My Leadership Strengths: A Self-Assessment

A reflective essay I wrote for grad school after reading Strengths Based Leadership, by Barry Conchie and Tom Rath

The CliftonStrengths Assessment determined my top five strengths to be, in order of significance: Intellection, Connectedness, Learner, Belief, and Relator (see bolded text in table). After taking the assessment and considering explanations given in Strengths Based Leadership, I included five additional strengths that I think belong in my top ten. Then, I ranked all ten strengths in the order that best reflects my self-perception.

ExecutingInfluencingRelationship BuildingStrategic Thinking
Achiever
Belief
Activator
Communication
Connectedness
Relator
Ideation
Intellection
Learner
Self-Assurance
  1. Connectedness
  2. Intellection
  3. Learner
  4. Relator
  5. Adaptability
  6. Self-Assurance
  7. Ideation
  8. Belief
  9. Achiever
  10. Communication

1. Connectedness

“People strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe that there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.” 

The CliftonStrengths (CS) Assessment determined that Connectedness ranked second in my top five themes, but this is unquestionably my biggest strength. Connectedness falls under the “Relationship Building” category; as a person who describes themself as a textbook case of Middle Child Syndrome, my foundations as the family observer/mediator growing up greatly expanded my emotional dexterity.  

But this Connectedness goes far beyond a functional purpose in my family. I have heightened Intuition, a trait that perplexed my parents before I was even old enough to make memories. My mom often recounts one Sunday car ride home from church when I was three, when staring serenely out the window  I evidently said, “I will miss Grandma Yoder.” Mom says she laughed and told me that we could call her that week, but I was insistent: “No, I just will miss Grandma Yoder.” We got home from church that day to a voicemail telling my parents that Grandma Yoder had passed. I don’t remember it, but Mom swears there’s no explanation for it; it was simply eerie.

I don’t believe in coincidences, which is characteristic of people strong in Connectedness. The Strengths-Based Leadership Insight Report generated by my CS Assessment suggests that I am “confident that things are linked together for a purpose that may or may not be revealed” to me, and though the path forward is not always clear, my faith is something like stepping on stones in front of me even before I can see them; consistently, signs (or insights) seem to be revealed to me by a higher power, and I feel I have a high rate of properly interpreting those insights. The evidence: the many, many stepping stones that have gotten me here.

The Insight Report also concluded that “it is much more likely that common ground or mutual understanding among people will be discovered” with my involvement. I do think that my ability to bring diverse people together to work towards a common goal is one of my greatest strengths, but I also know I couldn’t have made it here without the people who supported me along the way. 

The tantamount example of this in my experience is my connection to a young man named Daniel Mercer. Daniel died just before he graduated from my hometown high school in 2006 after an almost two-year battle with brain cancer. While receiving treatment at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, Daniel—the oldest kid in the cancer ward—liked to spend his time reading to the younger patients to strengthen morale and to pass the time. His father, Jeff Mercer, an administrator for Franklin Community Schools, started a foundation to keep Daniel’s determination alive. Four years later, that foundation sponsored the Small Victories Writing Team and appointed a five-person board of English and Language Arts teachers, five student writers, and a student artist to write a children’s novel, which we (the Small Victories Writing Team) titled Common Ground.

Daniel spent the last days of his life reading to kids, and it’s thanks to him that I got my start in writing. Jeff Mercer asked me to serve as our Lead Writer, and over the course of 2010, our eleven-person team planned and published the book with the hope that “by providing [Common Ground] free of charge to children everywhere, each and every child who opens the cover and reads this book will recognize life’s challenges for what they are…simply a challenge, one which must be faced, and overcome. Daniel would have wanted it that way,” (SVWT, Acknowledgments).

Coincidence, though many may subscribe to the idea, has never found a place in my reality. I offer a glancing look at my adolescent academic timeline as a closing comment on the subject:

19992000200120022003200420052006200720082009201020112012
K1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th9th10th 11th 12th

2. Intellection

“People strong in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.” 

