According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), talent is a relatively misunderstood and abused concept, especially in the workplace. In this short essay, I will explore ten myths about talent (and strength) that are emphasized in Buckingham and Clifton’s book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” which I have attempted to give a stronger emphasis than in presented in the book by relating several insights as popular myths modern culture has propagated about the power and paradox of talent.
Myth #1: “Self-improvement (and success) comes through cultivating and increasing abilities in a wide variety of necessary skills for the workplace according to standards of excellence in the industry.”
In our modern world, the myth of “skill gaps” and “areas of opportunity” is a widely propagated deterrent to maximizing on our greatest talents and turning those talents into strengths. Companies and organizations encourage workers to retune their weaknesses into strengths instead of focusing their efforts on increasing the capacity of their workers’ strengths, in order to create a more balanced workforce, but in the end the only result is a rather mediocre set of employees that work not out of passion but need.
Myth #2: “Education and mentorship unlock inner potential for greatness and must be built slowly through expert advice and institutional programs.”
Talents are “recurring patterns of thought” that are identified through yearnings (childhood passions), instinct (natural actions), and satisfaction (positive emotions). Education and mentorship may assist the transformation of talents into strengths, but each person has been designed or formed from a young age to respond in certain ways, our unique signature. The catastrophe of modern education is that the focus on a multifarious liberal education based on societal temperaments has replaced the tutorial education of the past, and many students find themselves stuck like a broken gear in a machine they barely understand or know how to respond to and struggle through like itinerant farmers in a famine.
Myth #3: “Some people are born with the rare gene of genius; everyone else is ordinary and must accept that even with schooling and training, they may be able to get a good job but shouldn’t hope for any more.”
Talents must be reinforced with knowledge (factual and experiential) and skills (structural procedure). Talent by itself is like a lump of clay, which when molded by hands (knowledge) into a visual piece of art (skill) transforms into a strength, which can then be focused in one’s work or career and used proficiently. Every person in the universe has talent, just as every person in the universe has the ability to breathe. Genius isn’t a cause but a result.
Myth #4: “A liberal education (education in a mixture of fields) guarantees and prepares students to be good stewards of an intellectual legacy, and is the most important element of showcasing intelligence and preparedness for a complex, challenging, and invigorating career.”
Our lives must be focused on our talents. It is not enough to identify one’s own talents, but career, education, family, all these must point toward an end in which the talents we possess are of use. While a liberal education may be exciting (much like trying out various hobbies can be invigorating) a liberal education cannot be the sole source of knowledge and skill, but must serve as a stepping stone in a direction to focus the energies of the student.
Myth #5: “Human potential is limitless; people have the capacity for brilliance in any field, as long as they follow the correct method, the right teacher, and are inspired by greatness.”
Talents are built into our biological systems, part of our unique blueprint as individuals. Talents are not a mystical branch of the ether. Talents are electrical impulses that jump back and forth between the canals of our brain, and as we get older we are awarded with fewer talents, while the ones that remain become stronger. While human beings are limitless, a human being is not. People have the capacity for brilliance, but not in everything, and while a good teacher can help them in the path to unlock their potential, people are ultimately responsible for their own progress.
Myth #6: “The trendsetters and world-changers possess a quality of rare talent that most people could never imagine of themselves; such talent comes as the result of extraordinary circumstances, forging people of incomparable mettle.”
Strengths are not born but must be built with talent, knowledge, and skill. In most cases, the giants of the world are not any different from anyone else. They were all children once, they all went through puberty and experienced their first kiss. And they will all grow old, weary, and pass away into dust. The only difference between the giants of the world and the giants of the next is knowing what they loved, and their focus on doing what they loved.
Myth #7: “Many factors contribute to a person’s profession and career, including education, age, experience, sex, as well as previous successes, failures, and relationships. These factors constitute a person’s primary currency in the realm of job value.”
Too often, we find ourselves in a position because of exterior circumstances beyond our control. However, position must be according to strength, not any other factors, a motion easier to say than to do and often requiring sacrifice of comfort in order to find a place where we can be truly valued and feel our contributions have value. External circumstances are hindrances, barriers, and arguments against our true value.
Myth #8: “Standards of excellence promote positive value in worker output, defined from years of experience, planning, and research; such hallmarks secure the foundation of a company or organization’s success, and help to forge a path into an uncertain future, presenting employees with a model to transform themselves toward.”
Each person has a unique collection of strengths, and so each person has to contribute in a slightly different way to be the most effective. Companies that focus on creating a singular worker according to an ideal model will never capture the essence of effectiveness, as much as an organization that focuses on utilizing the unique strengths of each person in the beautiful way he or she was designed. A person who is invigorated, passionate, and strong is infinitely more valuable than a person who is stretched, confused, and tired.
Myth #9: “In order to maximize a person’s potential, the wheat must be cut away from the chaff.”
Learning how our weaknesses contribute positively to our strengths will help maximize our strengths instead of managing our weakness and wasting our potential. Weaknesses stem from fundamental value decisions, and are part of the building blocks of our strengths. Therefore, focusing on weakness means opportunities to maximize strengths are wasted. Trying to separate the two inevitably causes a fracture in our strengths as well; however, focusing on the strength will generally transform the weakness into an asset. For example, a worker who is lazy but incredibly creative, by putting opportunities for the worker to practice his creativity will transform his laziness into patience.
Myth #10: “Natural capacity and genius are shown at their highest in the image of the Renaissance Man, a person of flexible modus operandi who can seamlessly move from field to field in a quickly changing modern society, and who can understand a wide berth of disciplines and apply those across boundaries.”
You can’t and shouldn’t try to be the Everything in terms of strengths. Focus on core strengths, and your effectiveness will be far greater, even if you are massively talented. Leonardo da Vinci, while a great man, is celebrated far more for his art than his engineering, even though engineering was for many years his career and how he earned his keep. We have faded notebooks of his engineering designs, but The Last Supper as evidence of his art. There is a noticeable difference. His art consumed him; had he not been a painter, we probably would never have known about his mechanical designs or his scientific theories.
Talents are a rare gift that each person born onto this earth possess, but which are left to despair to dry in the sun and wither away. Only by possessing those talents and transforming them into strengths through careful study and critical praxis, and then pointing ourselves like an arrow in the right direction, will those strengths hit their mark. The beauty of strengths is that unlike an arrow, they are a force of growth and beauty, and immediately upon hitting their mark, if watered will grow into a beautiful tree and bear fruit for everyone around us.