3. HOW DO YOU MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TALENTS?
Introduction: talents or self-discipline?
Talent is a word which everybody uses. Further, everybody has some sort of feeling about what it might mean or involve. We know we are born with talents (the basis is genetic) and observing people deploying their talents often gives rise to studied interest and sometimes even excitement. Talents can be discovered and developed but they cannot be created or destroyed (just like gold).
But this is only half the story. Talents don’t exist in a vacuum. They can only be exploited if the necessary skills and knowledge are present, and there is a focus on what one is trying to achieve. This requires self-discipline and this is not necessarily correlated with talent. The problem is that the presence of talent, the facility to be able to do something more easily and better than another, tends to work against wanting to work hard to establish the relevant basis. I am almost tempted to say that talent is only important at the beginning of any development when it can give you a head start.
Talents to strengths: passion is key
To give you a definite advantage a talent has to become a strength, which is not only the ability to do something well, but to do it with passion. It is passion which is the key.
Marcus Buckingham, an Englishman living in the USA, realised how important strengths were. He even went as far as to say that we could almost ignore our weaknesses. I tend to share his view, but it does depend, to some extent, on how important the exploitation of weaknesses by an ‘opponent’ might become.
Sport looks at weaknesses differently. With the curiosity of the media which we now have to tolerate it is not difficult to pinpoint weaknesses. Every sports team has an organisation which is set up to exploit the weaknesses which are demonstrated by an opponent. But they should also be careful. Weaknesses can be plugged, maybe even before they can be targeted. The great teams don’t spend their energy on weaknesses, they concentrate on identifying, developing or acquiring strengths and building on them. This provides a focus on consistency of performance. Your strengths are also necessary to combat your weaknesses.
Exercise: what are your strengths?
So what are your strengths? Because you are not only not strong at everything, you are not strong, relatively speaking, at the majority of things.
Marcus Buckingham designed a test (see link at the bottom of the blog) to try to concentrate your attention on what these strengths might be. He built a list of 34 types of ability and believed that any individual should focus on no more than 5. The selection is difficult (there are many similarities) but this is what makes it a worthwhile exercise. This is because it is important to identify exactly the right areas on which to concentrate your energy if you are to become as effective as possible.
Ton Rath wrote a guide called Strengths Finder 2.0 (2007) which explained the 34 categories of Buckingham in detail, facilitating your own analysis.
Strengths of those around you
You can repeat the exercise which you have just conducted for yourself for those who you work with. Of course you can make your own assessments, but it is probably better to make them with the person concerned. This is important because a spread of strengths in a group or team can be very beneficial and provide more options than if you are operating alone. But remember, real insight in others will not be achieved without considerable effort, even for those who consider themselves good in this area.
From passion to flow
We noted earlier that passion is part of a package (talent, skill, knowledge and passion) which can be qualified as a strength. However, it is also good to look at passions separately. They make it possible to make use of current capabilities but also to develop new ones.
Mihaly Csikszentmihayi describes how we feel when we are pursuing our passions. He calls this flow. One of my passions is running alone, without any considerations of time, in the dunes in the Netherlands. Not even inclement weather can ruin the experience. I first discovered exactly what flow was in the marathon in London in 1989. By good fortune, I had judged my acceleration just right (this seldom happens actually). As I made my way back to the city centre after about 35 kilometres, running just seemed to be effortless, which it mostly never the case at this stage of a marathon. I even ran on the other side of the road to ensure that nobody was in my way. Once you have experienced this you will be looking for a similar feeling of flow in your other activities, and even once again when running!
Just think about your passions for a few moments. Try to describe them as accurately as possible so that you can focus on them whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Flow or grit?
Flow is not actually so far removed from grit. This is a term which is very old but which now has acquired a modern interpretation. Grit means having interest in what you are trying to achieve, the capacity and inclination to practise correctly, having a clear purpose and hoping that your efforts will deliver something worthwhile. Those with grit don’t overreact to failures or setbacks. Because these happen from time to time when you are engaged in 10,000 hours of practice (thought to be necessary to become an expert in any field, and then not even the best). They take a step backwards, analyse the situation and learn from it.
Conclusions: having a talent is a start?
Having a talent is a start. Recognition that you have a talent needs to follow this. But many other aspects are more important. This concerns the ability to make use of the talents which you have and to practise hard to maintain and hopefully build on the advantages which these talents provide.
In general, having talent encourages an attitude which is based on taking talents for granted. This is an unhappy state of affairs. Exploitation is a serious business requiring not only skills and knowledge but a fair amount of passion. The choice is yours.