By Anna Rowlands

15 June 2016 - 10:52

'Understanding our strengths is about concentrating on the things that come most naturally to us.' Photo (c) Hey Paul Studios, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Understanding our strengths is about concentrating on the things that come most naturally to us.' Photo ©

Hey Paul Studios, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Anna Rowlands, who helps young people in the Middle East and North Africa transition from school to adult life through the Taqaddam programme, explains how best to answer the question.

How can you figure out what career to pursue?

It might sound obvious, but the first thing to do is to think about what you love doing and what you're really good at. Whether that’s at school, or at home, or with friends — which activities make you lose track of time? Which make you feel energised? And what is it about those activities that you find so absorbing? Note your thoughts down.

Also, think about ways you can either demonstrate your skills or apply them in a work context. For example, if you are really good at listening to other people, find more opportunities to use and develop this skill and research jobs where this skill is important.

Why are employers looking for skills such as 'listening'?

Academic achievements, such as good grades, are important; and so are technical skills, such as learning how to type, how to build a house, or how to develop a website. But soft skills are the glue that connects us, and helps us cope with difficult situations. To flourish in life, most of us need to learn how to get on with other people and show resilience in the face of stress. Optimism helps us ride out tough times, and support people around us. In professional contexts, organisations want to employ people who aren't just technically and academically competent, but who will add to the team through their personality and behaviour.

What's the difference between soft skills and character strengths?

Character strengths are the personality traits that make us unique and define the way we are. Research shows that once you understand your strengths, and begin to craft a life that plays to them, you are more likely to be happy. Our character strengths form the bedrock from which we develop soft skills.

Soft skills are specific, learned abilities that help you work and interact with other people – for example, thinking critically, communicating effectively, and being a team player. They differ from hard skills, such as how to change a car engine, or code a website. Nonetheless, just like hard skills, soft skills take effort to learn, and mastering them involves a variety of character strengths. For example, to communicate effectively (a soft skill), you need a positive outlook, confidence and curiosity, which are character strengths.

How can you figure out what your character strengths are?

If you can, ask your friends and family what character strengths they see in you. Perhaps a teacher or a mentor could give you some guidance. It's important to ask about what others see as your character strengths, rather than what they think you should do for a career, as these two questions may produce different answers. You could take the Taqaddam survey to look at the strengths we identify there too.

Once you've gathered some feedback, keep a record of it. Do you recognise those strengths in yourself? Think about how you could build on them. We always recommend concentrating first on building your strengths rather than improving your weaknesses, because if you focus on your weaknesses, you’ll probably lose motivation. But if you work on improving your strengths, you’ll enjoy using them and honing them even more.

The Taqaddam programme works with 15- and 16-year-olds. Why is this such an important age?

There is stiff competition for jobs, and demand for high levels of skills. This can magnify the tensions and lack of control that young people often experience. It seems particularly hard on the fast-growing young population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Many young people are leaving education unprepared for the job market, and face the prospect of long-term unemployment.

In a region where there’s such high unemployment, shouldn't we focus on jobs, instead of helping people identify their dreams?

The one leads to the other. Encouraging young people to figure out what they are good at will help them articulate to teachers and future employers what makes them stand out from others. It gives them the experience and understanding that will stand them in good stead, not just for their dream job, but for their first job.

Everyone should have high aspirations, but it's also important to be prepared for the wide range of experiences that adult life will bring — experiences that exams don’t always prepare you for.

What is your advice for young people?

Don't think that what you are good at (or bad at) is fixed and unchangeable. Remember: what you practise doing is what you will become good at. It doesn't matter if you start practising aged six, 16 or 36. If you believe you can do something, you will try to do it, and then you will make that belief come true.

Anna Rowlands is programme manager of the youth charity Spark+Mettle, part of the Goodall Foundation and the UK delivery partner working with the British Council on the Taqaddam programme in the Middle East and North Africa, funded by HSBC.

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