Career Design Lab

Strengths as a pathway to meaning & wellbeing

Skills may pay the bills but strengths will help you flourish.

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Skills and competencies are important capital in the working life and a key component of your CV. However, a sustainable career is not built on a great CV only but also on wellbeing and happiness. Research shows that meaningful work predicts the main measures of a sustainable career and that strengths offer a core pathway towards meaning.

Strengths vs. skills

A strength is a pre-given capacity - a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that comes naturally to you. Creativity, empathy, persuasiveness, kindness and curiosity are some examples. Your signature strengths feel both authentic and energizing to use. Therefore, you may well have some talents that are not your strengths.

Skills and competences, in contrast, are learned. Competences are broader sets of knowledge and behaviors (e.g. problem solving), skills more specific (e.g. coding). If you focus your efforts on their development, your employability will surely increase. However, your career may also become unsustainable. If your work is solely based on learned capabilities, there is a higher risk for burnout, for example.

Strengths, in turn, have been associated with all kinds of goodies: work engagement, job satisfaction, resilience, wellbeing and performance. Strengths are also one of the main pathways to meaningful work.

From strengths to impact

Meaningful work can be defined in many ways. Michael F. Steger, who is the founder and director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose and professor of psychology at Colorado State University, connects it directly to strengths:

“Meaningful work is using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are.”

Knowing and using your signature strengths to create impact makes a particularly engaging and empowering purpose. A sense of meaningful work can also be achieved by other means, such as choosing to do what you truly value in life and belonging to a community.

Engaging, but not effortless

Although your signature strengths come naturally to you, it does not mean that the path to meaningful work is easy. You need to marry your strengths with competences and skills that you need in your job. The mastery of these strengths-based competencies requires hard work but it is the effort that gives life meaning.

A central idea of the strengths-based approach to career and job design is that instead of using your time and energy on fixing weaknesses, you dedicate them to fostering your strengths. By becoming you, you flourish and create impact.

“We are not born with unlimited choices. Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”

Steven Pressfield

picture of Kirsi LaPointe

Kirsi LaPointe, D.Sc. works as a senior advisor at Aalto University's Career Design Lab. She develops and facilitates programs to support Aalto students and alumni in pursuing meaningful and sustainable careers.

Kirsi's expertise focuses on career design, narrative identity and meaningful work. She is inspired by creative and critical approaches to learning and change in the working life.

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