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Now, Discover Your Strengths

( 15 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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A senior executive at Merrill Lynch once explained his favorite interview technique to an associate of mine. Like many interviewers, he would ask candidates about "their greatest professional accomplishment." The hapless candidate would then explain, usually with a proud smile, how he or she had managed to pull off a great coup against all odds, and with great toil and trouble. This director would then ensure that the candidate was not offered a job that had anything to do with that accomplishment.

His reasoning went something like this: if you are proud of a particular accomplishment, that means you probably worked hard at it. And if you worked hard at it — to master a new skill, for instance, or perhaps to overcome a previous fear or perceived shortcoming — then the accomplishment, in his view, did not come naturally to you. Had it done so, this victory against all odds would not have seemed a coup: merely par for the course. And if something does not come naturally to you, he does not want you to do it under his watch. QED. This may seem like an unfair, even perverse, way to interview someone and frankly I am not able to do it justice here. I am not sure it is even "just." But there is, implicit in his hiring philosophy, a truth - which is that you tend to be better at some things than others, and that you tend to enjoy what you are naturally good at. And vice versa. You therefore ignore your characteristic strengths and weaknesses at your peril, and so, he thinks, does your employer.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, the authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths, want people to understand their strengths so that they can be happier, more fulfilled, and more successful. They argue, sensibly, that you need to know what you're good at in order to reap the fruits of your strengths. As in the biblical parable of the talents, it is our job is to make the most of what we are given. Instead of lamenting our weaknesses, and spending time and effort trying to repair them, a peculiar obsession of our culture, and perhaps a cultural legacy of Puritanism, we should take stock of what we're good at and make the most of it. Most people, apparently, do not.

Strengths are not knowledge, nor are they the product of training. They are abilities, or clusters of abilities - and generic ones at that. You will not find writing briefs, preparing witnesses, or negotiating complex transactions on the authors' inventory of strengths. Instead, you will find designations like "achiever, competition, developer, learner," and thirty others (the lack of parallelism is the authors' own). Once you take the "Strengthsfinder Profile," a web-based survey that you are entitled to access after purchasing the book (there is a code printed inside), you are duly informed of your top five strengths. It is a relative ranking. The book then describes each "strength" in greater detail. Understanding your strengths and how to apply them to your legal career is left to you.

The authors are arguably part of a loose movement that has been termed "positive psychology," which was originally conceived, and is still led, by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania (he has his own "strengths" test, available for free on the Internet at Positive psychology is predicated on the (seemingly indisputable) notion that most psychologists tend to fixate on pathology. But many people, who do not suffer from a recognizable mental illness, still have an inchoate sense that their life could be happier or better in some ineffable way if they only knew how to make it so. Based on my own observation, I would estimate that a large majority of attorneys fall into this category. Seligman believes these people deserve help, too. And so, implicitly, do the authors of this book.

To many, the authors' contention that strengths are relatively fixed and therefore somewhat immutable from an early age will seem a heresy. The prevailing wisdom of the last several decades, at least in academic, sociological and anthropological circles, is that we are all, essentially, plastic beings. We can be molded to do anything, and to be "good" at anything. A corollary of this notion is that we can therefore improve anything, if only we try hard enough, or muster enough willpower to overcome our deficiencies. This is the "can do" spirit in a nutshell, nearly as old as America itself. Give it the old college try. Learn to earn. And so on. Although some scholars (cf., Steven Pinker) have recently challenged the notion that we are blank slates, tabula rasa, for our purposes here the nature/nurture question is an academic one. Whether prompted by nature or nurture, or some mysterious combination thereof, we can all agree with the authors that we have individual strengths. In order to find happiness and fulfillment, and perhaps even a modicum of success, the authors argue that we need only "discover" and deploy these strengths more effectively.

One of the underlying strengths of this book is the large body of empirical data that Gallup has collected over the years that apparently supports the authors' thesis. While more detailed evidence to support their claims would certainly be welcome, this is not a scientific monograph. It falls under the rubrics of "career advice" and possibly even "self help," which are genres not generally celebrated for their vigorous application of the scientific method. Like soufflés, many career books are full of hot air, which deflates minutes after you leave the bookstore into a residue of sugary fluff. The "filler" pads out what would otherwise be an article into a book-length, and therefore commercial, opportunity for the authors. My fork detects a certain lack of density here, but certainly not at the level of a souffle. More like a brioche, if a fluffy one.

As a legal recruiter, I can think of real-life examples that challenge the notion that using one's strengths necessarily leads to greater fulfillment, or even contentment. For example, I know of very accomplished litigators who simply do not enjoy the cut and thrust of litigation. These individuals are clearly very good at what they do: they have even come close to the pinnacle of their practice area at a national level. But litigation somehow leaves these individuals cold — they feel that they are somehow at loggerheads with themselves. From a "strengths" perspective, one could argue that they are unfulfilled because they are using some strengths to the detriment of others. Perhaps they enjoy counseling and would like to do more of it. But I think their discontent arises from something deeper.

The missing ingredient is ethics, or, more specifically, your personal values system. Just because I am good, say, at arguing with other people (which is not, in fairness, a strength defined by the authors, but seems to be one in the legal field), either in person or on a motion, does that mean I enjoy it, or that I should do more of it? Any book that discusses strengths without, for lack of a better term, a philosophy or belief system to underpin them is operating in a moral vacuum. And I don't think there is any doubt that values constrain how we see, use, and enjoy our strengths. In other words, I believe that knowing one's strengths is no more than half the battle. Perhaps as little as a quarter.

Most legal practices require the successful interaction of a veritable constellation of strengths. For example, if you were to list what it takes to win a complex case or pull off a massive merger in the face of regulatory hurdles, you would not be able to say merely "strategic thinking," though that would almost certainly be an important component. Since so much legal work is collaborative in nature, how you interact with others, and how they interact with you, will have a bearing on how well you can exercise your strengths in a law firm setting. Are you brilliant at writing, but stuck doing document review? The practice of law can create a unique set of hurdles in exercising your strengths.

And finally, any strength category can be accused of being arbitrary. Why thirty-four? Why not seventy? Or one thousand? For instance, Dr. Seligman's VIA Strengths Survey describes a sense of humor as a strength. Humor is absent from this list. To someone like Larry David who has built an $800 million+ fortune on the back of his sense of humor... who is right? This is more than mere semantics. Even worse, there seems to be circular logic at work here. There is something inherently tautological about attributing success to strengths which are evidenced by that success. However, the authors do not ask you to look for successes in your life; they ask you to take a web-based questionnaire.

I believe that this book is redeemed by the novelty of the authors' strengths framework, and by their laudable attempt to get people to think more about what they are good at and what they enjoy. Nevertheless, readers who enjoy the authors' thesis will be left wanting more. Maddeningly, the book is not prescriptive. It merely says - here are your strengths (according to you). Do with them what you will. It is not far from the ancient admonition at the door of the Delphic Oracle to "Know Thyself," but at least it gets you started.

I am of the view that for a career book to be worth more than its utility as a doorstop, it should contain fresh ideas that you can use in a practical way — if they strike you as being right. This book prompts you to come up with your own answers. It provides food for thought. If you are looking for a prepackaged program, look elsewhere. There is no shortage of gurus eager to tell you how to lead your life. For the strengths inventory alone, however, I believe the book is worth the price of admission.

A follow-on book for lawyers would be something like Now Determine Your Legal Strengths, though some would argue that a glance at your law school transcript will tell you all you need to know. Nevertheless, that book remains to be written. Any takers?

California University of Pennsylvania


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