“Are you better off than you were…?” How POTUS Prompts Professional Progress

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, I thought about our presidents’ phrases and quotes that had most caught my attention over the years. One question comes up again and again in every election: Are you better off than you were….?

Now, in February, with many resolutions in the rear view mirror, it’s time to reflect again. We need to ask ourselves the question that President Ronald Reagan made election boilerplate. It’s the question that I have asked myself most days, throughout college, law school, and my professional career. It’s the question that has prompted my personal and professional development. It’s the question that professionals have to ask themselves every week, every day: How are you growing? How are you investing in your future? Are you stronger than you were yesterday? Can you keep pace with and move forward in our rapidly changing work environment? Growing up during the emergence of the consultant in the 1990s, with Fortune Magazine articles like “How to Manage in a Recession”, the message from the media when I was in college was similar to that article’s lead: “As Bette Davis snapped in her Oscar-winning film All About Eve: ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.'” One FORTUNE 500 executive even replied: “We’re too busy battening down the hatches to talk” about the recession.

Let’s take a lesson from President Ronald Reagan on this Presidents’ Day, and continue not only to ask this question, but embrace it as a mantra. Every president since, including President Barack Obama, has because it possesses inherent power to focus our efforts, to crystallize where we are, and to force us to look ahead, rather than “battening down” and paralyzing our movement forward.

On this Presidents’ Day, here’s help from 6 presidents on how to consider this question:

  1. President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829): “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Are you inspired? How? Are you learning every day? And then how are you inspiring others?
  2. President Barack Obama (2009-Present): “Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. …Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.” What is your mission? What is leading you forward? What do you value?
  3. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): “Accomplishment will prove to be a journey, not a destination.” Are you enjoying this journey? What are you enjoying about it? How could you enjoy it more?
  4. President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” How will you take steps forward today? tomorrow? Create your action plan to realize your values and mission in your life. Move beyond resolutions to the unique work with your unique gifts that you’re called on to do—for yourself and others.
  5. President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.” While you’re assessing what you have achieved, ask yourself: Where do you want to go? Have you finished this chapter of your book, and are you ready to move forward with other challenges?
  6. President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): “Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” Create and build. Leave your legacy—and then move on and create another legacy.

The emergence of the consultant during my college years taught me to keep moving, keep growing, and keep learning. As President Abraham Lincoln stated: “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Let’s take our presidents’ prompts and challenges: Move forward this February in a presidential way.

Living up to your potential? Lead with Your Strengths in 2015

Are you using your strengths every day on the job? If you have to think about your answer, then you’re probably like most employees: You have so much more potential, and you could be much more satisfied in your work life. Asking 1.7 million employees “At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” the Gallup Poll reported that only 20% surveyed felt that they even used their strengths on the job. This response starkly differs from the idea of confidently leading with your strengths. The Daily Gallup Poll reported that of employees surveyed during the week of December 30, 2014 to January 7, 2015, just 32.5% were “engaged at work”, meaning they were “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

With the beginning of 2015, it’s the best time to reassess your current situation. Ask yourself: Are you using your strengths every day on the job? Do you know what your strengths are? “Strengths are not activities you’re good at, they’re activities that strengthen you. A strength is an activity that before you’re doing it you look forward to doing it; while you’re doing it, time goes by quickly and you can concentrate; after you’ve done it, it seems to fulfill a need of yours,” explains strengths-based professional development advocate and researcher Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengths with Donald Clifton, Ph.D., and Go Put Your Strengths to Work, two of my favorite professional development books.

The value of living up to your potential and using and maximizing your strengths results in a beautiful state: “flow”. The father of the “flow” concept, Mihay Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance, explains “flow” as the “way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Anyone who has experienced this state knows it’s synonymous with satisfaction.

As someone who utilizes my strengths the majority of every day and teaches students and professionals how to understand their strengths and then lead with them, I was surprised when one of my students recognized this “flow” state in me. During the last week of my Business Communication course in December, I asked a student if he needed me to help him edit a final paper. He laughed and responded: “You love to edit.” I laughed in response: “Well, yes, I do.” That work–those edits, those significant discussions about an individual’s career choices and path, those creative and analytical discussions about writing, college essays, personal statements, employment, research, and legal writing topics–drives me into a state of “pursuing what I’m doing for its own sake”. Even though the paper in question had been revised several times, it was the last week of classes, and I had helped students edit too many papers than I would want to count, I still made those “extra” offers to help.

Achieving your potential and using your strengths every day shouldn’t be something prescribed for a lucky few–it should be a prerequisite. Let’s develop a new mantra for 2015: Lead with your strengths and achieve that flow state. Here’s to a wonderful 2015 from an Achiever-Developer-Individualization strengths advocate.

Cheers to a year of leading with your strengths!