The Dependable Strengths process was born out of an ethos that may at first seem plucked from a kindergarten classroom:  within each person is a unique form of excellence.  Each of us has a special combination of skills, abilities and qualities. Some may be widely celebrated on YouTube, some are employed quietly, and many, unfortunately, go unrecognized.

I recently took a two-day Dependable Strengths workshop at the University of Washington. I learned that these strengths emerge early – in kindergarten, even – and are consistent throughout life.  They motivate us, they emerge naturally without prodding or directives, and if suppressed in one context, they will find an outlet for expression. I once worked in a lab with a woman who kept two dozen different colors of lab tape on hand to color-code everything she worked on. Clearly, she has an internal drive towards organizing systems that her daily bench work didn’t satisfy.

What would happen if we took our pattern of strengths seriously? What if, instead of letting them languish beneath value judgments of the work we “should” be doing, we let our dependable strengths guide our career choices?

The process of identifying dependable strengths begins with a simple assignment: list Good Experiences you’ve had in your life. In the Dependable Strengths context, Good Experiences are special events that meet specific criteria (hence the capitalization).

A Good Experience is something that you:

1. Feel you did well.

2. Are proud of

3. Enjoyed doing

Here you might encounter a judgment bias, as I did when compiling my list. I found that I tended to assign more value to doing well than to enjoying the experience. In my initial attempts to make this list, I jumped to experiences that might hold weight on a CV, but aren’t actually things I enjoyed doing. For example, I think I did well establishing an animal colony, and I’m proud of how that work helped the lab, but I certainly did not enjoy that experience. It doesn’t make the list.

Good Experiences should come from all times and all areas of your life (is self reflection one of your Dependable Strengths? I guess you’ll find out…) They should be specific and concrete, but may be small triumphs instead of big accomplishments. Give yourself permission to look for examples not worthy of a resume. Maybe you tended a patch of the family garden growing up, or taught yourself how to play guitar, or maybe you constructed elaborate costumes each Halloween. As long as you think you did well, are proud of it, and enjoyed it, it goes on your list of Good Experiences.

This list forms the pool from which you extract your Dependable Strengths. That process is a little too involved to fully capture here, but basically entails evaluating each experience against a list of roughly 50 strengths (did this experience strongly demonstrate troubleshooting? imagination? managing? etc).

For example, my earliest Good Experience was leading the planning for one day of my 3rd grade class’s four day trip down the Oregon Trail (not the computer game, but the real thing!). I wrote to town councils requesting information, poured over tourism brochures, factored driving times into activity plans, and put everything together into a plan. In this experience I used strengths of identifying resources, researching, and integrating information. Sure, I was eight years old, but these strengths appeared again and again throughout my list of Good Experiences. And much to the chagrin of my laid back traveling partner, I still plan trips this way.

Certain strengths emerge as strongly relevant to a majority of Good Experiences, and with a little more refinement, you’ll come to see that these are the Dependable Strengths that have guided you throughout your life. If these strengths have consistently marked positive experiences throughout your life, wouldn’t you like your job to utilize them?

Here’s how the Dependable Strengths process helped me, and how I think it might help others:

1. Build confidence. Between the frustration of project failures and paucity of praise, self-esteem can take a hit in grad school. Now, after errant plasmids set your work back once again, you’ll be able to say, “Ok, cloning vectors may just not be one of my strengths. But here are all of the things that are!”

2. Explain yourself. You may already have an intuition that negotiation, or multi-tasking, or design come naturally to you, but this process will crystalize these notions into clear statements well supported by proof throughout your life. You’ll be able to talk about your strengths at conferences, or job interviews, or even at your bus stop: “the 48 is running late, as usual, but that’s alright because patience is one of my Dependable Strengths!” (I wish)

3. Direct your career search. After more than a year of exploring career options, I still don’t know exactly what I want to do next. But after this process, I do know that I’ll be happiest in a position that lets me analyze and integrate information, identify and mobilize resources, connect with people, lead projects, and express an aesthetic sense through writing or design. These are my Dependable Strengths – oh, and I also make a mean oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.

I’m going to try to let these strengths guide my search. I may not be able to name the job I want, but at least now when I’m talking with contacts, I can explain, clearly and with confidence, what I’m good at. And I trust that will help lead me to the job I’m right for.

To get the full benefits of the Dependable Strengths process, I highly recommend enrolling in a workshop. The University of Washington offers regular workshops for students, alumni, as well as community members. Check with your university’s career center to see if they offer workshops. You can also find worldwide resources for workshops and contacts at the Dependable Strengths homepage. Finally, if you’re interested in this process but can’t make it to an intensive workshop, an abbreviated version is available online and for free through the UW’s Career Guide (pgs 5 – 8).

Huskies take note: Dependable Strengths was developed at the University of Washington by Bernard Haldane. He first employed the process with great success to help veterans returning from WWII transfer their strengths to civilian jobs. Sure, we are emerging from a very different kind of battlefield, but I’d say graduate students everywhere could benefit from this empowering process.