Ranked first by the CS Assessment, Intellection is certainly still in my top two strengths. I’ve been sorted into Ravenclaw by J.K. Rowling’s official sorting test, so I’m an eager proponent of the phrase,“Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.”  Much like other inherited Intuitions (namely, Discernment), my great love of study and ambitious curiosity stem from my mom. She was a K-6 teacher most of her career, but she delayed her professional development during my childhood so she could raise us (my older brother, younger sister, and me) at home. 

Since our family moved back to my parents’ ancestral home in Franklin, Indiana, I’ve witnessed Mom’s transformation from Gateway Computer Specialist when she reentered the workforce in 2002, to Principal of Custer Baker Intermediate School at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year. She is a source of power that has emboldened me to pursue my creative ambitions, all of which involve vast, and often frustrating, introspective processes. The Insight Report alleged that I enjoy my “time alone…for musing and reflection,” and as a graduate student specializing in Creative Nonfiction, I say…yep.

The report also states that I “have an ability to imagine what visionaries believe is possible as you read about their innovative ideas and plans.” I like the opening icebreakers during the first Creative Writing class of the semester, which are nearly always, “What’s your favorite book?” or “Who’s your favorite author?” Like most writers, I can point to my biggest influences with ease: C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tim O’Brien—all visionaries without question, though O’Brien’s striking novels about the war in Viet Nam may be less known to some audiences. 

Emerson’s work in particular (known in history as the father of Transcendentalism, though he himself rebuked the label) speaks directly to my writing mission; published first in 1841, his essay titled “Intellect” asserts that “Truth is our element of life,” and that “intellect and intellection signify to the common ear consideration of abstract truth,” (Emerson, 263). He explains that the weight of thought can “tyrannize men’s minds,” but that Truth gives us means to distinguish between “the fact considered” from ourselves. Emerson’s expounding commentary on Truth as “our element of life” stakes a great big red flag in the notion of abstract truth: “If a man fasten his attention on a single aspect of truth and apply himself to that alone for a long time, the truth becomes distorted and not itself but falsehood,” (269).

My strength in Intellection grants me access to the insights and wisdom of the past, and I seek greater knowledge and deeper understanding almost unconsciously. I recently read a short novel called Being There, which is a story about a gardener named Chance who finds himself suddenly rising in acclaim and esteem when the media falsely (though unwittingly) portrays him as business mogul Chauncey Gardiner. When asked to comment on recent criticisms in the big-time Times, Chance replied to the reporters,“I do not read any newspapers. I watch TV,” (Kosinski, 80). The reporters took this to mean that Mr. Chauncey Gardiner did not respect the newspapers and relied instead on broadcast media, when in fact, Chance meant his words precisely; the trouble was, nobody knew that he couldn’t read.

To sum up, I swapped the positions of Intellection and Connectedness in my ranking because for me, Faith is the driver, and Knowledge (or Intellection) is the vehicle. In another 1841 essay (“The Over-Soul), Emerson explains a view I share: “Jesus says, Leave father, mother, house and lands, and follow me. Who leaves all, receives more. This is as true intellectually as morally,” (Emerson, 271-272). I recklessly/relentlessly pursue my education.

3. Learner

“People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.” 

Where Intellection ascribes more to my garnering process, the Learner theme connects with my growth process. I am a fast learner, and past bosses, coaches, mentors, and teachers describe me as an “extremely coachable” individual. 

“My diligence reflects [my] need to work harder and longer than most people can,” according to the Insight Report. It’s true that I set a very high bar for myself and constantly strive to overcome it and raise it higher. A lot of my approach to learning manifests in the residual habits of a competitive sprinter: I work in bursts. I have learned the art of Discipline through action. I can run for distance, I can run for time; I can write for page count, I can write for word count. I learn the rules, and I hold true to them until I’ve reached high-proficiency (always in pursuit of mastery). Writing, like running, is an individual sport. 

I am an exceptionally self-driven learner, geared to set personal records. I measure myself against my accomplished goals and want to meet new challenges and criteria with welcome. My ability to succeed on my own merit has been truly tested, though. In 2017, the #MeToo hashtag liberated thousands of women from shame and trauma by giving them an opportunity to share their stories. During that time, I was a new resident in Kirksville, Missouri, where I’d moved with my then-boyfriend (now husband) because we needed a landing place after college. When MeToo unfolded, I found courage for the first time to admit some of my own story publicly.

