by Esther Schindler

How do you answer an interviewer’s question: What are your strengths?

Apr 01, 20083 mins

A side effect of the rock star discussion is whether any of us can bear to describe oneself in such an immodest manner. One reason that most of us hate job interviews (and any other venue that requires us to beat our own chests) is that we don’t really have a good answer to “What are your strengths?” It’s almost as difficult as responding to “What salary do you expect to be paid?”

We tend to interpret a (job-related) question like “What are your strengths?” as “What do you work hard at?”—which is a totally different question.

By definition, “strength” means “what you can do easily and effectively.” If you’re physically strong, you can easily lift a heavy weight that would be a burden to average folks. But it’s no strain to lift that weight, so you don’t inherently feel special for it; you only see it as special when you compare yourself to other people (or, more likely, when others make a point of admiring you for it). “P’shaw, you say, that wasn’t anything.” And that’s the point; it “wasn’t anything” because you are strong at it.

So when someone asks me to identify my strengths, I have a hard time giving an accurate answer. The things that come easily to me, that I do quickly and well without any particular effort—such as create community, translate from tech-ese to understandable business English, synthesize unrelated events into useful (brilliant?) trends analysis—are so “natural” to me that I don’t personally notice them. The only reason that I can identify them at all is because that’s what other people admire me for, and for which they praise me.

Instead—until only a year or two ago—if I was asked about my strengths, I’d have given examples of things that I’d worked hard at. They might have some overlap with my “easy” skills (since some of those did come from deliberate effort), but I also put a lot of effort into new things at which I’m… not yet a rock star. I’m often proudest of the things that took a lot of concious attention (whether that’s getting the points to line up right on a quilt or writing a great article); but if I had to give it that much attention, it’s probably not really a “strength.”

The people for whom this is the biggest trap (in an interview situation) are young folks who haven’t yet figured out what they’re good at. (Much less how to deal with that dumb question, “What are your three greatest strengths and weaknesses?” which always makes me want to respond, “My greatest weakness is that I can’t stand really stupid interview questions.”) People new in the job market may know what they enjoy doing, or what tasks offer the most satisfaction, but they haven’t been working long enough to get the feedback that tells them, “People always praise me for…”.

If you’re in a position to answer this question (much less to call yourself a rock star), perhaps you should answer it as though you were asked, “For what are you most admired?”