Do you know what you’re good at? What your natural talents are? Do you have any thoughts on how you might better leverage your talents to drive your mission and purpose? Well, Tom Rath’s immensely popular book Strengths Finder 2.0 is designed to help you focus on your inherent strengths – your talents – and to improve upon them.
When I say that the book is immensely popular, I say that with conviction. The book consistently outsells every other book in the category. You’ll find that on list after list it consistently gets the top long-term spot. However, there’s a bit of a twist to the story. The book itself is an introduction, a listing of the talents, followed by a closing. It is in fact little more than the details of all of the potential talents from the Clifton Strength Finder test.
On the surface this doesn’t seem that interesting. However, what’s interesting is that whether you buy a physical copy or an eBook version you get a code that allows you to take the test which indicates the top five talents that you have. This means that in effect many people are buying the book to get the test. Still it’s quite impressive to have sold as many units as they have. I also have a deep respect for this book as a marketing tool approach because it’s the same thing as I did with the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.
Taking the test is a series of comparative statements where you have to indicate which one your feel like best describes you on a scale from one to the other. These sorts of tests are frustrating to many people because they feel pulled to neither of the options – or both. It makes the tests effective at finding our core personality traits. (This is like the approach John Gottman uses to determine which couples are destined for divorce. See Science of Trust for more.)
The output of the test is, as I mentioned above, the top five talents that you have. The detailed report describes how you should respond and how you’re motivated based on the indication of these types of talents. The language of strengths was substituted for talents in the title – but it’s just different language for the same thing.
I’ve spoken about all sorts of other metrics that we can use to assess people including Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, as well as the work that Steven Reiss did in Who Am I?.
One of the interesting things for me about the talents is that some of them seem clustered very close to one another. For instance, Input and Learner. These two talents seem very similar to me except that one is focused on the acquisition of data and experiences and the other one on – well – learning. They’re very similar but at least slightly differentiated.
Futuristic and Strategic are two other talents – that were both on my results that also felt very similar. One sees the future and the other plans for the future. I’d love to see the science behind the questions and how they arrived at these 34 talents because it feels to me as if several should have been collapsed.
However, the full list does accurately describe many of the different kinds of folks that I see.
For me there were a few interesting things about the results. However, the most interesting is comparing my result of Strategic and my Enneagram result of Reformer. The Reformer is under responsive to intuition. That is to say that they don’t listen to intuition as much as they should. However, the feedback from Strategic talent is to trust your intuitive insights as much as possible. This is an interesting space for me to consider whether I’m accepting my intuition as much as I should.
If I go back to the Enneagram it’s possible that I’m a high functioning reformer and therefore I’ve minimized the natural tendency to not trust my insights. Further as I look at my scores again I’m not substantially placed in the reformer category. If I took the test again my results might move. However, I found the discrepancy or apparent conflict between the two measures interesting.
The rest of the results include Learner, Futuristic, Achiever, and Connectedness. However, as I read the talents though I must admit that I believe that many of the talents apply to me – not because I want to be arrogant (or because I have the Self-Assurance talent). I could just identify with many of the things that were said for each talent.
The Short Route
There is one thing, however, that I take particular exception to in the book. That is the ideas that the traditional thinking that you can become anything that you want to be and that you should work hard to reach your goals aren’t right. Rath is careful to say that he believes that developing your talents by providing the raw materials for them to improve are important, he doesn’t believe that we should spend time working on our weaknesses. I find this to be inconsistent with folks like Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset about us having control of our own destiny and our own ability to grow. The argument Rath provides is that we should be focused on our strengths.
He’s saying that we can take the easy route and skip the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice that is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Conceptually the idea is great. Only work on things that you’re good at. Improve your talents where you’re already gifted. Do what you enjoy to do. The idea is that success comes if you’re able to focus on just those things that you enjoy. However, I find that this is a bit too simplistic. While I don’t advocate beating yourself up on things that you simply don’t get, I recognize that performance comes through creating Flow and flow is a delicate balance between challenge and skill.
There have been plenty of books that I’ve forced myself through which have become very important over my career as a source of information. Diffusion of Innovations is one good example of reading something difficult but that was absolutely worth it. So I’m concerned that Rath’s message may be interpreted as an excuse for not working hard and perhaps more importantly not working on small skills that inhibit us from reaching the heights that our talents would allow.
Here’s where it gets muddy like it did with The ONE Thing (which said you should focus on one thing then gave you five different areas of your life to find the one thing.) How do you know what your talents are and what you should and shouldn’t work on? Let’s say that I want to get better at stand-up comedy. However, I’ve got a bad habit of looking down instead of looking at the audience. If my talent isn’t connectedness should I work on this? What if it inhibits my real talent which is communication? See the rub?
Where do the individual skills that make up the talent end and where does the talent begin? Should I work on something that is difficult for me if it unlocks the potential of my talent? From my point of view the answer is yes – particularly if the skill is easy to acquire.
Back to the stand-up comedy example, what if my issue isn’t that I can’t make eye contact. What if the issue is that I don’t know how to use a microphone? Wouldn’t it make sense to have a friend help me use a microphone more effectively? Wouldn’t it make sense to ask someone to watch and remind me when I’m not using the microphone well? Most folks would say yes – and yet microphone usage probably doesn’t fit into any specific talent.
Ultimately, there are weaknesses that we all have which prevent us from reaching our potential. If we have poor vision and don’t have glasses or contacts it will have a substantial impact on our ability to be successful at almost anything. However, with vision correction the weakness is hardly noticeable. So how do we do as good leaders do and work around the weaknesses and support the development of the core talents of our friends, subordinates, peers, and superiors? (Learn more about this idea in Multipliers.)
Whether you agree that you should only work on your strengths or agree with me that you should focus on your strengths while making sure that you address any limiting weaknesses, I think you’ll find Strengths Finder 2.0 a good start at becoming