In 1786 the poet, Robert Burns, wrote a poem upon seeing a louse on a woman’s bonnet at church. The most famous stanza is translated here in standard English:
Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
At the risk of oversimplifying, if we can see ourselves as others see us then we could better see our imperfections and correct them.
Dr. Clifton was worried about the opposite problem: the inability to see ourselves objectively and in our entirety makes our greatest qualities invisible to us as well. If we could see our strengths then we could harness them to live more efficaciously and with greater joy.
Dr. Clifton believed everyone possesses strengths—things they can do better than any random group of 10,000 people, things they can do consistently and near perfectly. Other people can see our strengths that we, ourselves can’t see in the same way Burns could see a louse in the bonnet of the woman in the pew in front of him.
To help make our strengths more visible, he created an instrument: The Strengths- Finder (now called CliftonStrengths). He believed that a key to seeing our strengths was to first identify our talents. Through his research of people who achieved excellence, he identified a taxonomy of 34 themes of talent. Each theme is made up of several individual and related talents.
There’s a misconception that the 34 themes are, themselves, strengths. They are not. Dr. Clifton’s hope was that by learning one’s themes of talent a person can better identify their strengths.
If he were alive today, I believe Dr. Clifton would be pleased and concerned. He would be pleased that his message of living a strength-based life resonates with so many people and is rapidly taking hold in schools, families and workplaces. He would be concerned that his core message was being lost in the rapid growth.
StrengthsFinder does not tell a person his or her strengths. It’s not possible for any current assessment to do so. A strength is a level of performance in a particular activity that can be described as near perfect on a consistent basis. Talents are not activities. They are capacities one has for thinking, feeling and behaving. We can apply talents toward an activity and, when combined with knowledge of that activity and skills in executing the activity, can lead to strong performance of the activity that is consistent and near perfect.
He knew that he couldn’t measure one’s performance in all potential activities. There are an infinite number of activities and no single assessment could identify activities of near perfect performance. However, if he could help people see their general talents then perhaps they could search their life experiences to find the activities where those talents were being productively applied.
The CliftonStrengths assessment is an aid toward helping people see their own strengths. It is a stepladder that allows someone to gain a higher vantage point to increase the odds that their strengths come into view. It was meant as a mirror to provide a previously unattainable angle in the way a 3-way mirror might have helped the woman see the flea in her bonnet.
Because it’s called StrengthsFinder, most people assume the results it provides are actual strengths. Trying to inform people who are already under this assumption is often met with resistance and sometimes a little bit of attitude. I was under the same misconception for several years. The false assumption that “themes are strengths” needs to be corrected in order for anyone to get full value from the amazing tool Dr. Clifton created. Understanding the distinction between themes of talent and strengths has made a world of difference in my coaching and in the value my clients gain from the tool. It’s not about being the “word police.” It’s about something bigger: a vision Dr. Clifton had and that we say claim to embrace to change the way people see themselves and each other.
Some people say “Well, if that’s what Dr. Clifton envisioned why didn’t he say as much?” My response is, “He did.” In Now, Discover Your Strengths (along with co-author Marcus Buckingham) he said “StrengthsFinder’s purpose is not to anoint you with strengths but to find where you have the greatest potential for a strength. Thus the StrengthsFinder Profile measures the thirty-four themes of talent that we discovered during our long study of excellence.”
We also know that Dr. Clifton saw talents as a key ingredient to a strength, but alone talents were not the same as strengths. He presented this as a formula: Strength = Talents x Investment (Knowledge + Skill).
We know that he defined talent and strength differently. A strength is “consistent, near perfect performance in an activity.” I’ve found that the word “activity” is the key to truly understanding his vision (more on that in a future post). He defined a talent as “naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can be productively applied.” To me, the word “can” is extremely important because it implies potential to apply the talent productively and the potential for it to be applied counter-productively.
I’m not here to tell anyone how to use StrengthsFinder or the terminology. I am saying that if anyone equates the 34 themes with strengths then they are misapplying this potentially life-changing tool.
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