Monday, February 23, 2009

Now, Discover Your Strengths

This is the title of the follow-up to First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham.  The first book was brilliant and really challenged the way we think about what makes someone successful at their job.  Now, Discover Your Strengths attempts to follow up on that with an in-depth discussion of “strengths.”  Strengths are a combination of knowledge, skills, and what the authors call talents.  A talent is “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”  Basically, it is your innate ability to do something.  If you aren’t born with a talent for, say, public speaking, no amount of training will make you Steve Jobs.  If you don’t have a talent for abstract thinking, you’ll never make a great programmer.  Sure, you can become competent at either, but you’ll never make it into the elite of your career discipline.

This sounds about right, but the authors don’t do a lot in this book to justify the position.  There is some talk about the way our brains develop neural pathways.  This may be the reason but the evidence in the book is not sufficient to really make the case.

The core of the book revolves around the premise that you will become much better if you focus on your areas where you have talents (these are your strengths) than if you spend a lot of energy trying to remove your weaknesses.  There is a lot of good anecdotal evidence for this in the stories of Tiger Woods, Cole Porter, and others. 

Unfortunately, the book spends a lot of time on StrengthFinder which is a questionnaire consisting of 180 questions, the answers to which will reveal which of the 34 identified strengths you possess.  The questions felt a lot like those you would find on a Meyers-Briggs test.  With the purchase of the book you can take the quiz once.  It will then tell you what your top 5 strengths are.  I was unimpressed with the test.  While Meyers-Briggs usually aligns well with how I view myself, this one didn’t.  It had elements I think are pretty far from my strengths and didn’t have things I think are.  Either I have a very wrong view of myself or the test is flawed at least in my case.  I suspect the latter.  Maybe I wasn’t able to understand what the questions were asking well enough.  There were several that could be interpreted in very different ways.  Whether or not the test is accurate, the information about the strengths themselves is paltry.  Each gets about a paragraph describing it and a page telling managers how to deal with someone who has it.  I’d like to see a lot more discussion for the individual what to do with their strengths.  This was almost wholly lacking.

The end of the book asserted the case that organizations should focus on strengths instead of skills.  An example of this is hiring for strengths and not specific knowledge or skills.  This may be a good idea, but I don’t feel the case was made strongly enough.  It was more assumed to be true than truly justified.  Even if true, it will be very hard to implement.  Should an organization make each interviewee take a test before being hired?  I’m sure the owners of the test would love that, but it sounds impractical.  It also ignores the ramp-up time someone with only strengths and no present skills takes to become productive.

The overall theme of the book—to pay attention to strengths and not weaknesses—seems right.  I’m persuaded that this is true, but more because of preconceived notions than because of the book.  The follow-through seemed weak.  This is disappointing because the first book in the series was truly eye-opening and much better justified.  Overall, I can’t recommend this book.  Borrow it from the library and read the relevant portions in a day or two. 


  1. The reason why the book can't prove why talents are innate and not learned is because it isn't true. There are however plenty of studies that prove you can learn to become an expert in anything you want. It basically takes 10 years of purposeful practice (which is defined as attempting tasks just outside your competence) to become an expert. The Scientific American article "The Expert Mind" is a great read on this subject. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, has also come to the same conclusion.
    Take any so-called "natural" athlete, musician, engineer, artist, pilot, whatever and if you peel the layers back you'll find that they have been pursuing their subject with a single minded passion for years and years. Similarly if you look at people identified as child prodigies you'll find that they spent a very significant amount of their childhood practicing, usually hours and hours every day. If they were a true prodigy and came with innate ability why was all this practice necessary?
    For what it's worth I agree with the premise of the book, that you should develop your strengths, but only because it takes too long develop another strength as opposed to it being simply impossible.

  2. Saying that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on something is not the same as saying anyone can spend 10,000 hours and become an expert.  I'm reading Outliers right now and one of the themes there seems to say you need *both* innate abilities *and* a lot of practice to be an expert.