For several months, a good friend has nagged me to buy a book, ranked #1 on The Wall Street Journal's best-seller list, entitled Strengthsfinder 2.0, by Tom Rath. Maybe I was slow because I didn't have the "strength" to fend off yet another author’s claim to knowing what’s best for me. Finally, though, I gave in.
As it turned out, the book touched on a point that I've long argued: from young age, we envision strength as a physical trait. I’ve never liked that idea. (Not just, I assure you, because I'm something of a weakling!)
Reading the book, I discovered that Rath understands. Strength is not about the physical; it’s about talents and ability.
Further, Rath maintains that, even if we see strength in an abstract way, we err when we direct our efforts towards trying to correct our weaknesses rather than potentiate our strengths. We presume that, if we try hard enough, all weaknesses can be corrected. We assume, therefore, that anyone can achieve anything.
One could, in a sense, read Rath's book as an assault on the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which asserts, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." What is the meaning of those words? Clearly America’s founders weren’t saying that all people have equal talents and abilities. They were emphasizing that all people deserve access to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. But we cannot presume that any of us has the right to become a virtuoso musician or a LeBron James, no matter what Malcom Gladwell and his 10,000 hours think.
A corollary of Rath's philosophy is that we must be aware of our strengths so that we know which innate qualities to nurture. I’ve committed to spending the 52 weeks of this blog in "do" mode, so I took the assessment on the Strengthsfinder website. The tool is based on a large database assembled by the Gallup Foundation. As promised, the drill took half an hour to complete. One minute after I finished, the computer spit out my five strengths, or as the website refers to them "themes of talent."
I was excited and, I'll admit, reassured to see that my first three are empathy, communication, and learning. But then I jumped down to my fourth and fifth slots: competition and an entity called "WOO". I’ll acknowledge, I hoped that the latter had something to do with my talents as a lover. My sick mind saw it as an endorsement to cultivate those talents in ways not suitable for description in this space. But moving past that . . .
As it turns out, WOO is Gallup’s acronym for "Winning Others Over". Roth describes a “WOO individual as someone who likes meeting people, mingling, and "working rooms". Sounds somewhere between sleazy and manipulative, if you ask me. On the other hand, WOOers like me supposedly have a good sense of humor and ability to make things happen by networking. Rath advises me to embrace my WOO theme, because it is not about superficiality or insincerity but rather about using the power of persuasion to achieve goals.
Finally, the assessment told me something that I learned from my days as a "pre-med" student and, even before that, from my basketball-centered youth. I am a competitive person. Nice, though, to see that Rath classifies the trait as a strength, er, "theme-of-talent."
Being competitive is a valuable characteristic. Sure, competitiveness can become ugly – I've seen it in myself and others. But even if for no reason other than to beat out another investigator, competitiveness can lead to wonderful things, like cures for cancer. Not that I'm on the verge of discovery, but I do see the worth in viewing competition as an "invigorating process" (Rath's phrase) from which good can emerge.
My point isn’t to write a book review; however i.m.h.o., the major weakness of Strengthsfinder 2.0 comes from the author’s having ignored (almost totally ignored) the subject of weakness.
We are human. We do have frailties. So, what do we do with those foibles? Between the author’s lines, there is one particularly important notion. We might call it "complimentarity." When we are aware of our weaknesses, then in many circumstances, we are wise to find others who possess the strengths that complement, or compensate for, our weaknesses. Identifying players whose strengths complement those of other players is certainly a good way to build teams on the field or at the office. Similarly, in communities or families, people benefit from enriching one another with emotional or spiritual cross-fertilization.
Finally, I think there is always the risk that strengths can turn into weaknesses. Even the unambiguously laudable strengths can go awry. I can envision a scenario, for instance, where I become too empathic. Problems could ensue such as a complete loss of boundaries between me and the patients under my care. What's more, I've seen colleagues want to genuinely do so much for so many that they end up doing nothing. There's a physician I know who, out of pure empathy, promised three different patients that they could be treated on the same radiation machine at the same time. His empathy actually paralyzed an entire oncology department. Not only did no one know what to do, a major fight broke out among those patients that he wanted to help.
Overall, I’m glad that I let my friend persuade me to buy Rath’s book. Taking time to characterize our strengths and then to hone them into polished skills is a useful idea. So I intend to get out the polish. What are your strengths? Could they use some shine?
Shalom until next Monday,
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