I define a strength as an activity that strengthens you and a weakness as an activity that weakens you.
— Marcus Buckingham
I’ve stopped writing many times in the past because I psyched myself out. I rarely read creative nonfiction. What business do I have writing it?
I read fiction. When it comes time for pleasure reading, novels have my heart. So why would I produce what I do not consume? It makes no sense for me to continue if I don’t even write the type of work I choose to read.
I’m reading The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner, and in the first chapter, she talks about finding your form as a writer. Do you write nonfiction? Poetry? Novels? Because whatever you write — whatever you gravitate to — is your form. Despite trends, despite what’s selling now, despite what you consume in your leisure time, write the form that works for you. (The fact that I am reading a nonfiction book is not lost on me. Well, it kind of was until I just re-read this. I guess I do read nonfiction, just not at night, in bed, in my leisure reading time).
And it occurred to me, a professional chef does not only eat the type of cuisine she specializes in; an Olympic swimmer does not only attend swim meets when he consumes sports in his leisure time. A pastry chef doesn’t stop baking because she loves savory soups, nor does a swimmer stop swimming because he loves to watch tennis.
As I digested this new way of thinking, that it’s okay for me to keep writing even if my preferred leisure reading is different from what I personally produce, I thought about the way writing makes me feel (productive, fulfilled), and I remembered a podcast I listened to a few months ago. It was an EntreLeadership interview with Marcus Buckingham, a former senior researcher with Gallup who has studied strengths for more than 30 years, where he surprised me with his definition of a strength as something that strengthens you, not just as something you have an innate talent for, or are good at.
Other people might say that a strength is what you’re good at and a weakness is what you’re bad at, but I don’t find that a very compelling definition because frankly there are many things that I am quite good at that bore me or drain me or for which I have zero passion, but I’m good at them.
He describes how some people build entire careers on the mistaken notion that a strength is something you’re good at, like medical professionals who became doctors because they were good at biochemistry. When they got into the job realized they don’t like sick people, but sadly, every day, there are more sick people lined up at their door.
This definition of strengths resonates with me because I find truth in it. I excelled in math and science in school. I started to build a career in science, even got my degree in a biological field, but ultimately realized the work itself did not interest me. The day-to-day activity of life in a lab did not energize me. I had no passion for it. Science was not my strength, despite an aptitude for it in school.
Yet, I continued to read and write, and gain energy from them.
Writing this blog, writing in my journal, writing for work, it all invigorates me. Communicating via words on a screen or a page is the activity I gravitate to, it is how I choose to spend my time when I manage to carve out free time, it is where I find flow, where time disappears, where I produce things I’m proud of. Writing is what I reward myself with at home — “When I get the grocery list done, I can write ten pages/brain dump my morning/edit my blog post” — and at work — “When I finish these tasks, I can write that P2 post/review that draft/revise that page.”
In other words, writing strengthens me. It sustains me despite the lack of results: I’ve not received a single paycheck for my writing, no awards, no print publications. I’ve barely submitted work anywhere, but I have more than 40 filled journals going back as far as 1982 (when I was 8), five blogs with more than 700 entries, and more than 1,200 internal blog posts at work (438,000+ words). The lack of adornments, as Buckingham calls the rewards people seek when they want the fame or the money or status of a role but don’t actually love the activity of the work, have not stopped the words from coming out.
I write because I love to write, and creative nonfiction is the form that fits me best. Reading fiction exposes me to stories, paragraphs, sentences, and words the same as any other reading would do. It exposes me to structure, to vocabulary, to themes. It makes me feel, it makes me think. It is different from what I write, so it exposes me to different points of view. Reading fiction should not stop me from writing nonfiction.
Nothing should stop me from writing, in fact, except simple desire. Our strengths — the activities we do that strengthen us — are what energize us and help us thrive. It makes no sense to stop doing them.