radical left-leaning political views and values, when I first visited southern China in 1990.  There were moments when the effects of communism there felt surrealistically cliché.  There was no value for privacy, no value (externally) for individualism.  I had a few meltdowns coming to terms with the difference between theory and reality – like when the government-run hotels (which were your only option unless you are opulently wealthy) held your room key.  You could not enter or leave without staff enabling you to do so.  You essentially got locked in your room at night and were awoken by a staff barging into your room at whatever hour they wanted, to leave a thermos of hot water.  Reality is never as neat and nice as theory. 

Whatever your top strengths are, and however they shape your individuality, we all have a role to play in advancing our common good.   You can take an easy and rewarding step in this direction by considering taking on an exalt intern – or sharing this with someone else who might.

Executive Director

Executive Director