For all his success helping people refocus their lives, the most crucial materials he uses—the clues for solving the mystery of anyone's unhappiness—are never furnished by Marcus but by the people themselves. One of his fundamental beliefs is that all of us, even at our most confused and unhappy, like Kylie, have very good instincts about what we should be doing. Even the person who, when asked what she likes, wails "I don't knooow!" does know, in her gut. She's just not noticing, amid all the dispiriting moments when she feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied or bored, those other moments—perhaps less numerous, but far more significant—when she feels good. Absorbed, so time flies. Excited. Everyone, Marcus maintains, has such experiences, even during the worst sort of week. Kylie felt completely out of her element, miles off course from where she was supposed to be, but Marcus believed that she was actually in the vicinity of real happiness. Her instincts had led her to the ballpark, but she wasn't hitting homers. She was wandering around in the stands, or stuck in line for the restroom.
What was keeping her there was that she'd forgotten, or maybe she'd failed to discern from the start, what she was passionate about. Most people, Marcus says, make the mistake of speaking of their passions in overly general, grandiose terms. "I'm passionate about making the world a better place." "Well, who isn't?" Marcus would say. He calls this kind of vague talk "skywriting"—it's way up there, far from the specific conditions of our lives, and it tends to melt away. Marcus prefers a more concrete, muscular way of discussing our passions: in terms of strengths.
Our strengths are the actions that make us feel energized and optimistic, eager for the chance to do them again. We're not just good at our strengths—I'm good at paying bills, but that doesn't mean I like doing it. We're also nourished by them as by nothing else. When Marcus works with people like Kylie, the first thing he wants them to do is the most basic: He wants them to define their strengths, as narrowly and concretely as they possibly can. I feel strong when I close the deal and shake the buyer's hand. I feel strong when my explanation makes my students' faces light up with understanding. I feel strong when I've hit "print" and I see my own words in black ink on the page. Our strengths, Marcus says, are those situations in which we are intensely, happily, completely engaged. And because he believes our instincts are good—because they've gotten us into the ballpark—the place to look for clues to our strengths isn't way up in the sky but right where we're sitting, right in that office chair Kylie hated so much. Her hatred of that chair was real, but something important—some glimmering of passion—had led her to be sitting there in the first place.
Marcus asked Kylie to start generating raw material—to pile up clues to her strengths. For one week, she was to write a list of things she loved and things she loathed about her job. She was to be as detailed as possible, to pay exquisitely close attention to her own frame of mind in the course of a typical week: When did she feel energized, satisfied? When was she miserable?
We Hear You!