Strength is a bit of a tricky concept. Typically when we think of something being “strong,” we tend to picture something large and heavy; like a mountain or a bodybuilder or a big pickup truck or something. This is no surprise, given that the first and most commonly used definition of strength is “physical power and energy”— which makes it that much easier to visualize something in the way of a muscle-bound hulk. But, strength is a multi-faceted concept. The multitude of ways in which we can exhibit strength are equally varied and wonderful and none is less important or noteworthy than another.
Strength can mean different things to different people and can show itself in many different forms, depending on the scenario at hand. Recently, while interviewing someone for a future story (and struggling with this one) I asked what strength meant to them. Their answer was…unexpected :It’s not about being unwavering, it’s about knowing the right thing to do and just sticking to it.
So strength is…flexible?
It was at this point that I realized that maybe I had no idea what strength is. I do know, however, that the way that I’ve seen strength portrayed—loud, rigid, “in-your-face”—never sat quite right with me. Strong is not synonymous with tough, it’s more complex than that. It’s easy to shout and wave your arms around and strut your stuff, but is it indicative of strength? I set out to explore all of the different ways that we can show our strengths, here is what I found.
Strength Is Quiet
Being in an industry that is largely focused on appearance, it is tempting to buy into “the show.” You know what I mean, the flashing lights, the thumping bass, the upbeat platitudes being broadcast far and wide to empower the audience. What I’ve realized, recently, is that there is usually very little information presented in these scenarios.
I’ve found that the more impactful the insight or useful the information presented, the more it can stand on its own merit, without the assist from a smoke machine or chart-topping hit blaring from the speakers.
The same thought process can be applied to people. Typically the louder they are, the more they have to prove. It’s as though they think that volume and validation are inextricably linked. While there are certainly those out there with wisdom to impart and worthwhile lessons to teach—after all, knowledge, as they say, is power.
I’ve often found, however, that there is more to be learned by listening than by talking. It takes self-control and discipline to fight the natural inclination to broadcast our own message and to simply listen to someone else’s. Truly listen, without judgment, without the filter of our own experiences or beliefs—to open ourselves up to learning something new.
It takes an enormous amount of strength to simply be quiet. Not just to refrain from talking, but to actually be quiet. Letting our minds and hearts fall silent for a little while so that we can listen to everything around us and soak life in. It’s typically not until after an event has occurred—or the storm has passed—that we realize what we learned from it. The quiet after the noise is when we can draw upon our inner strength to assess where we went right and where we went wrong and adjust our future actions accordingly. In short, the quieter you are, the more strength required.
Strength Is Humble
A tower, standing alone in a field, will eventually fall. It’s a statistical fact. The cheese, as it were, simply cannot stand alone. It takes a big person to accept this and an even bigger one to incorporate it into their everyday life. Much like the strength, it takes to simply shut up and listen, it takes a different kind to eschew the spotlight.
It’s easy to talk about ourselves, really. Everyone says that it isn’t, but think about it: how often do we say “in my opinion” or “I’ve noticed” or something along those lines. It’s easy to step back and think about what we feel, what we think or what our overall experience is. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, after all, we are right there with us every single moment of every day of our lives. It’s difficult for us to put that same focus on those around us. By giving the same attention to those around us that we give ourselves, we are showing our humility, and by doing so our respect.
It’s also difficult for us to accept that we may not always be the cleverest, most creative, smartest expert in the room. Thinking that can be defeatist. Knowing it, intrinsically, is being strong. Once we accept the fact that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves up to learning something new. To growth and there is nothing that feeds inner strength quite like personal growth. Think of it this way, if you are always forcing your way to the front of the line, you will never see what’s going on behind you.
We learn the most when we are the most uncomfortable.
Strength Is Kind
Being kind takes a certain degree of humility; it takes recognizing the fact that there are other people in the world who have needs and they are just as important as yours. Generosity and warmth—two of the main components of kindness—are difficult qualities to practice. They both take a degree of vulnerability that requires an immense inner strength.
