Turning Talents Into Strengths

by Tom Matson and Jennifer Robison
  • Talents may evolve, but they don’t change
  • Everyone is talented, but no one is talented at everything
  • Identifying weaknesses can help people manage or avoid them
This article is adapted from the upcoming Gallup Press book Strengths Based Student.

Although people change over time and personalities evolve, scientists have discovered that core personality traits are relatively stable throughout adulthood, as are people’s passions and interests.

And more recent research suggests that the roots of our personality might be visible at a very young age. A 23-year, longitudinal study of 1,000 children in New Zealand revealed that a child’s observed personality at age three shows remarkable similarity to his or her reported personality traits at age 26.

Gallup’s research has discovered that knowledge and skills, along with regular practice, are most helpful when they serve as amplifiers for our natural talents.

Nonetheless, knowledge, skills and practice are very important parts of the strengths equation. Many of the skills and much of the knowledge that combine with talent to create a strength come through experience — sometimes a great deal of it. Skills and knowledge often develop most in school, at work and through hands-on practice.

When people supplement their talents with knowledge and skill to the point that they can provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity, they have a strength. And in applying and further refining their strengths, they move closer to fulfilling their natural potential as individuals.

Identifying strengths and fulfilling natural potential has never been more important for students and entrepreneurs.

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Building Strengths Takes Practice and Hard Work

Building talents into real strengths at university or the workplace requires practice and hard work, much like building physical strength. For example, if people have a natural talent for running, the more miles they put in, the faster they’ll get. People with less talent can put in those same miles, but their speed won’t improve as much as that of the naturally talented runners.

A research project in the 1950s examining speed reading among high school sophomores found that practice boosted students’ words-per-minute reading rate, but those who started out fast (300 words per minute at the beginning of the study) made more gains (2,900 words per minute at the end of the study) than everybody else did. All of the students’ speed improved, but practice helped the talented improve the most.

It goes to show that knowledge and practice will help people move from good to outstanding in their areas of talent, whether they are entrepreneurs, managers or students. But remember: There’s a limit to how much a person can do. Everyone is talented, but no one is talented at everything. If people spend their lives trying to be good at everything, they will never be great at anything.

Trying to become well-rounded breeds mediocrity. Students and entrepreneurs can master the things they’re naturally good at, but if they’re working outside an area of talent, they’ll be average at it at best. Trying to be well-rounded at the expense of being great is a waste of time and talent. In fact, of all the leaders Gallup has studied, those who strive to be competent in the most areas have become the least effective leaders overall.

Still, it’s helpful for people to know their areas of weakness (Gallup describes a weakness as something that gets in the way of being successful) so they know where to concentrate their energy — and where not to. Simply being aware of an area of weakness can help people avoid obstacles.

For example, once entrepreneurs or students can acknowledge that they’re not great at managing details, they can figure out ways to make managing details less of a problem. The first question for people to ask themselves is whether it’s necessary for them to operate in their area of weakness at all. If they can just avoid doing detail-oriented work, by all means, stop.

Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of ignoring necessary tasks just because we aren’t naturally good at them. When these people must attend to details, they might need to establish systems — checklists or reminder apps — to manage their weaknesses and keep them on track.

Turning talents into strengths

It’s crucial to remember that although students and entrepreneurs may not be well-rounded, their partnerships and teams should be. People need to surround themselves with partners who complement their strengths and bring out their best work. How can they partner with these people more? Have they discussed their strengths, and how they can work together better?

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