Are You Growing a Garden or a Pile of Dirt?

Now that the weather is finally getting nice and we are well into the spring season, many of us are starting to plant our gardens and flowerbeds. I don’t have much of a green thumb, but my kids have been asking for a couple of years now if we could have some flowers in our yard like our neighbors, so I decided that this was the year to tackle our first garden. I spent time planning out the garden and deciding what flowers and vegetables we wanted to grow. I picked out a nice little plot of land in our backyard that is the perfect place for our garden. Then I spent the weekend tilling the soil and picking out all the rocks and weeds to make sure to create the perfect conditions for our plants to thrive. It was a lot of hard work, but it felt good to clear space for beauty to grow. I’m excited and anxiously waiting to see the fruits of my labor I will reap this summer!

At this point, you might be thinking that I missed some important steps in the gardening process or enthusiastically agreeing that I, in fact, do not have a green thumb. It would be ridiculous to think that all I needed to do to have a beautiful garden is till the soil, pull out the weeds, and get rid of the rocks. All that would leave me with is a plot of dirt and you don’t have to be a gardener to know that you also need to plant the seeds and nurture the seeds to get them to grow and thrive. Although this seems very obvious and something we know to be true, we often approach our own lives in this way. We often put extensive time and energy into identifying and fixing our weaknesses (pulling out the weeds and rocks) and we forget to nurture and cultivate our best parts, our strengths. However, it’s important to recognize that the absence of weakness does not equal strength!

I bet if I asked you to make a list of all of your weaknesses and all the things you want to improve upon you would have no trouble coming up with a comprehensive list. But, if I asked you to come up with a list of all your strengths and how you put them to use on a daily basis, I am guessing it would be a much more difficult task. That being said, truly knowing, valuing, and deliberately leveraging our strengths can be so powerful. Research shows that when we are operating from our strengths we are more engaged, more energized, and more confident. Pulling on our strength during challenges or difficult times also improves our ability to cope with stress and handle situations more effectively. Who wouldn’t want to reap those benefits? In order to reap the benefits, we need to know, appreciate, and consciously utilize our strengths on a daily basis. So, how do we become intimately familiar with our top strengths? Here a few easy steps to get you started.

1. Take the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS)

The VIA-IS is an empirically validated survey you can access for free at The survey was developed by Dr. Chris Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman who have both extensively studied what character traits describe people at their best and how those traits can be identified, measured, and used to help people live a more fulfilling life. Through their research, they identified 24 strengths that are highly valued across time, culture, and place. Based on how you answer the series of questions in the survey, it will rank and order your strengths from your number one through your 24th strength. Stop here and take the survey now. It will only take 10-15 minutes and I promise it will be worth your while!

2. Identify Your Signature Strengths

Your strengths at the top of your list are called your signature strengths. They are the very best of who you are! There is no magic number, but typically your signature strengths are the top 4-7 strengths on the VIA list. These are the strengths that come most naturally to you and you feel authentic, motivated, and energized while you are using them. Think about it this way, when you are using your signature strengths, it is like writing with your dominant hand. They are the parts of your character that are most dominant. You probably don’t have to think about using them, because they just flow out of you and it feels comfortable and natural. Take a look at the strengths at the top of your list. Do they accurately describe you? The first time I took the survey, I was amazed at how accurate the survey was and it was empowering to see these great qualities I possess. Also, I have taken the survey several times over the past eight years and my signature strengths have stayed very consistent over time.

3. Focus on Your Signature Strengths

I bet if you are like me (and the majority of humans), even though it was interesting to see the strengths at the top of your list, immediately after reading them you flipped to the bottom of your list to find out what you are lacking. When I first saw the strengths at the bottom of my list, I started to feel a little bad about myself. I thought things such as, “it’s pretty sad that to love and be loved is at the bottom of my list. That can’t be good for my relationships.” And, “oh yes, I know I’m terrible at forgiveness and need to work on that,” and, “I thought I was a pretty good leader, but I guess not.” Then I began strategizing about how to work on those strengths that fell on the bottom of my list. It can be so easy to undervalue our own strengths or think “if only I had more x, then I could be a better spouse, mother, employee,” but that is a lie we tell ourselves and not usually not helpful. Even though it’s a natural human response to focus on the negative, I challenge you to remember the garden analogy and make sure you’re not left with a pile of dirt! If using your signature strengths is like writing with your dominant hand, using the strengths toward the bottom of your list is like trying to write with your less dominant hand. It comes less naturally, it takes more effort and probably isn’t as comfortable. Sure, you can do it, but it will probably take a while and look a little sloppy! Remember that the strengths on the list are positive traits that are equally valued, so no one strength is better than the other. Also, when you are operating from your signature strengths you feel energized, motivated, and true to yourself. So instead of putting so much energy into working on strengths that don’t come as easy to us or leave us feeling depleted, why not work on leveraging the best of who we are? One thing that has helped me to focus on my strengths is to see them every day. I encourage you to print out your signature strengths and post them somewhere you will see them.

4. Leverage Your Signature Strengths

After taking the survey, reflect on how you are using these strengths in your daily life and how you can leverage them or use them more fully to make you even more successful, energized, motivated, and confident. Here are some questions to get you going. The more specific you can be when answering these questions, the more effective they will be in helping you to leverage your strengths.

  • Where do you see these strengths playing out in your personal and professional life?

  • Think of a recent challenge or a difficult situation you faced. What strengths did you use to help you get through that challenge? Do you have any existing challenges where you could apply your strengths to help you through it?

  • What opportunities are there to use your strengths more fully or more often?  

  • In what ways can you use these strengths to help you to achieve your current goals?

As always, thank you for reading! If you want to learn more about how signature strengths can be used to improve your marriage check out my article on strength spotting with your spouse.


Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All