Know Thy Strengths

Last week I had the honor of giving the commencement speech to Sociology graduates at my alma mater, Wayne State University. My preference for such speeches that I have heard in the past is that they be short and from the heart, anchored by real and memorable stories. I decided in part to speak about “knowing your strengths” and one story from my PhD days that immediately came to mind.

I was “ABD”…All But Dissertation…in my graduate school studies. My class work was done. My dissertation research was done.  My written exams were done. My foreign language test was done. And emotionally, I was burned out…I was DONE too! I needed a break.

So while walking down a hallway I see a poster on the wall for the Semester at Sea program. Though I had never flown, had never been on a ship, and never had a passport the idea of sailing around the world and teaching university students captured my imagination.

I called the number on the poster and spoke to a nice lady who was the secretary to the Dean. She asked me about my teaching and publishing record and it was a short conversation, as I had neither taught nor published at that point. She chuckled politely and said she was obligated to send me the application packet but told me “don’t hold your breath.” She was encouraging though, saying that I seemed like a good future prospect down the road a bit.

Disappointed, I decided to explore other options and applied for the Peace Corp and was accepted for two years in East Africa. Months go by and I am in the final stages of getting organized for my Peace Corp assignment, when while clearing my desk I come upon the Semester at Sea packet. I fill it out dutifully and professionally, write a formal cover letter, and staple it all together before putting it in the envelope.

My imagination soared again as I pictured myself teaching on a ship while circumnavigating the globe. At that moment I started thinking about my strengths, about what advantage I might have that could at some point get me a job on the ship?

Then it hit me. I had one major asset. I took out a red felt pen and in large all caps I wrote across my cover letter eight words that changed my life:


I slipped the pages into the envelope and mailed it off.

Fast-forward three months to a late August, Friday afternoon when my phone rings. It’s the Dean’s secretary. “Do you remember me?” she asks. “Of course I do,” I tell her. “What’s up?”

“Well,” she says, “our sociology professor had a stroke this morning! We sail Monday. I have to fill that position somehow today and I remembered your comment. Are you able to leave by Monday?” I paused to breathe and I said, “YES! Let’s make this work.”

I hung up the phone, leaned back in my chair and was overcome with good emotion. I was suddenly filled with amazing energy.

By Friday night I had tied up many loose ends.

By Saturday morning I had my first flight all set.

By Sunday afternoon I was all packed.

And by Monday morning I boarded the ship for the first of what would be many Semesters at Sea voyages. Decades later, I am still on their Alumni Board. I knew my life had changed forever that weekend.

And all of this happened because I knew my strengths and built on them.

What are your strengths? And which of them can help you change your life?