Taking the step to tell the truth, to say it aloud for other people to hear, was an important victory in my war for self-healing. But, I found that telling that particular tale (tactful though I had been) yielded its own battles. The support was loud, overwhelmingly so. And besides, no matter how strong I am or was then, I’d kept that dark story to myself for years and years, and suddenly all these people who I’d thought respected me started giving me that look that says, “Oof, honey, your damage, how awful.” That look hurts differently than the gaslighting and the rape and the other terrible things my abuser put me through. ‘The Look’ stings because it’s always born of sympathy and uncomfortable support, but in a way (if I’m having a bad day), it confirms my deepest fear: that I am damaged. People don’t really want to know what happened, and that’s why MeToo was so particularly freeing for me. I was sharing my story with other survivors, and the thing with trauma is, some experiences are universal. Most of them are ugly, but survivors don’t enter another’s story wearing a veil: They get it.

So, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps like my Dad done-raised me to, and I found myself a job. Not just any job, but miraculously, a job I was vastly underqualified for under any typical assessment. Fortunately, Indiana Dunes is anything but typical, and I beat out 78 well-qualified candidates for a big government office in Porter County, Indiana. My experience and aptitude for working in kids literary circles is what landed me the position. I moved to Northwest Indiana to start working on a brand new Indiana Dunes Kids Guide in January 2018. About a year into working there, my MeToo tale took a swift turn in the form of psychosis: aka, a bad reaction to a brand new medication. I was managing an information/welcome table at a Fishing Expo in February 2019 when I suddenly glimpsed my past abuser…everywhere. It’s strange to recount the episode because the memory is as startling clear as the hallucination I realized I was having at that moment. My Learner instincts kicked in: ‘You’re seeing things!’ I told myself in my head, although it may have been out loud. I found a woman named Pati I knew from work (and who I always thought looked like my approachable old track coach Joni), and told her I had an emergency and needed to leave; I did this because I knew the first thing I should do is get to a safe space, and I was in an offbeat fieldhouse at a fishing expo. I didn’t know anybody, so I got in the car, and a lot of things happened after that. 

The point of this story is really to show how assessment, as a natural learner, comforts, strengthens, and guides me. The pressure that built after sharing my trauma story obscured my sight and consumed my life because I found no justice in it. I received immeasurable outpourings of support and love, but all I ever wanted was an apology, or even smaller, an acknowledgement from the one person responsible. But unable to control any of that, I did what I could do, and I saw a doctor about PTSD.

What happened every Wednesday for eight months with Sherrie my “Therapy Fairy” is a story for another time, but the transformation can be represented well enough by a quick side-by-side comparison of the PCL-5 patient questionnaire from the National Center for PTSD. I took the first assessment during my first cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) appointment and the second assessment during my last CBT appointment. Seeing how I’m doing and measuring my progress is how I’ve learned to win the toughest fights.


SELF-ASSESSMENT TIMELINE

31-33 is the research-suggested cutoff score for probable PTSD diagnosis. (National Center for PTSD)
20 Mar 2019
* First CBT appointment
Symptom severity score: 71/80
20 November 2019
* Last CBT appointment
Symptom severity score: 31/80

In preparation for writing this paper, our class met with Dr. Hart from the Truman admissions office to discuss our leadership strengths at length. At the end of that meeting, she asked us to share what we considered to be our greatest victory. I shared then what I’ll say again for this reading audience: My greatest victory was taking my power back from PTSD. 

4. Relator

“People strong in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.” 

The Relator theme ranked fifth in the CS Assessment, but I bumped Belief further down the list to highlight what I think is one of my core pillars of strength. My earlier comment about Middle Child Syndrome gives good context for understanding my role as a strong Relator. 

