What if our “deficits” are really our strengths?
June 10, 2016
Hey guys. So, today I want to talk about a gorgeous perspective shift that has made my life so much better. It’s an idea that comes from my occupational therapy (OT) school days, and like so much from that time steeped in the badass world of knocking down barriers, empowering and enabling people, it’s had a huge impact on my approach to living.
During my master’s, my professors managed to snag the brilliant and intrepid Dr. Winnie Dunn for an evening to speak to us. Dunn is an OT and researcher, well known for her work on sensory processing. Her book Living Sensationally is a game changer for understanding our senses and how they effect the way we function in daily life. But she didn’t discuss that with us, instead she talked to us about a new strengths-based paradigm for serving others. From a therapeutic perspective, it was kind of radical. Therapists tend to be more accustomed to seeing and trying to fix “deficits” in people – Dunn suggested a totally different way of approaching these traits.
The idea in a nutshell is this: The unusual, square-peg-in-a-round-hole characteristics we each have – some people more than others – are not a liability, but rather an important part of what makes us unique. Not only that, they can play a critical role in finding solutions to our challenges. She called these traits “über-strengths”. When approached as such, they can become our biggest assets in real, practical and fulfilling ways. I’m talking about the kinds of things we usually feel ashamed of and expend a lot of energy wishing away and trying to change – in ourselves and the people (big and little) that we love. If rather than trying to “fix” these traits, we embrace them as part of what makes us who we are, and charge ourselves with figuring out how to best harness them and foster them to serve us, well, magic can happen.
Jonah has the most wonderful children’s book that illustrates this point so beautifully.
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The book is The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős, written by Deborah Heiligman with delightful illustrations by LeUyen Pham. Guys, this book is a treasure – I just love it. It’s a story about the life of the late mathematician, Paul Erdős.
First of all – I am definitely not a “math person.” If you aren’t either, do not let that dissuade you. To me, this book is less about math (although there is plenty of that), and more about a person just being who they are and finding a way to thrive. The story follows Erdős from the time he was a wild, precociously number-loving preschooler in Budapest, bucking his nanny’s many rules, through his colourful, world-travelling adulthood and ultimate passing doing what he loved at a math conference late in life.
Erdős was extraordinary. In a lot of ways, he just didn’t fit into normal life. As a little guy, he couldn’t hack school – too many rules! As he grew up, cooking, cleaning, driving a car, a typical family – those weren’t for him. He was stumped by things like buttering his bread or opening a tomato juice carton!
But the beautiful thing is, he found a way to make it work. He “soon realised that he didn’t fit into the world in a regular way,” Heiligman writes, “so he invented his own way to live.” In fact, he found a way to thrive.
Erdős took his love for math and rather than belabour his differences, created a life that fit him. He travelled the world with only a small suitcase and a little pocket money to his name. Wherever he went, he would stay with a mathematician and their family. They would help him with the ordinary, daily things he didn’t do so well, and he would play with their kids, and generously, enthusiastically share his brain with the mathematician. Throughout his life, he stayed and collaborated with dozens and dozens of mathematicians. Although Erdős died in 1996, people today still talk about their “Erdős number”. Kind of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon of the math world, an Erdős number denotes how closely you’ve worked with Erdős – if you’ve worked directly with him, you get a 1. If you’ve worked with someone who has worked with him, a 2, and so on.
In the end, Erdős made a huge impact on the world, both in terms of his math, and all the lives he touched. “Uncle Paul” was dearly loved.
Every time I read this story, I get a little choked up. It’s not sappy at all, very fun and playful, but it exactly captures my hope for my kids and – okay, this is lofty, but the world. That we can stop focusing so much on “fitting in” and instead recognise and embrace the strengths in our differences, finding our own ways to be ourselves and thrive. It’s like this. Paul Erdős would have been pretty subpar at being ordinary. If he’d focused all of his energy on learning to cook and clean and drive a car and do all the things that just didn’t come naturally to him, well, he probably wouldn’t have been all that good at them anyway. But he didn’t. He embraced his differences, found a way to make them work for him, and that is why the world got to benefit from Uncle Paul.
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I know, it can be kinda tricky to figure out, practically speaking, how to make magic from my kid’s delightfully contrarian disposition, or my own insane mess-making capacity. Ha. Dunn has also put together a bunch of strengths-based coaching resources for therapists, which I would love to unpack in a future post for normal life purposes! In the meantime, I think the change in perspective is a great first step. Remembering that these traits are not bad, rather simply a part of what makes us unique, and then exploring how we can use them for good (or awesomeness!).
Slowly, I think it comes.
p.s. Does this resonate with you? I think a lot of people kinda naturally find ways to use the stuff they struggle with in really creative, positive ways – I would love to hear your stories!