Soar with Your Strengths

By Donald O. Clifton & Paula Nelson

When I picked this book out at the library, I thought it was a new one in the “strengths” series from Gallup .  Instead, it is the 1992 forerunner of those works.  I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the early thinking behind the strengths program, and it further validated the usefulness of that program by showing how long it has been in development and how Gallup has stuck with it.  Plus, this book, beginning on the first page, has some great nuggets for education.

A parable:

The book begins with a parable of the rabbit who went to animal school.  He did great at running and jumping, but climbing wasn’t so good, flying wasn’t even a possibility, and swimming not only terrified and nearly drowned him, but it humiliated him in front of all the other animals.  He went home hoping his parents would understand and help, but they said he had to get a diploma.  So, the next day, he went in to talk to the guidance counselor.  The counselor diagnosed that he didn’t like school because he wasn’t doing well in swimming, so she arranged for him not to go to running any more (after all, he was doing fine there), and to take TWO periods of swimming!

Of course, the parable illustrates the point that the Gallup organization is making:  we are too focused on weaknesses.  Time and energy spent trying to improve a weakness could far more productively be focused on maximizing a strength.  We should just “manage” weaknesses, not try to “overcome” them, because it is our strengths through which we can best contribute to the world and that will bring us our greatest satisfaction.

A story:

Chapter 3 starts with the story of John Portman, internationally acclaimed architect ( Peachtree Plaza , Renaissance Center in Detroit , atrium concept in Hyatt Hotels).  He says he decided to become an architect after taking a course in mechanical drawing in junior high school.  It captured his attention and imagination, and he drew and sketched everywhere he went.  He had a choice of two high schools in Atlanta , one that focused on college prep, and one that offered many technical programs.  Knowing what he wanted, he met with the principal of the technical school and said he wanted to be an architect and wanted to go to that school, but only wanted to take the courses that would relate to drawing and architecture.  The principal said, “Young man, if at this age you have already decided what you want to do, I am not going to stand in your way."

How many principals would say that today?

What would such a young person’s decision do his system’s test scores?

How many systems still have such courses available?

Hints of strengths:

  • Yearnings (to do, not to have the trappings)
  • Satisfactions
  • Rapid learning
  • Flashes of excellence
  • Flow

Pick an area that utilizes strengths and pursue it.  “It may sound charming that young Mary or Tom is active in a dozen different activities, but it is the child who develops an area of talent and perfects it who excels, not the dilettante.”  P. 60.  And, according to college admissions officers, it’s the child who focuses who presents the best application.

Any strength worth pursuing is worth pursuing to excess.  Dr. Benjamin Bloom’s work at Northwester suggested 10-17 years from the beginning of the pursuit of an activity to world cass competency.  Practice it.  Visualize it.  Remember and relive successes.  Write about it.  Talk about it. Stay on the strengths path.

Weaknesses:  manage to minimize impact  

Hints of weaknesses:

  • Defensiveness about performance
  • Obsessive attempts to overcome
  • Slow learning (just don’t “get it”)
  • Repeated experience produces no improvement
  • Continue to have to think through the steps
  • Confidence drops when performing the activity
  • No vision of the future during, just the struggle to get through it
  • Burnout


  1. Own the weakness.  Acknowledge both as a weakness and as part of you.
  2. Manage the weakness.  Stop trying to make it be a strength, and find a way to minimize its impact:

·        Do it as little as possible. 

·        Find ways to engage others for whom it is a strength.

·        Develop and use support systems and tools to compensate, e.g. – become a zealot for a time management system if action is a weakness

·        Find an alternative approach that employs a strength

Another story:

“Mark Twain told a wonderful story about one man’s searc for the world’s greatest general.  The man spent an entire lifetime looking for the general and finally the day came for him to travel on.  When he arrived in heaven he walked over to St. Peter and said, ‘I’m looking for the world’s greatest general.’”

“St. Peter said, ‘I know, I know, we’ve been expecting you, and I have good news.  If you’ll look right over there, you will see the world’s greatest general.’”

“The old man excitedly looked over and said, ‘That is not the world’s greatest general.  That man was a cobbler on main street in my hometown!’”

“St. Peter responded, “But had he been a general, he would have been the greatest general ever.”

p. 103

As parents, Teresa and I have tried to help our boys find the places, activities, and subjects where they excel.  I suspect that’s what most parents, when we parent the best, want for our children.  And it’s what society wants for all children.  Shouldn’t schools seek to help students find their strengths and manage their weaknesses?  If a student gets to the end of his senior year and

  • knows he loves performing, has a very good voice and a flair for acting
  • has experienced various kinds of music and drama, and knows what attracts him and what possibilities are for going farther in that area
  • knows that he is a fair writer, but not a poet or songwriter
  • knows that he loves history and enjoys reading biographies, great histories, and historical novels
  • and also knows he is a disaster with numbers and must have help to deal with them, then

has the school failed?  Should that student graduate?  What’s the minimum performance in algebra that should be acceptable for him to be called a high school graduate?

