As part of the curriculum for a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leadership course, I was required to read the book, Now Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, published in 2001. The authors of this contrarian book say that we should not focus on improving our weaknesses to excel in our workplaces.
Buckingham and Clifton say, “Most organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses.” Instead the authors present evidence that organizations and individuals should direct their energy and time to practicing and refining strengths in order to find enduring job satisfaction. They conclude that “The real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have.”
The book’s seven chapters are divided into three main sections: The Anatomy of a Strength, Discover the Source of Your Strengths, and Put Strengths to Work.
The Anatomy of Strength focuses on presenting examples of famous individuals such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, golf professional Tiger Woods, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and song writer Cole Porter and also narratives of ordinary individuals who play to their strengths.
Strength is defined by Buckingham and Clifton as, “consistent near perfect performance in an activity.” There are three core principles of playing to your strength. First, you must perform your strengths on a consistent basis. Secondly, you don’t have to be well rounded at everything in order to succeed at your strengths. Finally, you will outperform others by increasing your strengths, never by obsessing on your weaknesses. The authors emphasize us to play to our strengths and manage effectively around our weaknesses.
In order to build our life around our strengths we need to distinguish our intrinsic or natural talents from things we can learn such as knowledge and skills, identify our dominant natural talents, and lastly utilize a common language or assessment tool (the authors created The StrengthsFinder Profile to reveal 34 major talent themes) to describe your talents.
Buckingham and Clifton make some very interesting claims about knowledge, skills and talent. Knowledge will not assure success, but success is difficult without it. In order to excel in your chosen field, you will need to ascertain and practice all the necessary skills but there are two flaws in skills. The first flaw according to the authors is that skills will help you perform but they will not help you excel. Secondly, when you learn and practice a skill correctly you will improve but it “will not cover for a lack of talent.” Learning by repeating an action may result in an improved outcome or behavior but “without underlying talent, training won’t create a strength.”
Discover the Source of Your Strength gives the reader insight into how you can identify your natural talents. The authors provide the following three cues to discovering your natural talents or strengths. First is yearnings usually revealed early in life but not always. Next is rapid learning or “eureka moments”. If you are able to pick up an action or behavior quickly – look beneath this eureka moment because you may be able to identity your strength or strengths that made it possible. The last cue that you are discovering a natural strength is the satisfaction you achieve when you are accomplishing an activity. The authors says if you find yourself looking forward to the activity and ask, “When can I do this again?” – then that a good indication “that you are enjoying it and that one of your talents is in play.”
The authors created the StrengthsFinder Profile online assessment tool to assist individuals discover their “greatest potential for a strength”. The profile measures thirty-four themes of talents that Buckingham and Clifton uncovered during their many years of research into excellence. Once an individual completes the profile they will receive their five most dominant themes of talent or “signature themes”. There are over 33 million possible combinations of the top five. The themes may not be your strengths but they represent your dominant “recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior – the promise of a strength.” The authors caution that “a theme in isolation is neither good nor bad. It is simply a recurring pattern that can either be cultivated into a strength or squandered.”
In the last section of the book, Put Strengths to Work, the authors give practical advice on why many people avoid focusing on their strengths and why you should focus on your signature themes in order to turn them into strengths.
I took the StrengthsFinder Profile online assessment and my five most dominant themes are: Restorative (love to solve problems), Discipline (routines are important), Developer (see potential in others), Responsibility (emotionally bound to follow through) and Relator (like being around people that are familiar). I agree that these five themes are dominant areas of my life and career but I don’t focus on them to the exclusion of other areas of my life that I want to improve. But I fully agree with Buckingham and Clifton premise that by focusing and utilizing our energy on our strengths and intrinsic talents instead of trying to incrementally improve areas that we are not good at can substantially reduce frustrations and anxiety we feel about our weaknesses.