Wikipedia tells us that “middle children are often excellent communicators, have great interpersonal relationship skills, and are prominently empathetic.” This seems wholly true in my case. I am the middle kid in my biological family, with an older brother and younger sister, but with the addition of my three bonus siblings from my dad’s second marriage, I still fall directly in the middle. The Insight Report’s detailed explanation on this theme notes that I am “frequently sought out by people” who know me well “because they trust [my] judgement.” As a sister and daughter, I serve as both the advisor and the messenger for ail and prayer; all we know is Central Indiana, where old etiquette and politeness reign over our every action and perceived reaction; we are kindly Midwesterners with repressed emotion stitched into every grin; we don’t do well with civil conflict; we don’t do well with laziness; we always think just a little too much is our business. 

Everyone in my family pretty much shares this quality, and my experience shows that this is standard decorum for fokes in and around our little plot on the planet. All the collective information that’s just a little too much almost always finds my ear. My family recognizes that I do in fact “tailor [my] words of wisdom to fit their unique needs, strengths, limitations, goals, or personalities” (Gallop). Because this strength is so fixed to my functional role in my family, I don’t think I’ve been able to take this strength into other settings as much as I’d like. That level of trust was established through years and years of living together. I really flourish in environments that support the growth of close relationships with other people, but since writing can be a lonely task at times, I’ve really only found comparable circumstances in school, hardly ever in a professional sphere.

I’m inspired by what is—quite controversially—my favorite book of all time: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. My literary hero is Hermione Granger, who is both an exceptional intellectual and super-savvy communicator. In Order, Hermione teaches her peers about democracy and proper process by simply beginning a conversation. During the first meeting of a secret student Defense Against the Dark Arts group, Hermione suggests that they all “ought to elect a leader” and “ought to vote on it properly,” (Rowling, 391). Even though Harry was already the presumed leader, Hermione used common language to encourage their participation. A proper vote would “make it formal” and “establish authority.” I want to be this kind of leader—one who speaks with great wisdom but communicates common sense. Someone who brings everyone to the table and says things like, “I also think we ought to have a name. It would promote a feeling of team spirit and unity, don’t you think?” (391).

There is a certain characteristic I’ve always shared with Hermione Granger, a trait particularly irritating to strangers, and that is: Insistence. Hermione was known as a rule-enforcer, an ally to proper procedure, as am I. That’s not to say I haven’t broken a few, but just like Hermione Jean, my record of rule-breaking often corresponds to decisions of emergent or righteous cause. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione appeals to the leadership at Hogwarts School to grant her the opportunity for greater study of magic during her third year. She was entrusted with a “Time-Turner,” a magical device that allows the wearer to travel back-and-forth through time, in order to take more classes, even classes that happened at the same time. Hermione was outspoken in her school years about her skepticism of Divination, which she even called, “fragrant guesswork” at one point. Even so, Hermione’s history shows remarkable insight throughout the series. 

That insistence, I think is the persistence of her intuition (i.e., a ‘premonition). In this way, I relate to her more than almost anyone; the idea of divining the future feels foolhardy to those of us out there who experience that sort of heightened awareness full-time. I know my family thought me a little wacky back in April 2019 when I said, “I just can’t shake it, I just gotta get away from Chicago.” I lived right in the armpit of I-80/94, pretty much the only way in or out of that city for commuter-commercial travel. “You know I’m kind of a dooms-dayer,” I’d usually preface. “But I mean, if there was ever a mass outbreak of some illness or something, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near here.” Obviously, I never saw COVID-19 coming, but I’d be lying if I left out the part about the urgency that led me back here to Missouri, to pursue a degree in leadership, of all things. I guess you could say being such observant individuals is what makes Hermione and me so good at relating to other people.

5. Adaptability

“People strong in the Adaptability theme prefer to ‘go with the flow.’ They tend to be ‘now’ people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.” 

Adaptability probably wouldn’t have made my top ten in the Assessment. Those closest to me might describe me as a rigid planner, or say that I lose my grip under stress, or roll their eyes when I do something “bull-headed” for the umpteenth time. They would be accurate in any case—going with the flow is not innate in me, but to the extent that’s possible, I’ve learned how to flow. 

