archives, wisdom

Strength vs Skill: The Value of Knowing the Difference.

I used to draw portraits. I was really into it.

I bought the fancy paper, and pencils, and those little sticks made of rolled-up paper that come to a point that were the best part of blending and shading. I got to be pretty good at it, and even sold a few commissioned pieces. Then I stopped. I haven’t picked up one of those little rolled-up paper deals for the better part of a decade.

I’ve got similar stories dating back to childhood about cellos, and ice skates, and jewelry-making, and bartending. And, and, and. For a long time, I thought I was incapable of sticking with something. That is, until I discovered personality psychology and the concept of strengths versus skills.

They are not the same thing, and it’s quite critical to our personal growth that we understand the difference. It also makes the whole self-compassion thing a great deal easier.

The difference between the two may seem obvious enough when we stop to think about it. However, I believe most of us do not stop to think about it often, and there’s just enough overlap to cause us to go about our lives conflating the two.

Skills can be learned. Strengths must be nurtured. Skills can be defined in simple, straightforward terms. Strengths have many and nuanced interpretations and definitions. Skills come and go. Strengths are perennial.

Skills are the things that we can do, our abilities to accomplish tasks, our trades. Strengths — as defined by Dr. Martin Seligman, the godfather of positive psychology — are “values in action.” Strengths are part of your character. They are the frame your personality is built around. They are the key to your success in life and in your creative endeavors.

If a little old lady spends her days knitting little blankets, she’s exercising a skill: knitting little blankets. If she’s knitting little blankets that she then donates to a local shelter that gives them homeless puppies, she may also be exercising her strength of Kindness. Strengths breathe life into skills.

Public speaking is a skill. Zest is a strength. Coding is a skill. Curiosity is a strength. Listening is a skill. Love is a strength. Multi-tasking is not a skill or a strength (It’s scientifically disproven bovine scat. So, stop doing it.).

Possessing certain strengths can, of course, predispose you to excelling at specific skills, but they’re not mutually inclusive.

For example, if you wish to learn how to speak a new language, you might assume that it would be great to have a strength like Persistence that allows you to set up a regimented daily study schedule and stick with it until you were rolling your Rs with the best of them. If, however, you have a core strength of Creativity, you may think you don’t stand a chance. That is where you’d be wrong.

Having an understanding of your strengths gives you a leg up in figuring out the best ways to succeed in applying them. There’s a multi-billion-dollar self-help industry built around serving up the how-tos of success.

If you visit the Amazon review section of any book on productivity, or creativity, or overcoming limiting beliefs, or losing weight, or whatever form of selp-helpery calls to you, you are almost guaranteed to find a whole lot of five-star ratings as well as that handful of confused and disappointed (and sometimes downright salty) people who can’t understand how so many people found this garbage helpful!

I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that the person writing that book and those one-star readers had very different character strengths. That’s okay. There is no one-size-fits-all for human potential.

So if you want to learn a new language and you’re taking the direction of someone who uses Persistence while that strength falls far down on your list, you’ll likely end up setting your keyboard ablaze with the fiery passion of your one-star review.

However, if you understand that Creativity or possibly Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence are at the top of your strengths list, you may find reading Walt Whitman and hanging out with Gloria Estefan to be a better route.

That’s how Shakira did it anyway. She didn’t know a word of English, but used her creative desire to write her own music in a new language and reach more people as the fuel for her learning. She now speaks five languages, in case you were wondering.

I don’t want to undersell the value of skills. Skills are important for things like being employable and otherwise being a functional human being. Yet skills evolve. Modern technology makes them evolve even faster.

There was a day when being skilled in long division or metric conversion or remembering people’s phone numbers may have made you an asset, but now with tiny computers living in most people’s pockets (or attached permanently to their dominant hand) that are capable of way more impressive things than figuring out how many pounds are in a kilogram, those skills are no longer as useful.

As we evolve, the need for new and different skills evolves as well. This is why it’s more important now than ever to develop our strengths. When we consciously flex our strengths while growing our skills, we allow those skills to build on themselves and add richness to our lives.

My skill as a portraitist may no longer be used in its original incarnation, but what it taught me about aesthetics and perspective was advantageous when it came time to design my logo and website.

Now I want to bring up a critically important truth about strengths that can be hard to swallow: You will never be as capable at wielding a strength that falls further down your list than those who possess them as their top strengths. Equally true is the fact that just having something as innate does not mean we’re consistently good at it.

Our strengths need to be nurtured, and if we neglect them in favor of attempting to build up the ones that come less naturally to us, they will atrophy.

This is not to say that you never utilize strengths beyond your top few. We all use all of the character strengths at some point. The point is to give yourself the permissions to be the best you that you can be. You do that by allowing your strengths to be your strengths.

I no longer play the cello, or ice skate, or bartend, but it’s not because I’m inept or incapable of sticking with something. It’s because two of my core strengths are Love of Learning and Curiosity. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to do all those things, it’s that I wanted to know how to do all those things.

Understanding this has allowed me to reframe my mindset and reshape my lifestyle in a way that lets me bring the best of myself to the world. If you grow your strengths and allow them to guide the development of your skills, you (and the rest of us) will reap the benefits of both.

One final caveat I want to add is to resist the urge to place value judgments on your strengths. We live in a culture that places emphasis on and elevates certain strengths. But if I may point out, we also live in a culture that is broken. There are no bad strengths.

All strengths have value and all strengths have a wide variety of applications. It can take some creativity to find the best application of them to move you toward your goals, but it is ultimately the wiser and more fulfilling path.


Angela Schenk is a coach, writer, thinker, feminist, and bold introvert. She’s a life-long learner whose areas of study and work include personality theory, positive psychology, narrative impact and storytelling, and having a positive impact on the world. She believes that Quiet Creatives will save the world, and strives to help as many of them succeed as she can. Learn more about Angela at her website.


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