Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best everyday? This is the first of many questions that Global Experiences staff asks program participants in order to get a better sense of what kind of internship placement will be the perfect match for them. Unfortunately, most individuals struggle to honestly answer "yes," which reflects the dismal rate of engagement among U.S. workers. In fact, only 1 percent of employees in the United States report loving their jobs. Given that we spend more than 40 hours per week for more than 40 years of our lives at work, shouldn't that number be higher? Surely, there must be a better way to approach career decisions that results in a more satisfying and sustainable work life.

In 2013, Global Experiences partnered with Gallup Education to offer the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to all interns, as well as our own staff members. According to numerous research studies, knowing and understanding your strengths enables you to focus on doing what makes you happy at work and in your personal life.

This makes sense, right? When you have work tasks that you are able to perform well, you feel proud and accomplished. No one likes to spend all day doing something they are bad at. For me, that would be math. Oh, and anything related to computers and routine office administration. Luckily, we have a finance director, an information technology guru, and an office manager! But understanding and using your strengths in your career is much more nuanced than simply matching skills and interests to positions. It takes much deeper self-reflection and an evaluation of what gives you a sense of "flow."

Flow is another way to describe being engaged, which we all know is a buzz word both on campuses and in corporate offices these days. But, what does that even look like? Or, more accurately, how does it feel? Well, for one, when you are engaged in what you are doing, you often lose track of time. For those of you who watch the minute hand tick by each day, you are definitely not using your strengths at work! I'm talking about being so interested in a task (which is also pushing your skills to their optimal level) that when you look up at the clock you have no idea where the time has gone. It's hours later, you forgot to eat lunch or use the restroom. You lost self-consciousness and didn't even realize you spilled coffee down your shirt. But you don't even care, because you were just rocking it!

This level of work is the level of flow. This is engagement. If the task were too difficult, you would have felt a sense of anxiety. If it was too easy, you would be bored or apathetic, which is why many people become jaded. We aren't challenged any more; we aren't using our strengths.  Being in the "flow" is like a sweet spot where your strengths meet the challenge level of the activity you are performing.

Take a minute to think about when you have felt this in your life? It might not be at work, and that's okay. I feel flow when hiking outdoors because I harness my "achiever strength" to reach the summit. I'm an avid traveler because my "adaptability strength" enables me to navigate unexpected itinerary changes with grace and seize opportunities like discovering a new café or bookshop. The old adage that "time flies when you are having fun" could not be truer when you are using your strengths!

In the context of work, strengths can be applied in a number of ways. First and foremost, this is a personal development tool to be used to gain insight into "your best" so you can focus on doing that on a daily basis. The rationale for focusing on your strengths, of course, is that it leads to engagement, which in turn leads to a deeper sense of satisfaction and higher performance at work.

Here at Global Experiences, we have incorporated strengths into our participants' career development program, before, during, and after their internship abroad. The assessment itself provides interns with their top five strengths that fall within four possible categories: relationship building; influencing; strategic thinking; and executing. There are 34 possible strengths and roughly 33 million different combinations, so the order of your top 5 is really like a fingerprint, unique only to you, just like your career should be.

We adopted many of our program activities from StrengthsFinder Career Activities found on their website, and also provide each intern with a coaching call from a Gallup-certified coach. Program assessment has revealed that focusing on Strengths during an international internship leads to increases in overall career well-being, self-understanding, and hope for the future. We always knew working abroad could change your life, but now we know how!

Learn more about strengths-based professional development during the Career Center Speaker Series presentation "Using Your Strengths: Professional Career Development," May 26 at 11:00 a.m. (EDT) in the Career Center area of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Additional Resources:

Melissa VivianMelissa Vivian is director of academic internships at Global Experiences in Annapolis, Maryland. She holds a master's degree in counseling from New York University and is trained in humanistic and cognitive-behavioral approaches to personal and career counseling. She has led the implementation of the Global Experiences' strengths-based career development program and has been a lead creative influence on how to engage millennial students in self-awareness and employability-enhancing activities during their internship experience.