Secret Strengths


My younger brother, John, is a big guy. He has a big voice and a big personality to go along with his six-foot-five frame. When he was a kid, school was hard for him, though he made friends easily. However, sometimes those friends told him he was being too loud, that his voice and energy was too much for whatever small space they occupied. He hated being told to “keep it down,” but he did his best because he was at core a considerate guy.

In his sophomore year in high school, having never acted before, he was cast as a drunken nobleman in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. He would be the first character onstage and would deliver the play’s first line. I was nervous for him as I sat with my mom in the school auditorium waiting for the show to start. Unlike his older brother and sister, John had not been able to feed off a steady diet of academic and athletic achievement. We all knew he was smart and talented; it just wasn’t clear where that intelligence and talent was headed.

Then the lights went down and the curtain rose and John staggered out onto the stage and belted out his first lines. He had presence, and he was focused, and he was hilarious. It was a relief to see with my eyes what I knew about him with my heart. It’s not unlike finding the story you’ve been working on for years, how as it finally comes into focus you realize you’d been doubting whether what seemed so cool in your imagination would ever materialize on the page.

I asked him about that first moment onstage years later when he and I were performing our own show. “It was relief,” he said. “I was finally allowed to be as big and loud as I wanted to be.” I’ve thought about this observation often, especially since I’ve begun teaching. I didn’t understand until I found myself at the head of a classroom that some of my social frustrations had been a result of trying to teach people who weren’t my students.

Strengths look like weaknesses when they’re misapplied. If you feel unlucky, feel as if by the roll of some cosmic die you wound up a square peg having to force yourself to fit in, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Ask instead what comes easiest, what you can’t remember learning how to do. The answer is the light you were given to guide you to whatever show you were meant to star in.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.