Why our strengths can stop us even starting.

(And five ways to overcome the block)

It was a great idea. I was going to write a series of funny, engaging blogs about the similarities and differences between law and art, between being a Judge and a creative person who now coaches both lawyers and artists and makes my own work. There was a ton of interesting ideas in my head and it was just a question of sitting down and writing that first article.

This is not that article.

This is an article about why its so easy to make it so *&^%&ing hard for yourself to start. Even to start even something that you really want to do. It’s about the questions : Why do we hold ourselves back and, what we can do about it?

However, I’ll give you some sneak previews of the series as we go through. The first being that you can be a contentious lawyer all your life and never need to professionally consult another contentious* lawyer. However, coaches need the skills and outside-eyes of another coach from time to time. 

This article would not exist were it not for the fact that the first coach I ever worked with myself Lisa Call had a good James Nesbit style ‘ Helen sit down and catch yourself on now’ exchange with me today in her membership group. Then she put her money where her mouth was and wrote an excellent blog post of her own about starting. We all get caught up from time to time in our own thinking and having someone untangle us so we can start is really valuable.

One of the tools I use with my clients is the Gallup Clifton Strengths Finder Assessment (Take a look for yourself – it’s quite cheap at £20 for the top 5 strengths.) It identifies your top five strengths (or all 32 in order if you pay £50) and is very useful to help you consider how you approach your work and life. Not least because your strengths have shadow sides that can cripple us if we don’t take good look at what is going on. Shadow sides are the reason I am crab-walking sidewise into blogging again instead of leaping confidently into my new project.

My top strength is Strategic which means I can see all the moving parts of a project really well. The granular and the big picture, the immediate and the end game tasks all appear in my head at the same time and at the same weight. It’s great for project visioning and management and for supporting others with their projects. However, the shadow side is that in my own life, I don’t like to start work on one cog until all the chains and best and wheels that cog will attach to are also ready to go. Basically, I don’t want to start until I’ve finished. It’s ridiculous. And yet, it’s me.

Then I add in this my other top five strengths: Learner ( wanting to continuously improve), Maximiser (wanting to take something strong and make it excellent) Input (collecting information and asking curious questions about everything) and Futuristic ( inspired by the future and what could be). There is no doubt these strengths helped me as a family lawyer and now as a coach and artist (because one of the similarities is working with people to make their future lives better) but the shadow side side of them also trips me up from time to time when I need to just get on and start something.

You will have your own combination of strengths and you own unique way of putting them in the world and your own blindspots. Just as Lisa Call does. But there will also be many commonalities between us all because we are all human and humans have the same basic need and ways of functioning. One of my commonalities with Lisa is when she wrote,

want to go back to blogging the way I used to – which is to simply write and share what is going on in my world – which is mostly about art. But sometimes about hiking. Or working on the house. Or how I get things done.

It’s the way I used to blog. 

Before social media shifted the conversation.

(Except you are never going to hear about hiking from me. Baking yes, gentle yoga, yes, meandering a river path, yes. Hard duty New Zealand tramping style hiking, no.)

One of my barriers to starting has been that my Learner and Input strengths have accumulated too much knowledge about the way ‘marketing ‘ is ‘supposed to work’ in the social media age. How everything connects to everything else and you how have to maximise your words for each platform. It’s interesting and I can use my Strategic and Futuristic heads to imagine how my business might grow over the next fifteen years and how I can have this perfectly oiled system.

The big problem is, its not what I am craving.

I just want to write and share what is going on in my world and connect with you.

I don’t want to spend my life feeding the demands of the social media algorithm, only curating pithy but frighteningly short and contentless memes and portraying my life as perfect. Not least because it doesn’t help other people start when I contribute to a culture that want us to see life as quick and perfect.

I want to write to find my thoughts and find our yours in response. To be thoughtful and reflective and enjoy the flow state that long-form writing brings me. I want to share what I find in my Input and Learner activities so that you can maximise your future lives even as I hobble along trying to do the same.