I’m the only introvert in a family of Hosts! if you catch my drift. Neighborhood barbeques, game nights, Super Bowls, business Christmas parties, small groups, summer pick-up soccer, sleepovers, even wakes happened in every home I ever lived in—and I’ve had no less than 17 places that could be considered permanent addresses by age of 26, if you can believe it. I’ve come to think of myself as a potted plant constantly on the go, but I’ve always been looking for a place to finally take root and grow. Change and transition feel like climbing sand dunes. Great life change often spurs anxiety-induced fatigue, like for every step, I slide back a half-step. It takes substantially more time for me to acclimate to a new environment than the average person. But I don’t think my slower rate of change makes me less adaptable.

Growing up, privacy was really a foreign word. I shared a room with my little sister at Mom’s and slept on the trundle bed in the “kids room” at Dad’s, so until I turned 16, got a job at the Library, and bought myself a 1991 Mercurcy Tracer for $400, I was rarely if ever alone. I thrive on quality time but hate being in the spotlight. At all the events and affairs, I would pick a spot and sit a while, usually near the older fokes who either told good stories or were good with long silences. I wasn’t ever that person in a room, but I like the way I’ve spent my life, learning about all kinds of people in all kinds of rooms. I’m a euchre and old wise tales sort of guest. I grew up feeling out of my element almost all the time, but I definitely think it made me stronger, more functional, kinder, more patient… in the long run, I’m not even sure I was the quiet one, but I like having learned to listen first. 

My recent move to Kirksville, Missouri at the end of the year is also top-of-mind concerning Adaptability. AJ (my husband) moved out here earlier in the year, but I agreed to continue working my job in Northwest Indiana until they found someone to replace me. In December of last year, I was accepted into Truman State’s Master of Arts in Leadership program, I searched for a subleaser and signed over my apartment starting the first of the year, I finished editing two 100-page annual Visitor Guides, I completely restructured the organization’s 18-year old database system to feed a brand-new website (with 25 content pages authored by me), I visited my family for Christmas and even spent the actual holiday in Kirksville before returning to my last few days of work, when I trained my replacement, packed my apartment, and headed to home to Missouri on the 31st.

This past December was filled with challenges, but my  move to Kirksville was not the first, and what’s more, I felt happy to be coming home. I was raised for places like this. Moving and uprooting so many times has hardened me; I’m not fragile. I don’t always like to bend, but I’m not inflexible. 

6. Self-Assurance

“People strong in the Self-Assurance theme feel confident in their ability to manage their own lives. They possess an inner compass that gives them confidence that their decisions are right.

I placed Self-Assurance sixth on my list because I find myself making decisions in spite of dissenting advice from people who care about me. If I’m being honest, my tendency to bound boldly into the unknown always comes with a sizable spoonful of self-doubt. Like Hermione Granger, my Intellection informs my actions, and as a highly-logical person, I’ve discovered that my Self-Assurance shows best in moments of logic-lacking confidence—moments when I feel called, by Faith or Intuition, to do something that defies reasonable explanation and resounding sound advice.

As an ambitious Creative Writer, my family has always supported my art, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always thought pursuing writing as a career was a good decision. Their concerns were valid, especially when I first considered leaving my Communications Director position—literally writing for a salary (plus benefits!) which is all I thought I wanted—to continue my education here at TSU. But the experience! The money! The opportunity! The credibility! The security! All legitimate factors for consideration. Still I knew, even when I was asking people to weigh in, that I’d already made my decision. It didn’t really feel like one because I felt so compelled to get here, but Emerson put it so poignantly when he wrote, “Before the revelations of the soul, Time, Space, and Nature shrink away… Man is a stream whose source is hidden… I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine,” (237-239). Whether these callings come from a higher power or from somewhere within me, I tend to trust my gut, and I’ve rarely been led astray. 

My mom always said she knows whether people are okay or not, like whether or not their hearts are good. She calls it Discernment, and it’s always made her very sure of the close relationships she keeps. I have it too, but not like Mom does. I tend to generalize (as I even have above) by calling it Intuition, and when I’m feeling pessimistic, I use the word Premonition. At times it feels like I’m just filled up with suspicion, or when the Ravenclaw in me opens up its wings, stupid superstition. Even still, I am self-assured. My eyes are eager; I am an eagle. My free spirit is grounded in faith, and God gives the things I sometimes know a nice name: a spiritual gift, Prophesy.

