|Strengths

I recently read the book Now, Discover Your Strengths (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). To oversimplify, it is based on the wisdom of the Animal School Fable, where for example birds should practice flying rather than waste time learning to run faster and squirrels should focus on climbing instead of wasting time improving their swimming abilities. In economics terms, one should focus on areas of comparative advantage.

Despite its criticisms–and I have some of my own to add–I appreciated the book, and I would like to see how the content was updated in StrengthsFinder 2.0. Since my local library only has the original book, I haven’t had the chance yet to read the revised material. I valued the positive attempt at creating a conversation around strengths. How well-honed are my perception skills at noticing my own strengths and those of others? It is easy to criticize, but this book encourages us to do the harder work of discovering and developing strengths.

As noted, the book is not above critique, and I have three criticisms relating to the 34 traits/strengths/themes. First, the book itself admits that the categories are not consistent–some are more mental constructs (e.g., Belief) while others are more directly action oriented (e.g., Achiever). This tells me that they are getting at different components or facets of personality or human experience, and I would like to get at what these various categories are.

To this end, I would have liked to see some academically accepted framework (or frameworks) be used to analyze the 2 million interviews that provided the raw data for the book. This could have included elements like the Big Five Personality Traits, the nine multiple intelligences, or other paradigms like virtues or habits (not that this list of virtues or habits is itself exhaustive or scientific). This would give me more confidence that the list is comprehensive and based on more than one team’s hunch. Would it be possible to categorize the talents/traits/strengths in terms of the ABCs of attitudes–affective (e.g., “empathy” and “relator”), behavioral (e.g., “achiever” and “command”), cognitive (e.g., “analytical” and “learner”) features. Or does each of the 34 categories have affective, behavioral and cognitive components? If so, we’ve only managed to split the atom into even smaller parts for further study.

My second critique is that because the framework of 34 items appears more arbitrary than systematic, I’m not convinced that this list of strengths is exhaustive. For example, there doesn’t appear to be any trait listed that addresses creativity or the desire to make new things. Even a broad conceptualization (which all of the 34 are) of this term would seem to be helpful. “These people love to create–poetry, painting, music, food, photography or wood-working. You thrive where you have freedom to create beauty, whether tangible or intangible.” That brings us to 35. What else is missing?

Finally, the book stops short of helping the reader find their place in the world. It takes the first steps by adding skills and knowledge to talents. “Talents are your naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior…. Knowledge consists of the facts and lessons learned. Skills are the steps of an activity. These three–talents, knowledge, and skills–combine to create your strengths” (p. 29). But what wisdom or insight can help a person discover a suitable field and role? Mere experimentation? The book does not say, but leaves it open ended: “Your signature themes will not necessarily help you choose between being a retailer, a lawyer, or even a carpenter. What they can help you do is make the most of whatever field you choose” (pp. 163-164). So what guidance can help a person choose between being a retailer, lawyer or carpenter? If this type of question is not determined by strengths, then what does determine or influence this important career question? Maybe this issue is addressed in additional books by the author.

This discussion reminds me of the spiritual gifts conversation that occurs in ministry settings. This usually starts with some sort of gifts survey, which is designed to hopefully help church members see if they are more gifted as teachers, pastors, helpers, etc. However, the gift is not the end of the conversation; it is only the beginning. Many other factors help to determine what ministry position the person may be well suited for–experience, passions, personality type, etc. These are all important factors. Along these lines, I wish Buckingham and Clifton had been more explicit about the other pieces of the puzzle that people should explore in order to understand how to live out their talents/strengths to the fullest, even if these areas were not explored in depth.

Despite these deficiencies–exhaustive criteria and naming the additional pieces of the puzzle–I appreciated the book, and I will carry this vocabulary with me as I continue to strive to understand myself and the people around me.

Bonus quotes:

“Talent is any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” (48)

“Without underlying talent, training won’t create a strength.” (59)

“Your talents, your strongest synaptic connections, are the most important raw material for strength building. Identify your most powerful talents, hone them with skills and knowledge, and you will be well on your way to living the strong life.” (61)

“While your spontaneous reactions provide the clearest trace of your talents, here are three more clues to keep in mind: yearnings, rapid learning, and satisfactions.” (69)

“You can face up to that intimidating question ‘Are you living your life?’ by answering that no matter what your choice of profession, no matter what the trajectory of your career, if you are applying and refining and polishing your top five themes, then you are indeed living your life. You are indeed living the life you were supposed to live.” (145)

“Hence, the best advice is not to focus on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses but, rather, to focus on your strengths and find ways to manage your weaknesses.” (148)

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