“Standing on a Whale Fishing For Minnows”

By Phil Eason

When you witness the unbelievable play of Stephen Curry or Jordan Spieth or the amazing artistry of Misty Copeland or Lin-Manuel Miranda, you marvel at their talents. Few athletes or artists reach the pinnacle that professional athletes or artists do, but Spieth isn’t composing musicals and Curry isn’t attempting pirouettes. They excel because they have turned their unique talents into strengths. Now after over 40 years of human growth and development research, science has demonstrated that any person can reach the same level of excellence for everyday tasks, but first people must identify their talents.

Talents are a natural recurring pattern of feeling, thinking and behaving. A talent is merely potential; however, when an individual discovers his or her talents and invests in them that talent becomes a strength, a consistent pattern of near perfect performance in any given task.

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Strengths are synonymous with results, but strengths must be developed from talents. Building your talents into real strengths requires coaching, practice and hard work, much like developing physical strength. People often think they know what they are good at, but are usually mistaken causing them to put effort and time into the wrong area and not achieving the hoped for results because they can only excel when they are working from a talent. Trying to excel at something one has little or no talent for is a frustrating and fruitless. Strengths-based development is about discovering your unique talents and then investing in them to create strengths.

Dr. Don Clifton, the father of Strengths Psychology, started this revolutionary approach to human growth and development by asking the question, “What will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?” This simple question led to the strengths theory that maintains that if you develop your strengths to the maximum, the strength becomes so great it overwhelms the weakness. In basic terms growth and development best takes place when one focuses on identifying and developing strengths while managing the weaknesses. This theory is applicable to three different areas. First, it can guide one’s personal and professional life impacting self-concept and self-confidence. Second, it is a strategic tool for decision making given that our decisions are made through our talent filters. What you see does not change, but what you do with what you see does when you name, claim, tame, and aim your talents. Third, it is a system for developing those around you in that people grow and develop best when they get to do what they do well naturally. Keep in mind there only two groups who like to do things over and over again that they are not good at and these two are the mentally ill and golfers and often they are one in the same. Obviously these two groups do not understand the breakthrough theory and revolutionary approach to strengths-based development.

Adopting a strength-based approach to growth and development is a breakthrough in that it dispels the popular and accepted notion that people can excel at anything, if they try hard enough and have the right attitude. We have all heard this and have tried to heed it. The reality is that every person is one of a kind with a unique and powerful set of talents. We are not clones. While we can (and should) try anything we wish to, long-term success will elude us unless we have a basic talent for the endeavor. The elegance of taking a strengths-based approach to growth and development is that our greatest talents do more than make us unique individuals. They also serve as our greatest opportunities for excellence in that performance is the foundation of embracing a strengths-based approach. This is the case given that there are strong connections between who we are and what we do best and what people do best and how they feel. Ultimately how people feel impacts performance.

A strengths-based approach is groundbreaking in that the key to success is to fully understand how to apply your greatest talents and strengths in your everyday life; not to identify your weaknesses and then working to make them strengths. This conventional approach of fixing weaknesses is kin to trying to teach pigs to sing. All this does is waste your time and annoys the pig. Unfortunately, we offer singing lessons to pigs in all levels of education where students are expected to excel in all subjects rather than encouraged and allowed to fulfill the basic requirements and focus on their area of strengths. Businesses often take this same approach with their employees when it comes to growth and development and then wonder why employees are not engaged at work.

Individuals and leaders that excel in the future will break from the mindset of fixating on weaknesses in themselves and others and will focus on discovering their talents and invest in them to become strengths. This starts with knowing your top five talents by completing the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a tool that is key to starting the journey of focusing on your strengths and managing your weaknesses. The StrengthsFinder is the code that cracks open your awareness of your unique talents. It is your access to excellence. People who know their talents and invest in them are three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life and are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs.

Regardless the endeavor when you tap into the power and wisdom of this revolutionary approach of focusing on your strengths while managing your weakness you will be more efficient, act with more confidence, direction, and hope and will be more productive. There’s nothing wrong with being aware of your weaknesses and managing them, but your greatest opportunity for success lies in building on your natural talents, not in fixing your weaknesses. The whale is within you, so stop casting for winnows and focus on your strengths.

Phil Eason is President of PLG Leadership, a consulting practice that uses a strength-based approach to growth and development of individuals, leaders, managers and teams. Phil can be reached at 270.799.1256, phil.eason@gmail.com and followed on twitter at @plg.