Five Signs of Talent

So, maybe you haven’t taken the CliftonStrengths assessment and you’re still wondering about your own talents. Or, maybe you have taken the assessment and you feel like one or two of your top five might not quite be right. Either way, you could be thinking about all this mumbo-jumbo sounding jargon about talents question whether or not you’ve got any.

Well, Don Clifton, the father of strengths psychology, wrote a book back in 1992 called, Soar With Your Strengths. In that book he helped point people to talent by point them to five clues that reveal talent. The first clue he wrote about is yearning. This is the gut feeling you have that draws you into activities you enjoy doing. These are often activities you choose to do when you don’t have to do anything else. Or, it would be those things you would choose to do if somebody came to you and magically cleared your calendar and just let you pick anything at all to do to feel fulfilled, productive, and enjoy your experience.

The second clue is satisfaction. This is the “feel fulfilled, productive” part of that last sentence I wrote. When we find ourselves engaged in activities that yield significant joy, and genuine fulfillment it’s likely we are deeply involved in doing something where we have talent. When you finish doing something and can hardly wait until you get to be able to do it again, then you are likely looking at one of your top talents.

Rapid learning is the third clue. Because talents are those naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior we can be fairly confident that when we readily learn something new in a specific area, no matter how complex or difficult, it’s highly probable that we’re in “the talent zone.” Sometimes we might even be involved in doing something that no one ever explained to us how to do it, but we did it right the first time anyway. That’s talent!

Whenever we notice high quality, or someone else catches a glimpse of excellence, in something we have done then we have just uncovered another clue to talent. Our ability to perform at a very high level, or frequently achieve outstanding results in a given activity, we can realize that talent has been discovered, uncovered, or revealed. We do things well when we are tapping into talent.

One last clue we can count on to help us reveal out talents is any time we realize that time flies by whenever we’re involved in doing something. We get so engrossed in our experience, and in our doing, that we simply forget to look at the clock. Time sails by and we hardly realize that any time at all has passed.

Of course, whenever a combination of two, or more, of those clues show up in our activities all at the same time then we know for sure we have hit on a talent that may likely be well on its way to becoming a strength!

Talents and Talent Themes

Ok. So, I opened the proverbial can of worms, yesterday. When I brought up all those words and their definitions, I will acknowledge that I may have introduced more confusion than I helped. Sorry about that. Let me back up just a little today and try to clear something up.

Yesterday I defined “talents” as “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied.” This is essentially straight from Gallup. I didn’t make it up. It may not be exactly word perfect, but it’s pretty close.

I also defined “theme” as “a similar group of talents.” Again, that’s from Gallup, more or less.

But, so what? What am I really talking about?

Keep in mind that Gallup has spent almost 60 years studying people, their success, and how they can be effective in their chosen industry, walk of life, or experiences. Through the course of their research they identified thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of talents people possessed. They defined talent as that which came naturally to people. It was a way they just naturally thought about things. Or it was the way they just naturally felt about what was going on around them. It could even be their natural ability to do things.

The key was talent was what people naturally thought, felt, or did. They didn’t have to “work at it,” or “struggle,” or “dig deep” to think, feel, or do. It just happened. Now, the degree to which they were good, or effective, or successful at those things depended, according to Gallup, on how much they had invested in them. That is, how much they had acquired additional knowledge around those talents, or how much skill they had developed in relation to those talents. So, it was possible to have talent – a natural inclination to think, feel, or do something – without necessarily being masterful at it. Mastery came through additional knowledge and skill.

So, what about “themes?” Well, themes were nothing more than a way to group similar talents together. Remember I said that Gallup identified thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of talents? Well, when talking about them all, it’s really not very useful to talk about thousands of them. It’s much easier if we could categorize, or group them, under a fewer set of labels. Hence the term “theme,” or “themes.”

For example, it seems some people are natural-born storytellers. Others seem to be naturally gifted at speaking in front of hundred, even thousands, of people and inspiring and motivating them into action. Still others come across as tremendously capable of writing really, really well. Each of these are different talents. Yet, they are also easily recognized as different forms of communication. So, we could categorize them, or label them, under one similar theme, “communication.”

In Gallup’s research they took the thousands and thousands of talents they had identified and they grouped them into 34 different “themes.” Thus, we have the 34 themes of talent, sometimes referred to as 34 Strengths. But, if I say it that way, I would be misspeaking. (See yesterday’s blog post for more details about that.)