For some reason it’s not something I feel like I can talk about without sounding like a wacko, or, as probably most people with an ounce of politeness would put it, without sounding like an artist. I mean I get it, but I’m not claiming to be a prophet or something. Jesus, I’m no John the Baptist, and I’m not experiencing delusions of grandeur. It’s not likely anyone would give my *Imaginative* theories or predictions much stock, and anyway the weight is totally on me to explain. Unless you’ve known me long enough to see the Great Unlikely that always finds me, my anecdotal evidence tends to get buried quickly beneath scoffs and snorts.

Still, I trust myself. And I had a long, private inner battle to reclaim my own surety and soundness of heart and mind, so scoffs and snorts don’t hurt so much. Life took me by surprise again recently in the form of a nude intruder. After class on the evening of April 7, I stood up on my front porch as a naked man wearing nothing but a t-shirt coronavirus mask snuck up behind me. I had just walked to the front of the house from the back, and I’d left the door unlatched because I’d just walked up there to grab something. I had already dialed 911 and watched him run off into my back yard when I realized – what amazing luck – that the spare house key was in my pocket. In fact, on a whim, I had taken it from its hiding place outside and placed it in my pocket earlier that day. I got inside, gave them my address, my name, started to explain, all the while closing doors and windows between myself and the back door; again, I knew it wasn’t latched, but if the naked dude was going to break in, making a break to lock the back door was a risky gamble because he would’ve already beaten me there. And sure enough, almost as soon as the thought had passed, I heard him on the back steps.

I bolted through my front door and slammed it shut behind me, but I only got a step forward on the porch before I heard the blinds clatter, and time slowed down. I had two possible choices: split or spin. If I split, that meant taking another stride and jumping off my porch and running…where? I had been screaming, “HELP!” since the moment I opened the door to escape. Instead, I chose spin. I pivoted to face my attacker, and good thing too, because he was already there in the flesh, arms outstretched, in motion to take me down. I dropped to my tailbone like a stone. He stumbled. I rolled back to my shoulders, pulling my hands and knees to my face. He bent and threw rough arms around my shoulders. He tried to hoist me up. We were shin-to-shin, nose-to-nose, except his nose and mouth were obscured by the light-blue cotton t-shirt mask. At that point I saw him lift his gaze to the neighbors who were answering my call for help, and he let me go and leapt off of my porch.

“Don’t read the comments,” they say, but they’re right, it’s not a good idea. What’s most scary to me about all of this is that I was so self-assured making split-second decisions because I was well prepared, and someone else might not have been. I’ve already fought and won great battles, I’ve taken self-defense classes, and I’ve gotten myself to a good place again. It’s wrong to say the unidentified man (whom I’ve come to call Buck-Ass Buck for lack of a proper name) picked the wrong person because it never should have happened. But Buck definitely picked a bad fight. 

7. Ideation

“People strong in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.”

Ideation belongs in my top ten strengths because it’s one of my best skills as a writer. I’m drawn to big ideas and endeavor to create visually-charged pieces of writing, drawing lines from ordinary things to extraordinary connections. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but my Mind Palace works just like the Room of Requirement—I make a request and receive a memory, a reading, a neat pattern this girl doodled on a napkin at Take Root last week, whatever I need to get the story going. 

I turn to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as a reference on this subject because of the book’s spectacular knack for nailing the details. “A true war story is never about war,” O’Brien writes. “It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do,” (O’Brien, 85). Writing is practically impossible without strong Ideation, and luckily, the practice of writing can exponentially generate new ideas by exploring connections to their very ends.

Ideation feels like a friend of my other strengths, namely, Connectedness and Self-Assurance. When I talk about trusting my gut like in the previous section,  it’s because I’m used to finding evidence of my fuller, truer sense of perception. I don’t know what’s going to happen, though those in my closest circle like to tease me because sometimes they let themselves believe I know more than I’m telling them (I don’t). It’s more like I just see more than I think most people do. I didn’t know a naked man was going to sneak up on me and assault me on my porch, and I certainly didn’t expect anything of the kind to occur. All I can say is, the night before I took this picture of my house and made this bit of concept art for a poem I hadn’t thought of yet. 

