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talent, shmalent?

November 7, 2009

There’s a debate raging right now at least in my head. I have been reading in the general category of “personal development” for some time now and recently stumbled across what seem to me on first read some divergent data. I’m trying to reconcile them if possible or figure out which one is right if I can’t. Can someone help me out here?

Here’s the summary:

1. Position one: You are born with innate, unique abilities and strengths therefore spend time figuring out what they are and build on them. If you spend your time focusing on your weakenss, at the end of the day (or your life) all you’ll have is ‘strong weaknesses.’ The proponents of this line of thinking are man including Tom Rath who wrote Strenght’s finder 2.0, and Marcus Buckingham in Now Discover Your Strengths, and Strategic Cocah, Dan Sullivan. I have been influenced by all these men.

2. Position two: You are capable of achieving greatness in any pursuit if you are willing to practice hard enough and smart enough long enough. Specifically you must practice for 10 years in very deliberate, specific ways but if you do a level of performance can be achieved in any pursuit. This position is put forward by Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated which is really an expansion of a seminal idea/article published several years ago called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer (avaialble online via Google search).

Perhaps they are talking about different things and I’m unintentionally setting up an unecessary conflict here. For me however as I move forward in developing myself and helping those around me develop it seems important to know where to put the effort: on overcoming weaknesses or strengthening strengths.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2009 3:48 pm

    I commented on your FB post, but here’s a more lengthy comment.

    I once had it described to me this way. Imagine a barrel-in-the-making, and not all the staves are the same length. When set on end, this means that some staves stick up higher than others. These are my strengths. Other staves don’t stick up so high. These are my weaknesses.

    If I am the barrel, then I can only hold water to the height of my lowest stave, and lengthening my tallest stave does no good. This seems to be the outcome of the first set of authors you mention.

    But if all I do is work on lengthening my “short staves” then my long staves eventually become the short ones — so now I have to hopscotch around the barrel willy nilly.

    …but what if I could find a way to use my long staves to lengthen my short staves? Then I’d be doing both.

    OK — that analogy gets thin, so shift with me to a different one that might elaborate better how/why I’m in a both-and position on this topic.

    I’m an adult-onset athlete. I took up running about 18 months ago. Have lost 50+ pounds, lowered by resting heart rate, etc. Feel great.

    But it has been hard work. I’ve not spent 10 years at it, (but I hope to!) and don’t plan on challenging Meb K in NYC next year, but I have come to enjoy running, where I used to hate it. That happened *gradually* and now that I can say “I’m a runner” here is what I’ve learned about strengths and weaknesses.

    My legs have “running/walking” muscles — the main ones that get used when I am engaged in those activities. But my legs have other muscles as well. If all I do is run and walk, the “running” muscles get stronger, but the “non-running” muscles are left unused. On race day (I’ve done a half-marathon, have one planned for January, and my goal is a full marathon in Oct 2010) my “running” muscles can take me only so far — in “the long haul” they need the help of my “weaker” muscles.

    So I cross train. 3 days a week I run, but 2 days a week I cycle. Cycling uses the “‘running” muscles just enough to keep them warm, but not enough to overuse them — i.e. cycling is still a “rest” day for my running muscles. But cycling is a WORKOUT day for my “weaker” muscles. When I’m cycling, I’m using my weaker muscles to help my stronger muscles. I’m also strengthening my “non-running” muscles…

    …so that on race day when I hit mile 10 (or mile 17 or 20 etc) my running muscles have not been killed — they’ve been partnered with by the non-running muscles to get ALL of me across the finish line.

    My strengths can go farther with the help of my weaknesses…if my weaknesses are strengthened along the way.

    How do I translate that into spiritual formation?

    A good friend told me this as he helped me develop as a person: “Your greatest weakness is almost always the flipside of your greatest strength.”

    In my case he was talking about mercy as one of my strengths. Compassion and mercy are hugely important in Nursing, especially Hospice Nursing. But as a pastor or leader or friend, my natural tendency to extend mercy has a negative flipside of extending too much grace; of avoiding conflict and just being a “nice” person.

    So I need to continue to develop my merciful nature as an example of God’s love. But I also need to be selfless enough (read: say no to my desire to people-please for the sake of avoiding rejection) to love people enough to tell them the truth in love sometimes.

    OK, I’ve rambled enough. Verbosity is still one of my weaknesses. =O)

  2. November 7, 2009 8:18 pm

    Kevin…Good question, don’t know if it will help but I will throw my 2 cents in and give you some of the philosophies that are taking shape in my brain.

    1. I love Marcus Buckingham and focusing on Strengths (Just went through Trombone Player Wanted with my Small Group)…sharpening your skills and becoming an expert at what it is you do best, and doing it better than anyone else. I buy into this concept 90%. Why 90% you ask…Because as a Christian if I have the “mind of Christ”, and “it is no longer I that live but Christ that lives within me” then do I really have any weaknesses at all, rather different interests or passions? Let’s face it…You love to get things started, hand them off to someone who can sustain them, then move on to the next Vision that is on your mind. But I would submit to you…if you had to see something through and continually “manage” it or it was a cause that you really believed in then you could follow through with a level of excellence as well as anyone. Need an example…CCC. Nuff said?

    Now I really like Keith’s comments above, and can track with him and agree with him at an individual level, however; thinking from a team point of view I would submit instead of looking at your strengths as a muscles within the human body, look at it as a car (can you relate?) If your strength is you are a high performance engine, you need high performance brakes, suspension, etc. If these are not your “strengths” then you need to find others where that is not only their strengths but passion as well. Together you will perform and complement each other better.

    2. I am not familiar with Geoff Colvin and this position so please allow me some grace in my opinions here. I love Football, practiced hard, smart and long for over 12 years; however, you don’t see me playing on Sundays, what would Geoff say as to why I was not successful? Or was I for my level of talent? I think you can find examples that support Geoff’s position…look at Tiger Woods. His father specifically trained, discipled, brought him up to be the best golfer in the world. I still believe Geoff’s philosophy is flawed, because unless Tiger had exceptional physical traits, not to mention loves golf, could he still have achieved such greatness? I think not. The part I struggle with the most about his position is; if it is not something you are passionate about or have a strong survival need to be focused on it, then what is the point of practicing, hard, smart and long on something you don’t really care about?

    I would encourage you to continue looking at finding your strengths and continue to sharpen them and just like Marcus Buckingham says, share with others what your strengths are so they know where they can expect you to excel, tell others you are going to need some support in your areas of “weakness”. You are already quite an amazing person, uniquely gifted in many ways, I love the question, would love to continue conversation.


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