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Reimagining the Use of Strengths

Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Senior Level
August 21, 2023 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 3, August 2023

Fostering Moral Development: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Anyone who knows me probably knows I am a pretty big nerd. Do not get me wrong—I love being a nerd and have grown into that skin. I would say I have embraced it. As I have crossed into my forties, I get even nerdier: I love books more than I used to (which I did not think was possible), I would rather hear a human voice than an automated message on a customer service line, and find myself on social media less and less, as I would rather spend my time making and remembering memories as opposed to trying to capture them on my phone.

My nerdiness means I have a lot of skills that incline me towards “nerdy” strengths: I am good at reading and writing, have an ability to articulate, dissect, understand, and explain a thesis or argument, and I have a lot of useful (and completely useless) knowledge for casual conversations. I recognize this natural tendency towards nerdy strengths has been true for me as long as I can remember.

These talents have often not translated to being skillful in other areas, particularly more “hands-on” or “common sense” types of strengths. Most of my life, I considered myself to not be good with my hands – for example, building things or putting things together would often result in quick, frustrated exclamations (with occasional or not-so-occasional profanity). Again, my challenges with these kinds of skills have always been true. My dad, however, excels with these more hands-on types of activities. Growing up, whenever we would get a new piece of furniture or equipment at the house, I would assist him in putting it together. Apart from the bonding time (which is near to my heart now that I have gotten older), I recognize we played to each other’s strengths: dad would take the lead in putting the item together and I would be a great assistant, putting the tools, parts, or instruction pictures where he needed them. He often did not need the instructions—for the most part, he could look at something and know where parts needed to go and when he needed to put them there. Even then, I recognized my dad had that kind of skill and just figured I did not and never would. And over the course of the years, I internalized that belief. If there was a task which involved being hands-on or building, I would get nervous, flustered, feel lost, unintelligent, and insecure. As a result, I often avoided these kinds of activities, chalking it up to “that is just not my thing or a thing I do well.”

Then my partner and I bought a house. I quickly learned as a homeowner there were lots of little projects we wanted done which were best tackled by us (random aside: a colleague once told me one of the greatest axioms I have ever heard: you do not own a home, a home owns you). For example, in our first home, in the guest bathroom, we wanted to take down the wallpaper and paint it, which included removing the toilet tank to get to the whole wall. It seemed ridiculous to try and hire someone to do that kind of task, as it would be costly and too simplistic a job to hire out. I was daunted at doing this work, as all the years of feeling bad at this kind of activity overwhelmed me. I felt like I could not do it—it is just not my thing.

My partner encouraged me to approach the job using my perceived strengths—“why don’t you research how to do it?” Reluctantly (and needing some prodding), I followed her advice. I watched videos on YouTube. I read a couple of articles she sent me, using that information to identify what tools and materials I required. I then figured out which DIY store from which I needed to purchase them. I then took the job slowly, trying to be careful and precise in my work (and honestly, probably still processing my fear of the task). Slowly but surely, I got there, and before long, we had beautiful new walls in the bathroom.

Ever since that experience, whenever there has been a task around the house we have wanted done which was not a major renovation (we definitely call people in for big tasks), I have taken the same approach: lean into my strengths, do the research, get what I need, and take it slow. As a result, I often get a finished product which looks great and gives me immense pride whenever I see it. Doing so has also given me the confidence to do things I never would have tried otherwise: repoint an outdoor fireplace, replace a deck railing, cut and install baseboards, and build shelves. Each time, I push myself to learn and do a little more.

I wonder how we can encourage students to push themselves to do tasks which make them uncomfortable. I know there are lots of higher education professionals who challenge and support students to push themselves to try something new. However, I fear there are instances where a student will say, “I can’t do that” or “That’s just not me” and the response in wanting to be supportive is to affirm that feeling and let it go. Sometimes that response is genuinely the right one. What would happen if we pushed our students a little more? What if we encouraged them to use the talents they have to complete tasks that feel uncomfortable or too difficult?

I recognize some fears have traumatic experiences at their core, and I do not want to force people to revisit trauma. What I am suggesting is whenever there is an opportunity to help a student realize they can use their strengths to do something that seems too difficult, we should take it. Doing so may help them get confidence and a proud accomplishment, like a renovated bathroom.