Buck snuck up right in the big black space beside the house almost exactly 24 hours later. Last year I had part of my favorite Bible verse tattooed on my wrist. The words “I will not be shaken” were taken from Psalm 16:8, written by King David, who I believe also possessed my strange kind of sight. The song says, “Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night. / I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. // You make known to me the path of life.” Scary though knowing some of the steps along the path may be, I’ve always thought of my proclivity for visual expression to be a great manifestation of the Holy Spirit in my life.

8. Belief

“People strong in the Belief theme have certain core values that are unchanging. Out of these values emerges a defined purpose for their life.” 

Ranked fourth in the results of my CS Assessment, I brushed Belief down the list not because I value this strength less, but rather because Belief typically gets cropped out of my perspective in moments of doubt or stress. That said, Belief is the well from which I draw my strength. For one brief blip of time, I abandoned my Midwest-Baptist labeled “Non Denominational” Protestant ship of Belief altogether; the absence of Belief left me vulnerable to tyrannical trails of thought, and I spiraled quickly out of control over the course of my senior year at Purdue. 

The Insight Report on this theme correctly assumes that my “ideals and core values influence how [I] spend [my] time and use [my] talents” and that I “have a deep and abiding concern for others.” However, I adopted those ideals and core values in the context of my Christian upbringing, and when I left the safety of that unconscious, unquestioning faith, I got caught unawares in deep uncharted waters. I’d unintentionally severed the ethereal ties that buoyed me to my inner strength in Spirit. 

My crisis of Faith gained steam in 2015. It was the first semester of the last year of my undergraduate career in West Lafayette, Indiana. I enrolled in a course called ENG 550: Environmental Writing, and latched onto Ralph Waldo Emerson’s radiant essays about our shared, intrinsic connection to the eternal, collective Spirit: Nature. The name God confused and inflamed me, and even though my soul cried out to Him for answers as it always had, my mind had no space to consider it; God, my Rock, was crashing around my skull and smashing any and all self-perceived victories, accomplishments, or strengths. Until then, I believed that my work was in God’s name; but if God didn’t exist, what in the hell had I spent my whole life working towards?

I remember “with remarkable vividness” (Gallop) the chilling depression that stole my will to write; I just couldn’t. Without God, I couldn’t fathom what sort of purpose I might serve. Rationally, my ultimate Purpose was utterly unclear with or without God, but with God came the Promise of Purpose, of Place, of Power that my Protestant teachers preached. Without God, I’d lost sight of the path and found myself alone, with only me to turn to for answers which I clearly didn’t have.

But Emerson’s writing resembled my core beliefs enough to cast me a lifeline. That Christmas, my bonus-mom gifted me his Essential Writings, and I came across a section that has stuck with me since I first read it in 2016:  “Thoughts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and thoughts go out of our minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened. Character teaches over our head,” (245). Reading this, something clicked.

Pump your veins with gushing gold, goes “Black Mambo,” a song by Glass Animals, my favorite band. It’s the best way I can describe the sudden reawakening of my Belief—my very being, pulsing, bright warmth, joy, filling me from head to toe. Wasn’t blind faith always the point? Not ignorant faith, but faith like the Blind Man who Believed without Sight. My Faith is different now; it’s grown higher and has deeper roots; it gives me hope and makes my work meaningful. It’s a good story: Even seeds of doubt can produce good fruit if given the chance to grow. 

Belief endures through boundless Faith. “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken,” (Psalm 16:8). I may not always see the path, but all I need is to look up from my feet, I am right as rain.

9. Achiever

“People strong in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.”

I’m sure that the Achiever theme would be included in my top ten strengths. My dad has always been a living example of the fruits of productivity; he grew up on the last family-owned and operated dairy farm in the state of Indiana, and as a kid, Dad woke up daily at the crack of dawn to go out to the barn and milk the cows before school. The weather didn’t matter. The season didn’t matter. The battle with illness or utter exhaustion didn’t matter. You had to get up and milk the cows, and that was just a fact of life.

