Playing with Strengths: Identifying Your Superhero Abilities at Work

August 19, 2009 / General /

by Monica Worline

Have you ever felt as if you had invested a lot of time and energy working yourself into a job or a career position only to discover that that you aren’t enjoying it anymore? When work feels like all work and no play, perhaps you are overlooking your “superhero abilities,” or what Positive Organizational Scholars might call your “best self.” Bringing our your inner superhero just might be one answer for renewing your energy and lightening your workload.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with J.D. Meier, the mastermind behind a website entitled Sources of Insight, and a principal program manager on Microsoft’s patterns and practices team. One of J.D.’s strengths comes through in his ability to develop metaphors that instantly make complex concepts graspable. I saw this strength in practice  first-hand during our conversation. As we were talking, J. D. told me that he often encourages those he mentors and coaches to discover and use “their superhero ability” at work.

Curious about this, I asked him what he meant by their superhero ability. J.D. explained that in his view many people bring value into a situation merely by setting out to be constructive and doing what comes naturally to them. In his experience, people often don’t see these obvious ways that they bring value into situations. If they are interested in personal growth and development they are usually busy working on some additional skill or honing another ability that doesn’t come as easily. J.D. counsels the people around him to get in touch with what they are doing that regularly adds value to their work, comes easily to them, and seems difficult for others. That is likley to be their superhero ability.

I was instantly interested in J.D.’s approach and the metaphor of superhero abilities for two reasons: First, it is a playful and fun way to think about development and self-knowledge at work. Second, it seems like a brilliant metaphorical distillation of the strengths-based perspective in positive psychology and what POS scholars have called the reflected best-self at work.

Think about it: superheroes are born with or somehow gain some extraordinary capacity that allows them to manifest socially valuable activity almost effortlessly. Superman draws from a seemingly-unlimited well of strength to stop speeding trains from derailing and to catch planes before they fall from the sky. Wonder Woman – my personal favorite as a kid – wraps people into a golden lasso of truth-telling that she can use in the service of justice. And there are superheroes with many other powers, representing many other cultural values as well.

Playing with the metaphor of superheroes at work

After our meeing, as we were walking toward the elevator, J.D. turned to me and asked, “So what’s your superhero ability?”

I didn’t know how to answer the question. I had never thought about my work or my strengths in that way before, even though I have read about strengths, taught about strengths-based development, and taken different kinds of strengths assessments. I could feel that the question was powerful, though. And I wanted to be able to answer it honestly.

I stumbled around with some ideas, saying that I thought my superhero ability in relation to my work would have something to do with bringing different ideas together. Perhaps there’s something to that connection with my childhood favorite cultural superhero, Wonder Woman. Truth telling must be part of why I’m drawn to powerful stories that connect seemingly disparate ideas. “Oh,” J.D. replied, “you’re a constellation builder.”

Wow. That is part of J.D.’s gift. An ability to take something that feels complex and quickly give it a playful name. A constellation builder … hmmm. “Am I a constellation builder?” I asked myself. I’m still thinking about it. J. D. wrote an entry on Source of Insight about the power of knowing your superhero abilities not long after our conversation. Now that’s a generative conversation.

Why is the metaphor so compelling?

I think the metaphor of superhero abilities at work is compelling because metaphors work by gestalt. They create an entire sense, simply by conveying that one thing is the same as something else. Powerful metaphors show us the deep similarities between things that we had assumed were very different from one another. In this case, J.D. was handing me a metaphor that connected my sense of who I am at work with my sense of mythical and cultural stories of super powers that create good in the world. I had never made that connection before.

Playing with the metaphor (So, what is my unique superhero ability?) feels like trying on variations of identities of who I am and who I want to be in my work. This playfulness enhances the usefulness of the revelation of strengths and identity that can happen when you experience your “best self” reflected back to you in an exercise like the Reflected Best Self. By adopting the metaphor of superhero, I can use what I know about my best self and my strengths playfully until I find a way to express my strengths that fits perfectly.

In her book Writing Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy, Anne Haas Dyson reports results of an ethnographic study of an urban classroom of 7- to 9-year olds, examining how the children use superhero stories in their play worlds. Dyson shows how the stories of superheroes offer children ways to adopt powerful identities who can do battle against evil and win. When you are feeling beaten down or demoralized in your work, you may need ways to tell yourself and others stories in which you can adopt a powerful identity who is capable of battling against the organizational forces arrayed against you and coming out on top.

Practices to help you identify your own superhero ability at work

1. Who was your favorite superhero as a child? Look back at those qualities as metaphors for things that you value now. What does your childhood superhero teach you about who you are – or who you could be – at work? Try to put your superhero ability into one line, as recommended by J.D. Meier.

2. Scholars interested in Positive Organizational Scholarship have been developing ways to help people get in touch with their superhero abilities at work – though they haven’t exactly phrased it that way. I highly recommend using the assessment exercise, entitled the Reflected Best Self, and the handbook for learning from the exercise as ways to open new doors on who you are and what you contribute to those around you in your workplace.

3. Scholars in Positive Psychology have been developing ways to help people get in touch with their superhero abilities as well. The VIA assessment is a way of learning about your superhero abilities in relation to values. What values are so deeply rooted for you that you will bring them into every situation and find ways to act in accord with them? Knowing more about your values and how to put your values into action will feed your ability to play with your own superhero abilities at work and tell new stories about how you can be a force for good in your workplace.