Do you know for sure when you are being your best possible self? And how can you be that way more often?
I came across a recommendation for a book titled Exceptional: build your personal highlight reel and unlock your potential by Daniel Cable. The title made me a bit sceptical. A “personal highlight reel” sounds suspect, reminiscent of the US self-help genre that is all about the individual and says nothing about social conditions.
Still, I was intrigued. Even since I was young, I’ve experimented with self-help techniques. They don’t have to encourage self-centredness and self-indulgence. After all, if you can be more effective in achieving your goals, you can be more effective in helping others and in contributing to positive social change. Personally, I didn’t feel a great need to unlock my potential. But I thought, “I’ll give this book a try. Then I can tell others if there is anything from which they might benefit.”
Cable tells about a man named Dave Maher whose friends thought he had died while in hospital. They posted touching comments about him — then he awoke from a month-long coma.
It seems a pity that you have to die before those who know you tell stories of what a wonderful person you were in their lives. So why, Cable asks, do you have to wait? He says there’s a great reluctance to talk about people’s strengths while they’re alive, a reluctance he calls the “eulogy delay.”
Most people — narcissists excepted — also have a reluctance to talk about their own excellence. Combined with the eulogy delay, the result is a continual focus on shortcomings. Many people are down on themselves, being constantly self-critical. They focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend enormous energy trying to fix their weaknesses. This self-critical attitude is often applied to others. Bosses criticise their subordinates for what they do wrong.
For decades, I’ve seen this orientation to flaws among academics when they comment on each other’s research papers. They focus on mistakes and weaknesses, saying little about strengths. No wonder so many people suffer the imposter syndrome, believing that any day others will discover that they aren’t nearly as good as imagined.
Cable shows how to identify and then focus on your strengths. To benefit from this programme, you have to undertake some tasks. Just reading his book is not enough.
The first major task is to write down times when you were at your best. I did this by selecting five categories in my life where I thought I had done well.
I can understand why some people would be reluctant to write about when they’ve been at their best. It might seem too much like self-promotion. And besides, what about all the bad times? A good part of Exceptional involves Cable trying to convince you to get past these sorts of reservations. He’s seen them all before, many times, and argues that they are misguided rationalisations.
After writing about your own highlights, the next major task is more daunting. You write letters to other people in your life telling them when they were at their best. It’s sort of like writing eulogy letters, except they’re still alive.
I knew about writing gratitude letters as a result of co-teaching a class on happiness for nearly a decade. Researchers have identified a number of different activities that make most people happier, including physical activity, relationships, optimism, forgiveness — and expressing gratitude. If, every day or every week, you stop to reflect on three things that you are thankful for, like a friendship, nice weather or listening to music, this is likely to make you happier. It’s simple and easy and remarkably effective. In the happiness class, students were asked to try out an activity shown by research to increase happiness. Many of them chose expressing gratitude.
There’s also a more powerful method for evoking the benefits of expressing gratitude: writing a gratitude letter. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, tells about doing this. You write a letter to someone important in your life thanking them for everything they’ve been and done for you. For maximum effect, you read it to them in person.
By all accounts, this is a powerful emotional experience for both parties. However, despite knowing about the research, I had never written a gratitude letter. Cable’s programme provided both the stimulus and the rationale for writing letters of gratitude. Well, not exactly, because Cable’s task is to tell others when they’ve been at their best, which is not quite the same. But there’s a significant overlap.
Cable quotes several participants in his classes who say to write as many of these letters as you can, to people in all parts of your life, past and present: family members, friends, work colleagues, neighbours. Here’s the extra part: when you write a letter to one of these individuals saying when you’ve seen them at their best, you also ask them to reciprocate by writing to you saying when you’ve been at your best.
Then, Cable advises, don’t read the replies right away. Wait until you’ve received at least ten responses, find a quiet place and read them all. Powerful indeed.
If you have doubts about your own worth or feel down on yourself in some way, this exercise can be a way to dramatically raise your morale. Moreover, it can shake you up, helping you see better what’s worth doing.
But wait, there are several more chapters in Exceptional to read. Figuring out when you’re at your best should be more than a brief feel-good exercise. You can use the insights gained from your own reflections and from others’ comments about you to identify your signature strengths and practise using them more often.
Signature strengths, also called character strengths, are things like bravery, kindness, humility and humour. There are 24 possibilities in all. Two of mine, according to an online assessment, are creativity and curiosity, and some respondents concurred. One wrote that I “latch onto a new idea or process and stay with it. You test it, integrate it, write about it, share it in all sorts of different ways.”
You may think that focusing on your strengths is a very self-centred sort of thing to do. However, Cable has observed that it often makes people more other-directed, using their strengths to help others, to make organisations better and to engage in campaigns to improve society.
After receiving comments from many correspondents about my strengths, I felt a sense of responsibility. It’s going to be a challenge to continue to be at my best. My feeling was just what Cable said: “Learning about your most exceptional qualities doesn’t make you arrogant and complacent; instead, it makes you humble and energized to work harder” (p. 163).
Many people take their strengths for granted. Because they seem to come easily, they aren’t valued all that much. Instead, they put more effort into fixing weaknesses. Cable argues against this tendency. He says that you can often do more by building on strengths.
The biggest challenge is ahead: changing your habits. It might sound wonderful to use your signature strengths more often and more effectively, but this requires change, and this is difficult.
Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It uses engaging stories to explain how habits are broken and formed, offering great insight. I thought the book was fabulous and then discovered that so did lots of other readers. If you can identify your signature strengths, then you can formulate and execute a plan to use them more often and consistently, and to turn doing this into a habit. Not easy but very worthwhile.
I’ve noted some but far from all of the key aspects of Cable’s programme. Should you follow it? He’s the expert at using it, having worked with over a thousand people to develop their personal highlight reels and build on them. That’s why I followed his advice. His programme has strong connections with findings from research on happiness and habits. That gives me confidence.
I think the programme will be especially valuable for anyone who has doubts about their life and where they’re going in it, for anyone who wants to build stronger connections with others important to them, and for anyone who wants to make better choices about what to do with the rest of their life. That sounds like just about everyone. However, I know that overcoming the mental resistance to the activities involved can be enormous.
Last year, one of my most valued colleagues, Mark McLelland, died. Our offices were a few doors apart and we often chatted about common interests, including defending against attacks on academic freedom. We co-supervised two PhD students. I now regret that I never wrote Mark a letter expressing everything I treasured about him.
Then I think of others who have died in recent years to whom I now wish I had written a gratitude letter. Cable is quite right about the “eulogy delay.” Henceforth I’ll continue to try to overcome it.