I’ve always admired that about my dad. He faces each and every day with the same discipline and determination he learned on the farm. My parents didn’t bring us up raising crops or cattle, but they taught us how to work hard and what it means to own our responsibilities. Sometimes it’s really hard to get up and do what needs to get done, but I do it consistently. I used to be everybody’s first pick for group projects because it basically guaranteed them a good grade; I was just that kind of kid. I got lost in a lot of trauma and circumstances that were really hard to overcome. I’m proud of myself. But truth be told, my Type-A status is the one this I haven’t quite won back, but I’m trying. Coronavirus and whatever else comes my way, I have a knack for seeing the other side before the work is done. There’s not one thing that’s defeated me yet for more than [some time], and today I am happier and healthier than I could have imagined myself three years ago. My faith teaches that the ultimate end of trials and suffering will be victory in grace and love. So, I do my best to believe that in practice and keep on reaching for the next goal. Jesus liked to surround himself with achievers, people who could do great good in his name. That’s all I want to do, and I plan to keep getting better at it as I grow. 

Because I measure myself more by personal growth than any typical standard, things like grades have often felt trivial; however, I hold myself accountable to high personal standards, and more often than not, my personal standards fall in line with academic and professional standards too. I quit newspaper in high school just before my senior year when I was supposed to be editor in chief, but I did it so I could do an independent study and write a book, which I published before I started undergrad at Purdue. I know that I struggle with meeting expectations sometimes, but I do try to reign myself in and humble myself to learn from those who can teach me, just like my Dad made his way to the top of his field in environmental management without a degree. I like to set my own goals, but school provides the foundation and fuel I need to achieve them.

10. Communication

“People strong in the Communication theme generally find it easy to put their thoughts into words. They are good conversationalists and presenters.”

Communication ranks tenth on my list because, well, it’s what I’m studying after all. I’ve spent a great portion of my life so far dedicated to improving my communication in its many forms. Communication is central to my personal and professional spheres; it overlaps every circle of interest I’ve entered, from “reading for fun” to sitting here writing this paper. I fancy myself a fair writer, and few things thrill me more than CRYSTAL CLEAR COPY—writing that says something that sticks. 

Writing gives me the freedom to explore my Faith fully, and my Belief in the Connectedness of all things makes me accountable for my actions. I’m an excellent Relator, a lifelong Learner, and an atypical Achiever. My experience has earned me a high level of Adaptability and strength in Self-Assurance. And after writing this essay, I imagine I’ll be a bit better at Communication, too.  

I seek the Truth that so enraptures God’s holy ones, “the language that is spoken in heaven… whether there be any who understand it or not,” (Emerson, 273). 

Conclusion

Strengths Based Leadership and the CliftonStrengths Assessment have offered me fantastic insights to consider as I continue to step along the path and hone the craft of writing. I recommend the resources to anyone who, at a bare minimum, wants to know how to respond to the classic “Describe your strengths” portion of an interview; they’re bound to come up with the best response most employers have ever heard.  


Works Cited

Davenport, Kailey A. The Seraph: Book One of the Everlast Series. IBJ Book Publishing, Indianapolis, IN (2012).

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Over-Soul,” pp. 236-251; “Intellect,” pp. 263-273 (1841). The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Random House Inc., New York, NY (2000).

Kosinski, Jerzy. “Chapter 5,” pp. 69-89.  Being There. Harcourt Brace Janovich, Inc., Orlando, FL (1970). 

Lewis, C.S. “The Wood Between the Worlds,” pp. 25-30. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Barnes & Noble Inc., New York, NY (2005). 

O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story,” pp. 67-85. The Things They Carried. Random House Inc., New York, NY (1990).

Rath, Tom. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. Gallup Press, New York, NY (2008). 

Rowling, J.K. “The Hog’s Head,” pp. 330-349; “Dumbledore’s Army,” pp. 374-396. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic Inc., New York, NY (2003). 

Small Victories Writing Team (SVWT). “Acknowledgments.” Common Ground. IBJ Book Publishing, Indianapolis, IN (2010).

“Psalm 16,” pp. 850-851. The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV) Church Bible, Large Print. Zondervan, Grand Rapids Michigan (2011). 

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