So here I am. I just started.

So what was it that enabled me to get past the stronghold of my shadow-sides? What might help you in your struggles to start?

Pledge to follow the joy.

Of course life is not all fairy dust and unicorn horns. Of course sometimes there are hard days and roadblocks. But we don’t have to actively choose to fill our lives with them. We can choose to chase the joy. 

 I’d say (possibly controversially) that is one of the biggest differences between law and art. In law there is still an ingrained culture of ‘the harder the better’, ‘self-sacrifice is good’ and an almost determined decision by too many never to give that up because that belief is so entangled with their self-identity and self-worth. In art, whilst I see people struggle with chasing joy (because paradoxically, it’s not always easy) the trend is that they are more accepting of the concept and more open to doing so and so creating a culture of joy. I actually heard a great podcast interview last night in which Kiala Givehand talks to Laura Horn about how she applies the joy principal to her business plan. I’ve chosen to write the way that brings me joy, for the purpose of joy and in the hope that it will also give you a way to find your joy.

Get in community with like minded people

It’s easier to start when you are not alone. Imagine the long distance runner getting out of bed to start a twenty mile training run in the dark and the rain. Then imagine the same runner in London getting out of bed before the sun is quite up, knowing they are on their way to join thousands at the start of the London Marathon. That’s why the culture of our jobs is important. Whether you join a formal membership organisation** or just make contact with someone who holds the same values as you and is willing via email or over social media to chivvy you towards you joy, not being alone will help. 

Try finding an accountability partner with whom you can swap regular emails about your struggles. My fortnightly calls and weekly messages to Christine Hagar-Braun make all the difference. If you’d like to discuss with me how this article relates to your situation, leave a comment wherever you found this post, I’d love to hear from you.

Use your strengths themselves to counteract their own shadow sides.

This just requires a bit of a reframe. My futuristic maximiser strengths all lock together to push me to a perfect maximised future of my imagination and I can get stuck there. But I can use the Strategic to see the small things that need to be done and I can see the dangers of only looking at the future and not living the life NOW. I can use the Learner to find out how other people overcome the same hurdles. I can use Input to find ways to keep me in the present not only the future. This is why I like working with strengths. It’s not about finding external tools or the magic that lies over a mystic rainbow or is in the hands of some expensive expert yet be found. It about using YOU to make YOU the best person you can be by your own definition.

Get into process not product.

If it will take you years to create the art, book, business, family, house etc you want, it’s easy to think there is no point starting. But when you understand that what you really want is the process – the way of living that those things will give you, then you can have that today. Starting means living that way from today.

Send your husband out to cut the lawn

Say what?! Ok, this is another difference between my old law life and my current life. a part of my work now involves research and learning and when the weather is nice I like to do it in my hammock. (See joy point above). However, I can do that until the cows come home and them not want to start to actually use that learning because – well, I have to get out of the hammock. If my husband is mowing the lawn its noisy and annoying and I don’t want to be there anymore. What I am saying is, use your time well. plan your activities in the times that suit them best. 

There are many people who say ‘eat your frogsfirst thing. ( Brian Tracey is famous for it but Mark Twain apparently coined the phrase). If that works for you go for it. (If Discipline is one of your top Strengths its probably right up your street). For me though, being a strategist, choosing the time with the least painpoint is the most important thing. If that’s first thing in your day, great. But if you can load up with joy then find the least joy-less time to start the hard stuff, so you feel you are giving up less that can work too. It’s all about finding what works with your strengths.

What will you start today? What is the joy you will create in your own life by doing so?

*Lest my art readers think all lawyers are deeply contentious at all times ( you may have a point), what I mean is lawyers who do court work and litigation. Most lawyers consult a non-contentious lawyer to buy a house for example.

** For artists, take a look at the Make Big Art Community, the Connected Artist Group and Your Art Tribe all of which have slightly different intentions and feels