January: Identifying My Strengths

Last year, I took a class at MIT called ‘Leading Creative Teams’ and one of the major assignments was to complete a version of the Reflected Best Self (RBS) Portrait. The RBS is a feedback-seeking exercise developed by researchers at Harvard and Michigan that I found to be really insightful for three reasons:

Firstly, it focuses on identifying strengths rather than areas for improvement. As a perfectionist trained to spot errors, glitches, lapses, contradictions, mistakes, anomalies (you get my drift) it was refreshing to seek out, for once, what absolutely shines. The RBS reoriented how I evaluate myself.

jan_challengeSecondly, it relies on data gathered from other people. I often find it difficult to tell if my self-administered personality evaluations are grossly inflated or selling myself short. It was odd but nice to start seeing myself as other people do (hence ‘reflected’ best self). Interestingly, not only did I begin to appreciate myself more, but I also felt more gratitude for all the wonderful people in my life.

Thirdly, the RBS takes the form of stories, which are so much richer than one-liners or MCQs. It’s not really possible to pull apart one’s strengths as tidy stand-alone traits, and the short stories helped me see meaningful confluences and intersections. Stories also makes provide the flexibility to delve into as simple or detailed an analysis as one wishes.

I’ve compiled a few different approaches with links to the original sources so you can cherry-pick or engage in further reading (also, here’s the original paper in the Academy of Management Review if you’re curious).

Here’s how it works:

1. Jot down 15 or more people who interact with you regularly or know you well. Try to include names from different areas of your life: family, friends, work colleagues, teachers, etc.

2. Reach out to them and ask if they can share 1-3 stories with you, describing when they saw you at your best. These aren’t compliments, but an honest reflection on how they see you perform when playing to your strengths.

2a. I didn’t do this, but one version (pdf) from a class at Yale suggests writing three such stories about yourself and draft a paragraph describing who you are at your best – the first version of your Best-Self Portrait – based on your self-assessment, taking note of your strengths displayed, emotions felt, and who else was involved.

3. Compile the stories you receive and reflect on any common themes that emerge – they’re often surprising.

Here are some different ways to analyse the data:

a. The version I did was tweaked by our professor David Nino, and guided us to arrange what we learned in three columns that focused on identifying what kind of strength we were displaying, like so:

Strength Attribute

(find common themes that keep coming up in the stories you receive)

An attentive, active, empathetic listener*


– “I was having a personal crisis and you put your considerable work aside to be a friendly and comforting ear. You listened without judging, and at the end I felt calmer and got rid of my sense of paralysis.”

– “You seem to remember all important actionables from our Monday meetings, and I don’t know how you do it.”


Is this strength one of my identities (how I express myself in a given situation), distinctive capabilities (skills I display when performing at my best) values (personal standards guiding my behaviour), or part of my personality (enduring personal traits)?

* No, this is sadly not one of my core strengths.

b. Although I didn’t do this, a useful addition is a column listing “enablers” and “blockers” – personal/environmental/other factors that either maximise or inhibit your strengths.

4. Compile your analysis into a short 2-3 paragraph essay that you can read as a reminder of who you want to be more of. It can start with something like, “When I am at my best, I…”

5. Reflect on whether you are able to play to your strengths in your professional and personal life, and write out your action plan for further enabling your strengths.

a. This HBR article includes the following prompts to help formulate your plan of attack.

What are my goals for the next 12 months?
What strengths can I use to help achieve my goals?
What strengths do I have the greatest desire to use in my current role?
What do I need to do to make that happen?
How can I use my strengths to help me with the parts of my job that I struggle with?
Who can help me?

b. This version from Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations is broader in its scope:

What short-term actions can I take to be at your best more often? (Refer to ‘enablers’ and ‘blockers’.)
What long-term actions might I take to make my best self even better? (i.e. methods for strengthening my strengths)
What actions can I take to promote continuous, life-long learning about my best self? What reflective and feedback-seeking practices will I adopt to refine my best-self portrait as it evolves over time?
How can I bring out the best in others?

…and that’s it! (For now.)

If you’re a friend who agreed to do this 12-month challenge with me, and I’ve interacted with you regularly – now or in the past – I’m happy to share stories about your strengths as you compile your own RBS Portrait. Just drop me a line. Also, if you feel comfortable, please share in the comments how the RBS was helpful to you.

My personal challenge

I’ve done the RBS analysis and found it incredibly insightful, but didn’t come up with a clear action plan for ensuring I am able to use my strengths as much as possible. I’d like to use this month to do just that, instead of vaguely meandering towards opportunities that kinda sorta maybe are in line with my strengths.



You may be bubbling with questions such as, “How do I know what my values are? How do I pin down my goals and make them actionable? How do I map and reach out to my network?” I’ll be tackling all that stuff in the upcoming months, and I’d love to hear if you have ideas for how I might order the challenges in future (this seemed most logical for now, but I’m open to constructive critiques). No matter what the order, though, re-visiting always results in rediscovery.

Also, I’m compiling these challenges partly for myself, and partly for others who don’t have access to the wealth of materials for self-reflection that I’ve received. I would be grateful if you can pop your responses to the following questions in the comments, so I can keep iterating:

Was this blog post helpful? Did you have to do a bit of googling to clear anything up, and at what sections?
Would you have preferred a different method of sharing – a video perhaps, or a podcast? (I am toying with the idea of turning some of this stuff into a game for post O/Level and A/Level students, fyi.)
Was it too short, too long, too impersonal, too wordy? Would you like me to share more from my own life or not at all?

I look forward to hearing from you!!


7 thoughts on “January: Identifying My Strengths

    1. You can comment here (if it’s public, everyone benefits!), or my email is nushelle [at] gmail – looking forward to keeping in touch!

  1. Hi Nushelle, thank you for sharing this wealth of information with people who don’t have access to it. I’ve already made a list of people and have conveyed to them the purpose of this exercise. I’ve gone through a bit of rough patch in terms of career in the last year or so, and I feel this would really benefit me – to remind me what my strengths were/are. I hope it would be okay to share this information with children I lectured/taught?

    Thanks again! x

    1. I’m so happy to hear this! And absolutely, I’m writing this to be shared as much as possible. My one request is that, if you can, let me know how this exercise works for your students. One question I’m having is the extent to which this exercise (given that it’s most often used by MBA students) can work for those younger than us, especially those unfamiliar with practising introspection. If you can let me know what worked/didn’t work, and if you found ways to tweak it to suit, I can learn from it too :)

      Btw, last year was quite hard for me too, and the RBS gave me a LOT of direction/confidence in my abilities, even with just doing the first part of identifying my strengths. I’m hopeful you’ll find it equally clarifying. Love and hugs. xo

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