To be truly generous is to give without expecting anything at all in return. In today’s culture of materialism, it takes a certain type of strength to embrace having less. By giving something—be it time, money, a service, anything—we send a message that the other person’s happiness is more important than that which we are giving away. Ever try doing that? It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Opening ourselves up to the prospect of being hurt or taken advantage of—a key requirement of kindness—is one of the hardest things that we can do. Someone once told me that we learn the most when we are the most uncomfortable, and over the years, I’ve had my fair share of experiences to prove it true. While the scenario itself may be painful, the lessons learned, as a result, are often invaluable.
Understanding and accepting the potential of a painful experience and choosing to act regardless, in the best interest of all involved, is one of the strongest things that we can do. Note that I said one of. It also to takes strength to know your kindness limits, to set personal boundaries to minimize the chances of being taken advantage of. It’s incredibly difficult to practice both kindness and self-preservation. It’s a delicate balance that requires an immense amount of…you get the idea.
Strength Is Wise
Knowledge is wonderful. Our ability to learn is one of the ways that we can build our strengths. Remember the old adage, “Knowledge is power?” Well, Sir Francis Bacon knew what he was talking about. The more we know about ourselves, our work our situations and the people around us, the greater our position of strength.
Strength is not limited to how much physical weight we can carry; it also has to do with how much mental and emotional weight we can take before we reach our breaking point. This is where we can develop strength through self-knowledge. By exploring and understanding our actions, feelings and reactions, we can begin to develop our own boundaries and foster that sort of confidence that comes from a position of true strength. Saying “no” just for the sake of saying it, is petty. Saying “no” because what is being requested crosses a personal boundary or conflicts with our inner compass? That takes strength.
Think back to the time (it may not be that long ago for some of you) when you first started training for your career. For me, that was…oh a while ago now, and I have to smile when I think how little I knew and how seriously I expected to be taken. I had all of the creative ideas in the world, but no skill-set with which to execute them.
Without the foundation of knowledge, we can never build a strong career. It takes time and patience to learn something properly (and to master it, 10,000 hours. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell & Macklemore, that is. If not, you can read an argument against that theory, here). Once we have, then we are operating from a position of strength, when making decisions or suggestions in our workplace. After all, in the immortal words of G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle (if you’d like to take a break now and stroll down memory lane with some classic Joe PSAs, I wouldn’t hold it against you).
Strength Is Open
So many of the qualities that we’ve talked about so far are intrinsic. True strength, the general consensus seems to be, starts from within. But, much like a seed, it needs to be nourished in order to grow properly. Being open-minded allows us to let the good stuff in, to feed our strength.
I’ve seen a lot of really stubborn people who think that their immobility means that they are strong. I beg to differ. Being stubborn is not directly related to being strong. As a matter of fact, some may argue that they are counter-intuitive to one another. Being stubborn means that you close yourself off to outside ideas, beliefs, methods and general knowledge. If we hold so tightly onto what we think is right that we don’t allow other points of view to sink in enough to be considered, we will never learn as much as we can from our experiences.
Being open, both in mind and in heart, requires that we let go of our notion of control. This requires the most strength of all. Our need to control ourselves and the situations that we find ourselves in usually comes from a place of fear. Fear that we will fail, fear that we will look silly, fear that something—anything—bad is going to happen. Fear freezes us, motivates us and controls us by making us feel as though we have to be in control. Fear is an incredibly strong emotion and facing it enough to give up our control requires an incredible amount of inner strength—we are talking some next level guru type shit.
In case you were wondering, yes, being open touches upon both listening and humility so we are using strengths that we worked on earlier and putting them into practice to gain another kind of strength: knowledge. Full. Circle.
There seems to be a movement lately, towards developing inner strength in a more thoughtful and holistic way. Strength can mean many things to many people and certainly these are just my own observations and musings. While there is nothing wrong with the kind of strength that compels someone to shout their opinions from the rafters, to spout their beliefs at every opportunity, to blow the door down rather than to simply knock—that is not the only kind. All types of strength loud and quiet, hard and soft should be recognized, appreciated and cultivated. After all, there is beauty in strength.