Correcting My Language

Gallup makes it easy to talk about Strengths. Once you get used to using that term, “strengths,” it rolls off the tongue without much effort. There’s only one problem: I find myself using the term incorrectly about 90% of the time.

It’s not because I don’t know any better. I’m just lazy. And, I follow the crowd pretty easily, too. Most people use the term wrong – at least most people who talk about the results of the CliftonStrengths assessment, engage people in coaching sessions to help them apply those results, and generally strive to apply the Strengths philosophy. We find it easy to just toss around the word “strengths” as if it were the right one in most cases. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Let me share some definitions and a couple of thoughts about this to try and explain. Based on Gallup’s research and the information they share about the CliftonStrengths assessment, the following definitions need to be kept in mind:

talent = naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied

theme – a group of similar talents

strength = consistent, near-perfect performance derived from applying talent that has been developed by the investment of knowledge and skill

weakness = anything that gets in the way of your success, or the success of others

Now, why does any of this matter? Well, most of the time when the word “strength,” or “strengths,” is used, what is actually meant is “talent theme.” For example, a week ago when I was writing about helping the JMU athletes strengthen their strengths, what i was really talking about was helping them strengthen their talent themes, or their talents. By definition, strengths are those talent themes which have already been developed through the acquisition and application of knowledge and skill such that performance becomes nearly perfect every single time.

I haven’t really done a great job explaining it all here, I know. It’s a bit tricky to grasp, actually. In part because Gallup named their assessment instrument, the “StrengthsFinder” when it first came out. They have since shifted to “CliftonStrengths” assessment, which is better, no doubt. Unfortunately, since I’ve been focused on it all for about a decade now, my old habits will be more difficult to break.

In truth, the name of my site, “Strengthen Your Strengths,” is misnamed. It should be more accurately presented as “Strengthen Your Talent Themes.” But, that’s far less alliterative and not nearly as memorable. So, I’ll probably stick with the name of my site and blog exactly as it is, though I will try to be more accurate in my writing and speaking.

Strengths-based Mentoring

Most of the time I am working with Strengths my focus is on how to help others recognize, identify, and accept their own Strengths. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s very rewarding work. I enjoy seeing new insights, new paths of success, and new opportunities open up as individuals learn about and focus on their strengths.

Recently, however, I have had the opportunity to focus my attention on helping those who help others. I’ve been targeting a group of individuals who will become mentors for others. So, when it comes to working with Strengths, what is the focus and emphasis then?

It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that the focus is still on Strengths. It’s still no helping those who will be mentors to recognize, identify, and accept their own Strengths. But, I also get to help them take it a couple of steps further. I get to help them see how they can actually use their Strengths while they are mentoring others. If their strengths are positivity and relator, then I challenge them to think about how they can use those strengths as they interact with, and engage in conversations with, those they will be mentoring. On the other hand, if their strengths are intellection and learner then the challenge might be geared more toward inviting them to see how they can use those thinking and learning talents to prepare better questions, invite deeper thinking, and engage in richer dialogue.

Once they start seeing the application of their own strengths in their mentoring role, then we can shift towards helping them develop skills that will help them help those they mentor identify their own Strengths and discover ways to use them more effectively in their lives.

Leadership Strengths

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of different workshops, training sessions, and webinars hosted by Gallup. I’ve interacted with a number of different facilitators and experts from their organization so that I could better understand Strengths, the Strengths philosophy, and how I can use that to help others become better leaders.

On one particular occasion, during a Strengths workshop I was attending with a Gallup Strengths expert, I heard it said that part of Gallup’s original hope for their research was to figure out the perfect set of leadership strengths that were needed for individuals to become the absolute best leaders they could possibly become. If they could just dial in on the right strengths, teach people to maximize them, then we could have a dramatic impact on society through these perfectly tuned leaders.

There was only one problem: through all of the data gathered, the evidence examined, and the research conducted, Gallup found out there was no perfect set of leadership strengths. In spite of identifying thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of talents and strengths, Gallup’s research did not identify which of them were the right ones for leaders to possess. There just simply was not a perfect set of strengths themes for leaders.

Instead, what they found out was that the best leaders didn’t all share some secret set of similar strengths. Instead, the best leaders discovered their own unique set of strengths, worked hard at getting better at them, and then used them as often as they possibly could. That turned out to be the “secret formula” for leadership success.