On Mission

Chapter 5 (p. 105) makes the point that strengths develop best when employed in an endeavor to which the individual has a great deal of emotional commitment – a mission.   Great business leaders recognize this also.  Ray Kroc said that, to be successful at McDonald’s, you had to be able to see the beauty in a hamburger bun.  Mission is the source of passion, that elusive element that David Maister points to as setting some groups of professionals apart from the rest.

In Relationship

Chapter 6 (p. 123) suggests that strengths develop only in relationships.  The authors suggest we could all use a “personal board of directors” and give nine principles for managing relationships.  I understand these as:

  1. Think of others in terms of their strengths.
  2. Quality relationships require one-on-one.
  3. “Doing for” never makes up for “doing with.” (a/ka/ “Fixing it isn’t always what’s needed.”)
  4. Know the other.
  5. Trust cannot develop unless someone takes a risk.
  6. Relationships are built one commitment at a time.
  7. Liking is the beginning of relating.
    • Kids Don’t Learn from People They Don’t Like by David Aspy
  8. Make relationships happen rather than just waiting on them to materialize.
  9. Contribute to your relationships from your strengths.

When faced with a negative relationship, ACT!  Either get out, or manage it to minimize its impact on you, the other, and those around you.  Management can include minimizing contact, changing a communication method, new job description or anything else that restructures the relationship so both parties stop damaging each other.

Expectations:  Magic or Catalyst

President George W. Bush has made “the soft bigotry of low expectations” famous.  The federal law known as “No Child Left Behind” has school systems across the country in an uproar as educators and board members bash it as unrealistic in its expectations.  I’ve had board members tell me they believe it is a Republican attempt to destroy public schools.  But I have also had some with inside knowledge say that the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions that are creating much of the anguish were actually demanded by Senators Kennedy and Lieberman at the urging of “liberal” groups.  These groups did so not to force schools to fail, but out of the “expectations as magic” mind set:  if we just expect all students to be average or better at reading and math, they will be.

Expectations aren’t magic; they cannot create strengths.  How many parents have expected their child to share their strengths, or to have the strengths they didn’t, only to be disappointed (!) in that child?

But when a perceptive and significant person sees a strength in us, even one that has not yet fully revealed itself in our actions, their expressed expectations can call that strength forth.  That is the power of expectation.  And, on the other hand, the expectation that we will not show a strength can give us the excuse we need to avoid the risk and effort of engaging a strength.  Here’s where the “soft bigotry of low expectations” rings so true.  

“Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!”

Finally, in chapter 8, the authors focus on the importance of celebrations as both recognition and reward for strengths put to productive use.  Or, as I suggest, Three Dog Night had it right.

We all need to be recognized for doing “our thing”, and doing it really well.  One of the beauties of the strengths format Gallup has developed (which is even more evident in Now, Discover Your Strengths) is the way it brings in more strengths than we often count.  Here’s a story from page 179 that illustrates the capacity for the good to become unbelievably great when their efforts are celebrated:

“In 1986, Nancy Philips, who was clearly a whiz at the computer keyboard, moved into a data entry position at SRI Gallup.  After several months, we put in a computerized measurement program to track the number of strokes inputted each month.  Nancy logged in at 550,000 strokes per month (50 percent above the national average).  At a monthly awards program, where employees are celebrated for personal bests and top performance in more than thirty categories, she received her first round of applause.  ‘After winning that first award, I was sure I could do one million strokes.’  Three months later she reached her goal.  Not long afterward, Nancy found she had punched 112,000 strokes in one day.  She quickly multiplied that to 2 million strokes per month, a figure she exceeded six months later.  Most people would be content with this world-record production, but not Nancy .  ‘I’m real competitive.  I love knowing I’m the best and that I’ve become a model for others.’  At last count, Nancy had celebrated more than forty-eight times.  Today, her personal best in 3,526,000 strokes in one month.”

Celebrate what is important in an organization.  Find ways to measure it, and make sure the celebration is of real achievement.  Acknowledge and attend to achievement in many ways, but be scrupulous about focusing on REAL achievement, not pretend or politically motivated back-patting.

Keeping it real requires measurement:  count it, survey it, evaluate it against standards or in rank order, set goals for it.  And make sure “it” is something that is truly important in the organization.